June 12 (UPI) — For conservationists and environmentalists, pipelines and the oil they carry are mostly viewed as a threat to ecological health. But new research suggests they serve as a safe haven for important commercial fish species off the coast of northwest Australia.
The North West Shelf, which lies off the coast of Western Australia, features an array of gas wells, subsea pipelines and other kinds of underwater infrastructure necessary to support oil and gas exploration in the region.
Oil and gas companies regularly use remote operated vehicles, or ROVs, to monitor their pipelines. Researchers at the University of Western Australia used video footage from industry submersibles to survey fish diversity and abundance around pipelines at varying depths.
Their analysis revealed a surprising level of abundance and diversity. Scientists tallied 5,962 individual fish, representing 92 species from 42 families.
Researchers counted large numbers of snapper and grouper — commercially important species — near both shallow and deep pipelines.
Large numbers of sponges were found surrounding shallow pipelines, while a surprisingly large number of deep-water corals were found growing near deeper pipelines. These organisms serve as a base for healthy marine food chains.
“The pipelines provide an otherwise rare hard surface on which marine organisms can grow, creating a pipeline-based ecosystem,” marine ecologist Dianne McLean said in a news release. “This suggests that subsea pipelines may have significant ecological and fisheries value and this should be considered in discussions about decommissioning offshore structures.”
Of course, the pipelines could undo all their ecological goodwill with a single spill. But for now, research suggests the underwater infrastructure is a boon to fish stocks.
The latest study — published in the journal Continental Shelf Research — is one of the first to utilize film footage from oil and gas industry submersibles.
“There is a lot of potential value locked up in industry ROV footage and our goal is to influence industry practice so that ROV videos used to maintain subsea pipelines are more useful for science,” said researcher Julian Partridge.