A robotic boat has been used for the first time to survey fish populations around oil platforms in the North Sea.
The study was part of a project led by Aberdeen University into the effects of decommissioning oil and gas structures on marine ecosystems.
It used sonar to collect data on fish numbers around several oil platforms off Scotland’s north-east coast.
USV is fitted with high end commercial fisheries sensors and can be operated miles from shore without the need for a mothership.
XOCEAN’s innovative platform allows surveyors to collect and validate data in real time from anywhere in the world.
The vessel is around the size of an average car (4.5 metres), allowing it to get within 10m of a platform – significantly closer than a conventional ship.
The project, part of the UKRI-funded Influence of Man-made Structures in the Ecosystem (INSITE) programme, aims to better understand the influences offshore structures have on commercial fish populations in the North Sea.
Joshua Lawrence from Aberdeen University, who led the study, said: “The survey was a great success. After months of planning and working closely with XOCEAN and the platform operators, it was great to finally see the Uncrewed Surface Vehicle collecting data.
“It’s amazing how this sort of technology reveals new opportunities to advance our understanding of these structures and their influences on the North Sea ecosystem. Previous work has suggested that fish aggregate up to several kilometres away from some of these structures, so we designed the survey to make approaches to the structures from 10 km away in each direction.”
As part of the next stage of the project, Dougie Speirs and Mike Heath, both of Strathclyde University, will use the survey data to model the expected effects of a range of decommissioning strategies on the surveyed fish populations.
Mr Speirs said: “The data coming out of this survey is providing us with an exceptional high-resolution picture of what is happening to fish distributions around marine installations. It was fascinating to see real-time online images from the USV, and the resulting data will be invaluable as we construct our fish population models.”
James Ives, chief executive of XOCEAN, said: “Conducting survey campaigns using USVs not only enables the collection of the highest possible resolution data, but it allows that to happen in a way that is safe, carbon neutral and economical for our clients.”
Commenting on the survey exercise, Paul Shearer, environment team lead at Ithaca Energy, added: “We are delighted to have supported this important project to understand why fish congregate around structures in the North Sea. It is important that quality data and science is available to enable more informed decisions to be taken in how the offshore energy industry interacts with the marine ecosystem. We look forward to supporting the project in future work.”
The project, and the INSITE programme, will run until 2023, and the team will be running similar surveys of more oil platforms using the USV next summer.
Lead researcher, Paul Fernandes, of Aberdeen University, said: ““Fish have long been known to gather at offshore structures.
“However, the extent of this aggregation, and whether it leads to an increase in productivity to benefit our fish stocks, remains unclear. Offshore oil and gas platforms act as de facto marine protected areas, so we are aiming to quantify the extent to which the increased numbers of fish found there spill over into the surrounding waters.”