Why do we do it?
What is at stake in the North Sea?
Although the North Sea is one of the most productive marine ecosystems in the world, it is also one of the most heavily exploited. For centuries, Denmark and other North Sea countries, have been dependent on this sea for transport, food, building materials and energy – and around this sea, a unique, North-Western European culture developed that some would say have formed the basis of our modern Western society.
Over the centuries, human activity has fundamentally changed the character of large parts of the North Sea ecosystem. What used to be a diverse ecosystem with stretches of sand, large oyster beds, peat banks, sea-grass fields and glacial boulders in the South and kelp forests and cold coral reefs in the North has been turned into a landscape dominated by sand, mud and gravel. Natural reefs are now primarily found along the coasts of the UK and Norway and even there, they are continuously under threat from bottom trawling, pollution and the impacts of climate change (see e.g. ICES, 2016).
Meanwhile, an ever-growing number of man-made structures have been and are being placed on the seabed: some 25,000-45,000 shipwrecks, 1350 oil and gas structures, 45,000km of pipelines and cables and possibly some 15,000-25,000 offshore wind turbines in 2050. Though the initial placement often does have a negative impact on the marine ecosystem, over the years, these structures come to host rich ecosystems, which are home to a large variety of species including some that are threatened, protected or commercially valuable, such as corals, oysters, crustaceans, cod and many other fish, porpoises, seals and various sea mammals. When these structures are removed again, these ecosystems disappear and the seabed returns into a landscape dominated by sand, mud and gravel.
The question is: how do we most efficiently make a resilient North Sea ecosystem? By viewing these man-made structures as man-made disturbances that should preferably be removed as soon as possible, when they no longer serve their original function? Or would it be better to explore and recognise how some of these structures – once they are there – can help us maintain and strengthen the biodiversity and biomass production of the North Sea ecosystem or be used for new economic activities, such as the growing of seaweed, mussels, oysters or lobsters?
Within North Sea Futures, we believe we’d better start exploring the opportunities for repurposing and reuse rather than simple removal of ‘disused’ offshore structures. We are ready to lead in this exploration and debate, because we think there is a potential for large environmental and other societal benefits that could be lost forever if we don’t act now.