Rare coral discoveredclinging to North Sea oil rigs

AN ENDANGERED species of deep-sea coral has been discovered living on the legs of oil platforms in the North Sea, scientists announced today. It is the first time that living specimens of the coral, which usually inhabits the deep waters of the Atlantic Ocean, have been found in the relatively shallow waters of the North Sea.

The finding raises questions about whether old oil rigs and platforms such as the Brent Spar should be decommissioned on land, or whether burial at sea would prove to be more environmentally friendly.

Niall Bell and Jan Smith, marine scientists at Cordah Environmental Management Consultants, in Aberdeen, report in Nature magazine that they found the species, Lophelia pertusa, living on two North Sea rigs and sections of the Brent Spar rig being dismembered in a Norwegian fjord.

"This paper shows that the distribution of Lophelia coral is more widespread than originally thought. We now believe that oil platforms could be providing a firm base to enable the coral to expand its distribution in the North Sea," Dr Bell said.

"Our observations also suggest that although Lophelia is exposed to discharges from oil platforms, such as oily waters and chemicals, the colonies appear to be healthy and undamaged," he said.

The scientists found healthy 2ft-long colonies at depths of up to 400ft on the two 20-year-old rigs in the North Sea, indicating they had been growing for many years. "If the colonies found on Brent Spar had grown at a similar rate, Lophelia must have settled on the structure when it was in the Brent Field in the North Sea," they say.

The future decommissioning of redundant oil installations may need to take into account their potential importance as sites for Lophelia colonies, Dr Bell said. "Our observations show how much we all need to learn about the potential environmental impacts of the oil industry on the species," he said.

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