Offshore infrastructure research opens up a new frontier for North West fishing

Recfishwest CEO Dr Andrew Rowland has challenged WA’s fishers to watch the footage below and not get excited!

“This eye-popping video was taken from oil and gas infrastructure on the ocean floor in the North West, where there are hundreds of underwater man-made structures supporting abundant marine habitats teeming with masses of fish including red emperor, cod, coral trout, amberjack, tuna, mackerel and trevally,” Dr Rowland said.

Imagine catching a big trevally from repurposed oil and gas platforms in WA’s north. Credit: Marco Fraschetti

“With our knowledge and experience in the artificial reefs space, we’ve long been aware of how these kinds of structures support healthy and resilient marine ecosystems – in many instances significantly increasing fish abundance.”

There are other examples of man-made infrastructure supporting large fish populations in WA including the Busselton Jetty, Exmouth Navy Pier and Dunsborough’s HMAS Swan Dive Wreck – all of which provide exceptional benefits to the environment and community.

Shining a light on fish abundance

New scientific research proves man-made infrastructure, much of which has been in the water for decades, can support a remarkable scale of fish abundance supported by some of this infrastructure.

Euan Harvey, Professor of Marine Science in the School of Molecular and Life Sciences at Curtin University, is the Project Lead for a Fisheries Research Development Corporation (FRDC)-funded study exploring the pros and cons of leaving old oil and gas infrastructures in the waters off WA’s North West.

“Fish populations around some of the platforms near Thevenard Island (off Onslow in the Pilbara) are about 200 times greater than on the natural reef,” Prof. Harvey said.

Until now, infrastructure such as pipelines and platforms must be removed by the companies that own them at the end of their operating life.

However, with the kind of “fish cities” that have established themselves on these structures – in addition to the coral sponge gardens that flourish on them – Dr Rowland said it’s time for a rethink.

“We believe serious consideration should be given to leaving them in the water so we can retain the benefits,” he said.

“This is why the research project is so important in scientifically examining how long-term risks of these structures on the marine environment can be mitigated.”

Read more about this important research project in this great feature article in FRDC’s latest FISH magazine here 

Dr Rowland said Recfishwest placed an absolute, non-negotiable premium on preserving and enhancing recreational fishing experiences and the aquatic environment on which these experiences depend.

“We could only support any long-term reefing of man-made structure if it can be scientifically demonstrated to be non-harmful to the marine environment long-term,” he said.

Oil and gas structures like this can generate fish abundance and bolster fish stocks.

“If, and only if, the protection of environment can be made secure, the potential prize is the wealth of man-made structures sitting on the ocean floor in the North West unlocking and sustaining thousands of hectares of new fish habitat, generating fish abundance and supporting our fish stocks.”

There is precedent for successfully repurposing oil and gas structures on a big scale in the Mexico Gulf where anglers have had access to prime fishing country around more than 500 repurposed oil and gas platforms since the 1980s.

While acknowledging WA was a long way from that, Dr Rowland said Recfishwest would use the research’s findings to start a conversation in the public policy space.

“With recfishers generating $2.4 billion a year, there is potentially huge economic, social and environmental value to be gained from these structures,” Dr Rowland said.

“From that perspective, this research project could be the start of something that will take the WA State-wide artificial reef program and the sensational fishing opportunities associated with it to not just the next level, but to the next frontier.”

Recfishwest CEO Dr Andrew Rowland is passionate about fish abundance.

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