Setting the Record Straight on Industry in Exmouth

A recent study compiled by a consortium of universities and conservation organisations resurrects old concerns about developing industry, any industry, in Exmouth Gulf, due to its unique ecological characteristics. Specifically, they focus on industry’s impact on marine life and its potential to disrupt local fish habitats. So, what’s the researchers’ solution? Unsurprisingly, they conclude that more research must be done.

But those who have been closely following the debate over industry in Exmouth know that, actually, there have already been a lot of studies on industry’s potential environmental impacts, especially the energy industry. Furthermore, the topics of marine noise and fish habitats have been already been extensively researched.

In fact, many studies on marine noise— specifically noise generated from seismic surveys— found that it is not as detrimental to marine life as some environmentalists claim.

For example:

The surveys were completed with no evidence of adverse effects on whales. The ‘song’ of the whales was recorded both during and after the seismic was acquired and the results indicated that the whales continued to ‘sing’ during times when seismic data were being acquired. ‘No avoidance or evasive behaviour was evident during the surveys’ — Humpback whales of the Perth Basin


Given the relatively small scale of seismic activity, the often large scales over which biological events occur, and the low probability of encounter between seismic surveys and ‘at risk’ populations at an appropriate time and place, then the wider implications of disruption by seismic surveys appear to be small for most species.– Environmental Implications of Offshore Oil and Gas Development in Australia


The observations indicated that during seismic recording, some species such as dolphins, sperm whales and pilot whales appeared to be relatively tolerant, often approaching within 3km and in the case of dolphins, altering course to ride bow waves of the vessel while actively operating.– Southern Margins Seismic Survey Programme

But perhaps the most telling piece of evidence that oil and gas activity is not adversely impacting WA’s marine mammals are the fact that they are ‘out in full force’. According to local WA news reports:

Western Australia’s whale populations appear to be in step with their east coast counterparts with large pods of humpbacks coming within metres of spectators off the southern coastlines.

This is good news for the marine mammals and good news for the many locals who work for oil and gas or related service industries.

Fish habitat and offshore pipelines

Despite claims that offshore infrastructure would be disruptive to healthy fish populations, many studies have recently found that marine life have comfortably adapted to its presence.

For example, a recent study by the University of Western Australia’s Oceans Institute suggests that offshore pipelines offer shelter for fish. The research team came to this conclusion by using remotely operated underwater vehicles (ROVs) to examine the North West Shelf from Exmouth to Dampier. According to the lead researcher, Dr. Dianne McLean, the fish use unsupported sections of the pipelines as safe havens, stating:

As soon as there was a crevice where the pipelines were off the seafloor, we would see a higher abundance of fish, likely utilizing the pipeline as a refuge. Many [pipelines] have been there for more than 10 years, they have been colonised by significant sponge and deepwater coral communities, and they possess diverse fish assemblages. Their removal could be likened to removing an established reef ecosystem.

This finding not only informs how oil and gas companies should decommission offshore infrastructure but demonstrates that the fish population in the Exmouth area is healthy enough to adapt to changes in their environment, including pipeline infrastructure.

But there is a second interesting aspect of this research, it highlights how environmental science can benefit from the oil and gas sector’s deep-sea expertise and equipment. A conclusion that was not lost in a recent study published in the journal Science of the Total Environment. This study examined how ROVs that are commonly used for offshore oil and gas operations could be ‘harnessed to answer some of science’s biggest unanswered questions.’ As explained by the study’s lead author, Associate Professor Peter Macreadie, Director of the Blue Carbon Lab at Deakin University’s School of Life and Environmental Sciences:

Sophisticated deep-sea ROVs cost about $200,000 per day to run, so they could never be afforded by research teams, but they are regularly used by oil and gas companies for exploration, monitoring and maintenance. That includes the coast of WA – Industrial ROVs collect millions of observations of our oceans each year, and we want to capitalise on that. What we’re talking about is a rare and unusual collaboration between two strange bedfellows, the oil and gas industry and scientists, because no one is exploring the deep sea better than that sector.

The study went on to further identify the top 10 issues facing the ocean that this type of collaboration could help address, including: improving understanding of the deep ocean and the animals that reside there, investigating how the deep ocean is changing, and identifying how ROVs can support the development of the deep ocean “blue economy.”

The bottom line

The oil and gas industry has operated safely and successfully off the coast of WA since 1907, the industry has in many ways been a responsible steward of local marine environments, a practice that continues to this very day. Concerns about local wildlife are understandable, but let’s not forget many locals do want more and diversified economic opportunities in their home town.

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