By Richard Heard


CLIMATE targets and energy demands mean the human impact on the North Sea remains unavoidable. Even as oil and gas structures are decommissioned the offshore renewables industry is bringing the next phase of construction to northern waters.

The impact of man-made structures on the marine environment has drawn increasing scientific attention, and several studies in recent years have discovered that nature beneath the waves is as capable of colonising artificial objects as is often seen on land where development and nature intertwine.

Woven into the fibre of all climate change dialogue is the question of biodiversity loss. Future economic development, including that in the North Sea, needs to identify how we can protect, restore and manage the ecosystems our activities disrupt.

The INSITE Programme was launched in 2014 to provide a spotlight on the role of man-made structures (MMS) on the ecosystem of the North Sea, primarily funding independent academic research on the topic.

There is still much to learn. Existing research shows both benefits in terms of increased biodiversity and some risk in leaving MMS in place and this needs to be better understood. UK Government research has found that fish abundance increased around artificial structures. In these and other studies, it seems that MMS have a net effect on the ecosystem.

Last year the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) launched a Global Standard for Nature-based Solutions. These are actions to protect, sustainably manage, and restore natural or modified ecosystems, at the same time providing human wellbeing and biodiversity benefits.

For example, tree planting to offset carbon production is a nature-based solution, as is the Rich North Sea project which is restoring oyster beds at wind farm locations.

In 2019, 22GW of European energy was generated by offshore windfarms and is forecast to increase to 70GW by 2030, with more than 57GW to come from the states bordering the North Sea. Despite redundant oil and gas structures being decommissioned and removed, the number of MMS installed in the North Sea is set to increase dramatically in the next decade ahead.

This industrial reality does not have to mean a disaster for biodiversity, and gathering scientific data is the best way to inform progress. Research is vital if we value biodiversity and are keen to avoid unseen consequences. Man-made structures might indeed play a role in mitigating the effect of climate-induced pressures on the marine ecosystem.

They might even provide an engineered, nature-based solution, with benefits in terms of biodiversity, ecosystem resilience and consequential benefits in terms of economy and well-being.

Instead of planting trees, we could ‘plant’ wind power structures to deliver a low carbon future that might also have the potential for enhancing the marine ecosystem at the same time. It is research such as INSITE’s research that is already showing that MMS can act as a nature-based solution to biodiversity loss.

Richard Heard is INSITE programme director