EcoSTAR logo

EcoSTAR (Ecosystem level importance of STructures as Artificial Reefs) is a partnership between SMRU and the Centre for Environment, Fisheries and Aquaculture Research (Cefas) with collaborators across Europe. EcoSTAR investigates the impact of man-made structures (including oil and gas platforms, pipelines, and marine renewable energy installations) on marine ecosystems in the North Sea.

EcoSTAR is one of seven projects funded by the Natural Environment Research Council (NERC) and the Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) under Phase II of the INSITE programme (INfluence of man-made Structures In The Ecosystem).

SMRU logo CefasLogo INSITE logo
North Sea Oil Rigs
Cod around a North Sea oil rig
Grey seal with GPS tag
Project Background

The North Sea is one of the most industrialised marine environments on the planet, with thousands of man-made structures (MMS) including oil and gas platforms, pipelines, subsea cable routes, and marine renewable energy installations. Much of the infrastructure relating to the oil and gas industry is coming to the end of its economic life, while the marine renewable energy industry is expanding rapidly. Current legislation requires that (with some exceptions) MMS in the North Sea should be removed from the marine environment after their operational lifespan is complete. Decommissioning of the UK oil and gas sector will cost around £50 billion, with almost half of the financial burden falling on the taxpayer.

These forthcoming changes in the North Sea landscape may have a significant impact on marine life. There is mounting evidence that the effects of MMS on the local marine environment are complex, and depend on the age, type, and operational status of the MMS. Once installed, MMS can host artificial reefs supporting diverse communities of marine life. The exclusion of shipping and fishing in the vicinity of many MMS may also provide refuges for fish and predators such as sharks, seals or porpoises (de facto Marine Protected Areas). However, the true extent of the effects of MMS on the ecosystem are unclear. To ensure effective decision-making about removal and installation of such structures in the future, there is an urgent need to better understand the impact of MMS on the North Sea ecosystem.

Wind farmThe landscape of man-made structures in the North Sea is undergoing rapid change. Yet the implications of these changes for the ecosystem remain unknown.


The below video from Russell et al. (2014) shows the track of a harbour seal tagged with a GPS device repeatedly foraging at a windfarm in the North Sea.

Project Aims


  1. Quantify the impact of, and overlap between, man-made structures (MMS) and North Sea marine mammal distributions
  2. Estimate what proportion of seal and harbour porpoise populations forage at MMS.
  3. Examine how species-specific changes in fish abundance affect consumption by seals and porpoises.
  4. Assess how MMS affect benthic fauna community composition, structure and function.
  5. Integrate outputs from 1-4 with existing data and knowledge of fish, food webs and fisheries, within a North Sea ecosystem model (developed in INSITE I), to predict the impact of the current, and potential future, MMS landscape on the ecosystem.

For further detail on EcoSTAR objectives and associated work packages, click here.

Seal track along a pipelineTrack (pink dots) of a tagged grey seal, following a gas pipeline (black line) in the North Sea


Meet the Team

Debbie Russell Debbie Russell – Principal Investigator
Debbie is a Principal Research Fellow at SMRU and the Centre for Research into Ecological and Environmental Modelling (CREEM) at the University of St Andrews. Her research interests include various aspects of marine vertebrate ecology and conservation, including foraging ecology, species interactions, and the effects of anthropogenic habitat modification and climate change. Debbie’s previous work has demonstrated that seals use man-made structures for foraging, as well as examining the impact of wind farm construction on seal distribution and behaviour. She was PI on the MAPS project under INSITE Phase I.
E-mail: | Twitter: @DjfRussell | Google Scholar: Debbie JF Russell
Silvana Birchenough Silvana Birchenough – Co-Investigator
Silvana is a principal ecologist, researcher and advisor on issues related to ecology and human activities at Cefas. She works on the impacts of multiple stressors (e.g. vibration and sound, temperature, pH changes and metals) on commercial species. Her work aims to use in situ observations (i.e. Sediment Profile Imagery) to study benthic functions following disturbance. She has also studied cumulative effects from offshore windfarms. She was Co-PI on the UNDINE project during INSITE Phase I, which revealed changes in benthic functions from man-made structures. She hosted a special issue in ICES Journal of Marine Science: Decommissioning of offshore man-made structures.
E-mail: | Twitter: @Birchenough_S | Google Scholar: Silvana Birchenough
Matt Carter Matt Carter – Co-Investigator
Matt is a research fellow at SMRU. His research seeks to understand how environmental and anthropogenic factors shape the distribution and behaviour of marine vertebrate predators. His previous work has used animal-borne tracking and aerial survey data to map the at-sea distribution of grey and harbour seals from haulout sites in the UK and Ireland, providing density surfaces for use in marine spatial planning. Matt’s role on EcoSTAR is to investigate the impact of man-made structures on the distribution and behaviour of seals using satellite tracking data and ecological modelling techniques.
E-mail: | Twitter: @MattIDCarter | Google Scholar: Matt ID Carter
Clement Garcia Clement Garcia – Co-Investigator
Clement is a benthic ecologist at Cefas with a primary interest in functional ecology. His research focuses on understanding the structural and functional role of the seabed and resident biota and its link to wider ecosystem processes and functioning. Clement has expertise in ecological modelling to investigate anthropogenic and natural pressures on benthic biological traits, and the wider trophic network. He was Co-PI on the UNDINE and COSM projects during INSITE Phase I, and led the analysis of benthic functional change through trait-based analysis, bringing benthic elements to the Ecopath model.
E-mail: | Twitter: @Clem2012Garcia | Google Scholar: Clement Garcia
Philip Hammond Philip Hammond – Co-Investigator
Philip is a professor of marine ecology at the University of St Andrews. His primary interest is in population dynamics and ecology, in particular the applied aspects of how seals and cetaceans interact with humans. His research includes the habitat use, foraging ecology and diet of marine mammals. He initiated and coordinated the multi-national SCANS cetacean surveys to estimate abundance and model distribution of cetaceans in the European Atlantic in 1994, 2005 and 2016, which have been a primary source of information for EU Member States to report under the Habitats Directive and Marine Strategy Framework Directive. Philip was Co-I on the MAPS project under INSITE Phase I.
E-mail: | Google Scholar: Philip Steven Hammond
Gordon Hastie Gordon Hastie – Co-Investigator
Gordon is a Senior Research Fellow at SMRU. He studies how marine mammals adjust their behaviour in response to changes in their environments. This includes natural environmental changes and responses to man-made perturbations. As we see the increasing urbanisation of marine environments, he is interested in how marine mammals perceive and respond to novel man-made sources in the ocean; in particular, he looks to understand how marine mammals perceive and respond to marine renewable devices.
E-mail: | Twitter: @gordon_hastie | Google Scholar: Gordon Hastie
Christopher Lynam Christopher Lynam – Co-Investigator
Christopher is a biodiversity and food web advisor and ecosystem scientist at Cefas. His research interests involve the application of modelling and statistics to solve problems in a wide range of fields including marine ecology, climate change and fisheries management. Christopher developed modelling techniques to evaluate management plans and climate effects and investigate top-down vs bottom-up control in the North Sea food web. He was Co-PI on the COSM project during INSITE Phase I and led the development of a spatial food web model for the North Sea.
E-mail: | Google Scholar: Christopher Lynam
Sophie Smout Sophie Smout – Co-Investigator
Sophie is a lecturer at the University of St Andrews, based at SMRU and CREEM. Her research interests are in the processes that drive changes in animal populations, especially in marine ecosystems, and how to mitigate conflict between predators and humans. Sophie works on the foraging behaviour and trophic ecology of marine top predators, and their interactions with fisheries. She uses a range of statistical techniques to model trophic interactions, and the distribution of predators and their prey. She has been involved in previous work integrating predators into ecosystem models.
E-mail: | Twitter: @sophie_smout | Google Scholar: Sophie Smout
Claire Lacey Claire Lacey – Postdoctoral Researcher
Claire is a postdoctoral researcher at SMRU and MMRP Hawaii. Her work focusses on investigating the distribution and abundance of different cetacean species.  Previous work includes coordinating the SCANS-III surveys, and her PhD work focusses on use of the data collected during this and other surveys to look at the large scale distribution of cetaceans in the North Atlantic.  Claire has also worked on a variety of consultancy projects, looking at the impacts of anthropogenic activities on marine mammals around the UK, as well as internationally. Her role on EcoSTAR is to investigate if man-made structures influence cetacean distribution using aerial survey data and ecological modelling.
E-mail: | Twitter: @_clacey | Google Scholar: Claire Lacey
Janneke Ransijn Janneke Ransijn – Postdoctoral Researcher
Janneke is currently a PhD student at SMRU. Her research interests are in understanding how species abundance and distribution patterns are influenced by predator-prey dynamics, trophic interactions and climate change. Her work involves modelling the relationship between prey availability and consumption by marine predators using a Multi-Species Functional Response approach, and incorporation of marine top predators into ecosystem models. Following completion of her PhD, Janneke’s role on EcoSTAR will be to model predator consumption of prey at man-made structures, and facilitate integration of predators into the ecosystem model.


Research Output

Stay tuned for output from this project.

Reports from related INSITE Phase I projects:

Grecian et al. (2018) Man-made structures and Apex Predators: Spatial interactions and overlap (MAPS) Final Report to INSITE

Dannheim et al. (2018) Understanding the influence of man-made structures on the ecosystem functions of the North Sea (UNDINE) Final Report to INSITE

Lynam et al. (2017) Investigating food web effects due to man-made structures using COupled Spatial Modelling (COSM) Final Report to INSITE


Publications from related INSITE Phase I projects:

Theme set on decommissioned offshore man-made structures ICES Journal of Marine Science 77:3. Ed: Birchenough & Degraer

Birchenough & Degraer (2020) Science in support of ecologically sound decommissioning strategies for offshore man-made structures: taking stock of current knowledge and considering future challenges. ICES Journal of Marine Science 77:3 1075-1078

Dannheim et al. (2020) Benthic effects of offshore renewables: identification of knowledge gaps and urgently needed research. ICES Journal of Marine Science 77:3 1092-1108

Wright et al. (2020) Structures in a sea of sand: fish abundance in relation to man-made structures in the North Sea. ICES Journal of Marine Science 77:3 1206-1218

Posen et al. (2020) Evaluating differences in marine spatial data resolution and robustness: a North Sea case study. Ocean and Coastal Management 192:105206

Coolen et al. (2020) Marine stepping stones: connectivity of Mytilus edulus populations between offshore energy installations. Molecular Ecology 29:4 686-703

Tidbury et al. (2020) Social network analysis as a tool for marine spatial planning: Impacts of decommissioning on connectivity in the North Sea. Journal of Applied Ecology 57:3 566-577

Murray et al. (2018) Data challenges and opportunities for environmental management of North Sea oil and gas decommissioning in an era of blue growth. Marine Policy 97 130-138

Previous Projects (INSITE Phase I)
The EcoSTAR Team were involved in various projects under INSITE Phase I:

Man-made structures and Apex Predators: Spatial interactions and overlap (MAPS)
The MAPS project (led by Debbie Russell, featuring Philip Hammond) sought to use existing datasets to establish the magnitude of the effects of man-made structures compared to the spatial and temporal variability of the North Sea ecosystem, with regard to apex predators. MAPS considered the association between structure presence and apex predators on two spatial scales: (1) at the scale of the North Sea using species’ distributions and (2) at a very fine spatial scale using the movements of individuals in relation to structures. Overall, results suggested that for the marine predators considered, the current North Sea oil & gas infrastructure was not a key driver of at-sea distribution, nor did it influence the foraging behaviour of the considered seabird species at a population level. However, it should be noted that in order to maximise power to detect effects of structure presence on predator distribution and foraging, different structures types were pooled. This means that impacts restricted to a certain structure type or age, may not have been detectable. The project concluded that additional data on fine scale movements of apex predators and on oil & gas structures (e.g. which sections of pipelines are exposed) are required to determine the impact of different structure types and ages on species’ distributions and behaviour.

Download the report here


Investigating food web effects due to man-made structures using COupled Spatial Modelling (COSM)
The COSM project (led by Christopher Lynam and Clement Garcia) aimed to better understand if the presence of man-made structures might lead to changes locally that can spread through the wider ecosystem through predator-prey interactions and dispersal. This was delivered through the collation of existing data, statistical modelling of data, and the development of a spatial food web model that can be projected through time. The food web model was used to evaluate scenarios: asking the question, what would happen to communities if structures were removed through decommissioning? Which species might be affected? The main findings were that: (1) man-made structures have an effect on the local community composition and these effects can disperse throughout the North Sea ecosystem mediated by interactions between species; (2) the removal of oil and gas platforms and pipelines may ultimately contribute to declines in some groups (rays and sand eels), but increases in others (sharks, flatfish and roundfish); (3) the presence of wrecks and wind turbines appears to have a much greater impact than oil and gas infrastructure on rays, sharks, sand eels, flatfish and demersal roundfish; (4) all modelled effects of structures are minor compared to the potential effect of other pressures such as an increase in temperature on the ecosystem or increase in fishing effort to historic levels; and (5) although the additional habitat provided by platforms and pipelines may be relatively small, this difference should not be disregarded at this stage for non-commercial species of conservation concern, since natural variability is by its very nature unmanageable and the removal of other structures such as wrecks is unlikely to occur in great amount.

Download the report here

UNDerstanding the INfluence of man-made structures on the Ecosystem functions of the North Sea (UNDINE)
The UNDINE project (led by Silvana Birchenough and Clement Garcia) aimed at enhancing our current understanding of how MMS could modify ecological processes over several scales; this based particularly on examining existing data with analytical tools, providing insight into the ecosystem functioning (e.g. food web modelling and connectivity modelling). The project examined how the introduction of MMSs affected ecological processes, mainly: (1) understanding the effects on ecosystem functioning both on the MMS and in the surrounding soft sediment areas (i.e. functional artificial reef effect; and (2) validating the enhanced connectivity of hard substrate species (i.e. stepping-stone effect). Some of the key findings included that: spatial and temporal patterns in community structure and secondary production values revealed clear responses (e.g. over time and depth gradients), supported by the persistence of biological traits over time and across all structures; clear modifications in the upper parts of MMSs, where the highest production values and potential biomass export to soft bottoms were observed; an increased carbon retention capacity at offshore wind farms when compared to oil and gas platforms; the blue mussel Mytilus edulis, is a key organism responsible for the high carbon retention capacity at offshore windfarms when compared to oil and gas platforms or natural sediments; the pool of species present on MMS is determined by the arrival of constant species propagules and a subsequent local survival of hard substrate species.

Download the report here



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