Oil explorers are predicting another 10,000 oil jobs will be lost in the North Sea.

This summer industry body Oil and Gas UK warned that 5500 posts had already gone thanks to what analysts believe is a long-term slump in prices.

Now business experts predict that the final toll could be far higher as prices - despite a slightly bounce from their low earlier this year - look set to stay down.

Amjad Bseisu, chief executive of EnQuest, a major independent explorers in the North Sea, said: “I reckon there will be three times that [figure of 5,500] by the end."

Oil & Gas UK, which represents the offshore industry, had always said its 5500 figure - one in six workers - was a conservative estimate. Unite, which represents employees, thought the figure slightly lower, at 4000.

But industry figures like Mr Bseisu, because of his exploring role, always have an eye on the future. And they think there is worse to come.

Tony Durrant, chief executive of Premier Oil, backed Mr Bseisu.

Speaking to The Financial Times, he said: “The industry is only just beginning to get under way with this — it has not so far been very good at making itself efficient.”

The North Sea is seen as being particularly vulnerable to low prices because its costs of extraction are high.

UK and Norwegian workers are well paid and safety standards relatively high compared with Third World sources of energy.

But the North Sea also has rechnical challenges that make it expensive, with the easy first deposits already exploited, meaning companies have to spend more to get the oil that is left.

Oil is trading at around $50 a barrel, down from $115 last June.

Some firms were slow to downsize when prices fell, hoping it might be a blip.

Mr Bseisu said:“We went through last year’s cycle in a little bit of a timid manner.?There was the feeling that maybe things can come back like they did in 2008/2009. But that hasn’t happened."

EnQuest and Premier have reduced both the amount they spend on contracted staff, by cutting both numbers and pay.

Firms are slashing jobs as they struggle to balance the books. BP, Royal Dutch Shell and Total are among those reducing staff, while investment and projects previously set to go ahead have been put on hold.

Last year, North Sea exploration reached its lowest level in at least two decades, with only 14 explorations wells drilled, compared to 44 in 2008.

Professor Alex Kemp, of Aberdeen University, warned that a sustained price of around $50 would see early cessation of production at some ageing North Sea fields. Worse, Prof Kemp believes that such a slowdown would be hard to reverse even if the prices picks up again. He said: "The other problem if $50 continues it will mean more people who lose their jobs and investment will be held down that would mean there’s a lot of skills that would be required when an upturn does come and then it’s more difficult to recruit young people.

"If the $50 price is prolonged there’s a chance investment in the future in new fields and in exploration will be curtailed."

Aberdeen is feeling the slump most. House price rises have stalled. Hotels have bargain rates.

Andy Greenwood, a manager at Air Energi, a recruitment company, said: “With billions of pounds worth of projects cancelled, put on hold or drastically scaled down, more job cuts could certainly be on the horizon.

“As the downturn continues and more talent is released from the sector and region, there is a real danger that this will open up an even bigger skills gap.”