MERCES webinar ‘Ecosystem Restoration in Deep Waters’ – 27 June 2019

MERCES webinar ‘Ecosystem Restoration in Deep Waters’ – 27 June 2019

The third MERCES webinar was held on Thursday 27 June 2019 between 15:00-16:00h CET. The webinar focussed on issues relating to MERCES WP4. The webinar was hosted by GRID-Arendal  using ZOOM. The webinar was organised by Eva Ramirez-Llodra (Norwegian Institute for Water Research, NIVA) and moderated by David Billett (Deep Seas Environmental Solutions Ltd), co-leaders of the MERCES WP8 “Putting Industry at the Heart of the Marine Ecosystem Restoration Agenda”. The webinar was sponsored by Equinor, Norway, which has interests in both offshore oil and gas operations and in deep-sea mining.

Prior to the webinar a large number of different organisations were contacted to ask them to distribute information on the webinar, including the International Seabed Authority, the International Oil and Gas Producers organisation (through their environmental focal point), focal points for the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), the EurOceans network , the INDEEP network (the International network for scientific investigation of deep-sea ecosystems), MERCES partner contacts with Government officials in their home country and the MERCES Business Club members.

The webinar was introduced by David Billett highlighting progress in the MERCES project and the development of the MERCES Business Club, including how the webinar series was intended to bring together businesses, policy makers, decision takers and scientists with an interest in marine ecosystem restoration. 

The core of the webinar included two talks of 20 minutes each followed by a discussion with the audience.  The talks and speakers were:

  1. ‘Environmental impacts of decommissioning obsolete oil and gas platforms from our oceans’ by Anne-Mette Jørgensen (North Sea Futures, an independent, not-for-profit company and network organisation based in Denmark) and 
  2. ‘The Impact of deep-sea mining activities’ by Dr Daphne Cuvelier (Marine and Environmental Sciences Centre, Instituto do Mar, University of the Azores).

Anne-Mette Jørgensen noted that issues of decommissioning affect all of us as tax payers because 50% of the costs of decommissioning are to be paid for through taxation, and therefore there are significant societal interests in the process. Decommissioning may also have influence how fisheries are regulated and the planning of marine space for all users (e.g. wind farms).  Globally there are greater than 7,500 fixed structures today that may be required to be decommissioned in the next 40 to 50 years. In addition there are more than 37,000 wells that need to be plugged and made safe, as well many cables and pipelines. A conservative estimate of the cost of decommissioning all these subsea structures is some 210 billion US dollars. 

Currently in the North Sea decisions on the best option for decommissioning is decided on using solely technical and cost criteria. Only once a method of decommissioning has been chosen is an Environmental  Impact Assessment made.  So when decisions are taken as to whether to leave an installation in place are not considered in an environmental context.  This has led to an approach that focuses on the negative impacts of the installations rather than the potential environmental benefits. In addition, decisions are taken on a case by case basis for each installation rather than groups of installations which may provide a network for ecological restoration.

In considering the baseline to which the environment might be returned it is also debatable whether biodiversity at the time when the installations were first put in place is a suitable comparison. Offshore installations alter ecosystems and become part of them.  They provide new services, or perhaps services that have been lost in the last century, and influence current ecosystem functions, such as food webs and the connectivity of species (see INSITE North Sea ANChor project featured on the MERCES website as a case study).  Decommissioning in the north Sea therefore needs to be considered in the wider context of marine ecosystem restoration using current ecological traits in an Ecosystem Based Approach.

Daphne Cuvelier described the results of an expert workshop organised as part of the EU Framework 7 project MIDAS (Managing Impacts of Deep-Sea Resource Exploitation) and which resulted in a publication  of a paper (Cuvelier et al. 2018 Frontiers in Marine Science, doi:10.3389/fmars.2018.004670) on “Potential mitigation and restoration actions in ecosystems impacted by seabed mining”.  An overview was given of the three main mineral types in the deep ocean, the ecosystems which are at risk from deep-sea mining and the main impacts that are expected, such habitat loss (e.g. the mineral surfaces on which organisms occur), the creation of sediment plumes during mining at the seafloor, the release of a discharge plume once minerals have been dewatered on the mining vessels at the sea surface, and the potential toxicity of the fine particulate material released.

The concept of the ‘Mitigation Hierarchy’ was introduced for the environmental management of mining activities.  This involves considering a strictly sequential series of steps to Avoid, Minimise, Restore and eventually (if possible) compensate for impacts and habitat/biodiversity loss.  Details were provided in the first three of these Mitigation Hierarchy categories. Of particular note were new ideas for the restoration of deep-sea communities once mining has ended, similar to the steps taken when a mine site is closed on land. A specific example was given of work being carried out in the MERCES project by Marina Carreiro Silva and her colleagues at the University of the Azores on the feasibility of transplanting cold-water corals.  This highlighted the need for much greater awareness and support for experiments in cost-effective and practical restoration measures and the need to address restoration actions early during the exploration phases of deep-sea mining.

A total of 111 people registered for the webinar.  Forty six of the original registrants were not able to attend the webinar on the day.  All registrants have been contacted to inform them of where they can access the archived webinar.

European attendees at the webinar came from Belgium, Germany, Italy, Netherlands, Norway, Portugal, Spain and UK.  Additional attendees came from Australia, Brazil, Colombia, Israel, Jamaica and the USA. Additional registrants were located in Canada, Mexico, the Russian Federation, South Africa, and Tonga.

A good discussion was developed using the questions posed by the attendees.  The questions were recorded, but there was not enough time to address all questions.  All the questions, however, were archived and the webinar speakers were given the opportunity to provide written additions and answers to all questions. The webinar registrants were sent web links to the archived webinar and to the written responses to the questions posed.

The webinar was attended by 14 companies, including large oil and gas companies such as BP and Petrobras, service and survey businesses for offshore oil and gas, environmental consultancies and coastal engineering interests. A number of EU Government departments and international organisations involved in regulating the oceans, such as the International Seabed Authority (ISA) and Fisheries and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) attended also.  We were grateful for the participation of the European Commission. New members signed up for the MERCES Business Club following the webinar.

The webinar was archived and can be found in the following links: