Addressing priority gaps in understanding ecosystem functioning for the developing Falkland Islands offshore hydrocarbon industry – the ‘Gap Project’

Dr David Blockley and Dr Megan Tierney

With the discovery of rich oil fields around the Falkland Islands there is the potential for a substantial offshore hydrocarbon industry to develop. The Gap Project will collate, create and analyse data needed to underpin strategies to better inform and monitor potential impacts of the hydrocarbon industry on the marine environment. Priority actions identified include the need to make use of existing data through an expert-led assessment process, and simultaneously to fill the highest priority data gaps. Priority gaps identified include those related to marine higher predators (in particular penguins and seals, which are considered to be amongst the most susceptible of these groups to oil spill contamination), the benthic environment, pelagic fisheries and prevailing oceanographic conditions.

 

The final report detailing outputs from the first phase of the project is available from the links below.


Background

There is the potential for the development of a substantial offshore hydrocarbons industry within the Falkland Islands. There is currently a limited understanding of the Falkland Islands marine environment due to incomplete and fragmented data.

Falkland Islands Offshore Hydrocarbons Environmental Forum (FIOHEF) was established in 2011 in order provide a setting for debate and discussion on environmental issues related to current and future hydrocarbon activities in the Falkland Islands.

The FIOHEF established a subcommittee, the Gap Analyses Group, to examine the knowledge gaps that need to be filled in order to better inform and monitor the potential impacts to the environment from offshore hydrocarbon activities in the Falkland Islands. Whilst there were many gaps identified in the planning stages of this project, it was also recognised that, action (i.e. through the establishment of the Gap project) could be initiated for some of the highest priority gaps.

Download project factsheet


Funding Bodies

  • Falkland Islands Government
  • Falkland Islands Petroleum Licensees Association


Aims

At its core, the Gap Project is a collaborative effort between science, government and industry. It is coordinated by the South Atlantic Environmental Research Institute (SAERI), and jointly supported by the Falkland Islands Government (FIG) and the Falkland Islands Petroleum Licensees Association (FIPLA).

The overarching objective of the Gap project is to provide FIG and the hydrocarbon industry with the necessary information that will enhance management and decision-making processes related to the development of an offshore hydrocarbons industry. More specifically, the Gap project aims to consolidate extant information, develop strategies for environmental monitoring and surveys, and conduct or co-ordinate research that will fill data gaps that currently exist.

Phase I of the project (2014 – 2016) involved identifying and collecting extant data for the highest priority knowledge gaps that have been identified for marine higher predators, benthic ecosystems, and oceanography. Another key element was initiating the development of monitoring strategies and guidelines for the above as well as potential impacts on fisheries to enable long-term environmental management in relation to the hydrocarbons industry.

Phase II (2017) will take these forward to produce practical and useable strategies and guidelines for implementation by government and industry. In partnership with stakeholders, this will enable the development of a framework for the long term responsible environmental monitoring and management of the hydrocarbons industry.


Extant Data Review, Consolidation and Management

One of the aims of the Gap Project was to collate the data needed to underpin strategies that will inform and help monitor potential impacts of the hydrocarbon industry on the marine environment. Prior to the commencement of the project, there had been no strategic effort to centralise relevant data, nor had there been any system by which environmental data could be identified. The establishment of the SAERI Information Management System Geographical Information Systems (IMS-GIS) data centre has been a key instrument in providing a Falklands based repository and data management system through the metadata catalogue.

Over 200 unique environmental datasets were identified as part of the Gap project, that have relevance to the management of the natural environment ranging from deep water benthic habitats to distribution of marine higher predators. This data originating equally from academic research and commercial studies conducted as part of environmental baseline for the hydrocarbons industry.

Great advances have been made with these issues over the course of the project, led by Dr iLaria Marengo (SAERI IMS-GIS data manager), through the development of research licence agreements and policy. Further work is required to implement this and ensure that there is a robust framework, with clear roles and responsibilities to ensure that it can be executed/employed for all environmental research related to the developing hydrocarbons industry in the Falkland Islands.


Marine Higher Predators – Tracking Programme & Impact Assessment

The Falkland Islands are world-renowned for the wildlife that they support. In regards to marine higher predators, this is due in part to the diversity of bathymetric and oceanographic features which create an area of high marine productivity and a range of coastal, shelf and oceanic habitats that support important populations of seabirds and marine mammals including pinnipeds (seals) and cetaceans (whales and dolphins) (collectively, marine higher predators).

In order to assess how marine higher predators may be impacted upon it is necessary to have a good understanding of the temporal and spatial overlap of where and how these predators utilise the marine environment with that of where and how hydrocarbon activities will occur.

Tracking data from a variety of marine higher predators that live in or frequent Falkland Island waters have been obtained in the past. A priority action of the Gap project has been to collate these data into a central repository  Another priority action of the Gap project has been to undertake further tracking work to fill important, identified gaps, particularly for penguins and pinnipeds. All of these data (existing and new) can then be used to conduct a robust (ecological risk) assessment of the potential impacts of the hydrocarbon industry on these predators.

One of the primary objectives of the marine higher predator component of the Gap project was to build a better picture of the at-sea distribution of these animals and highlight when and where they may be most susceptible to hydrocarbons industry activities.

A major challenge to undertaking such an assessment is being able to bring together and perform appropriate analyses on different data types. Because the data available have been collected from different species, over different time frames, using different instruments (tracking devices), it invariably, but unavoidably, exists in a wide variety of forms. But it was paramount that the outputs of the Gap project stand up to international scrutiny. To ensure this was achieved, data had to be analysed and interpreted in a transparent and scientifically robust manner.

A specialist in statistical ecology (Dr James Grecian) was brought on-board to develop bespoke data processing and analytical techniques to meet this challenge, and which resulted in the generation of distribution maps for each individual that was tracked.

The work undertaken for the marine higher predator component of the Gap project has laid the foundation for starting to fill some of the priority data gaps; other data that could be utilised has been identified, and steps towards scoping the design and elements of an Environmental Risk Assessment have been taken. In regards to the latter, for the first time analytical frameworks for estimating the at-sea distribution of marine higher predators (using tracking data) and overlap with hydrocarbon licence areas and oil-spill fate models, and which could be used to quantitatively assess risk, have been developed and applied to priority penguin and pinniped species. These frameworks can now be readily applied to other species for which data is available, and hence a more comprehensive picture of how hydrocarbon industry activities may impact on this whole suite of potentially vulnerable species can be obtained.


Benthic Ecology

It is important to note that the Falkland Islands is a frontier area with very little extant information on the benthic environment. Therefore, robust and consistent approaches to sample design and collection need to be established.

Benthic surveys in relation to environmental assessment of hydrocarbons exploration have typically been done in isolation from other research and without consideration of how it could add to the greater understanding of the hitherto under explored region. One aspect of the Gap project was to develop strategies that could maximise the benefits. Scientists from the National Oceanographic Centre in Southampton, who have been working on the SERPENT Project, collaborated with SAERI to develop a scientifically robust survey methodology to provide information on the unique benthic macrofauna of the Falkland Islands using remotely operated vehicles (ROV).

Environmental baseline surveys have two main functions. The first is to provide an environmental description of the area that will potentially be impacted by an anthropogenic disturbance. The second is to provide suitable ‘before’ data that could be used to assess whether there actually has been an impact from said disturbance. In order to achieve these aims it is important that the sampling designs be scientifically robust in order to provide sufficient estimates of populations in order to determine spatial and temporal patterns. What is also needed is some assessment of how well a particular sampling design achieves this, but this is virtually never done as part of baseline assessments for the hydrocarbon industry. In order to address this, a reanalysis was done on data from a baseline survey of the North Falklands Baseline Sea Lion field that was believed to be deliberately over-sampled, although this belief had never been quantified. The reanalysis from this data showed that the metrics used to typify this habitat could have been estimated with much less effort and that the sample design itself was robust for producing the description of the habitat

Once benthic samples have been collected, they have to be sorted and the organisms identified. The current process used for samples collected from the Falkland Islands is disjointed, with samples scattered across many different contractors and sub-contractors, and lacking in crucial information, particularly around taxonomy.

In collaboration with the Natural History Museum (NHM), London, the Gap Project developed protocols for the storage of samples that would provide for a central repository that would facilitate and ensure ongoing access to important biological material that would enable future audits of data from offshore benthic surveys. Furthermore, this has been coupled with a strategy for addressing the inadequate and fragmented taxonomic records of benthic species in Falkland Islands. During the first phase of the Gap project, a reanalysis of samples collected from a previous survey was conducted. This work only focused on one suite of animals, the marine worms, obtained from benthic environmental baseline surveys in the vicinity of the Sea Lion field to the north of the Falkland Islands. Over 200 unique species were identified, of which 30% were new to science and another 30% were probably new species, but require further investigation. Taxonomic records were created for each of these species accompanied with voucher specimens (a physical representative specimen kept in storage at the NHM) that will provide a reference for all future surveys to ensure that all future surveys use the same taxonomy. Having these for reference was not sufficient by themselves to support taxonomic work done in relation to the Falkland Islands hydrocarbon industry. In order to speed up the process of identifying benthic samples an online taxonomic key was also developed as part of the above work during phase I of the project. It has been designed as the starting point of an evolving and expanding key and reference library.


Oceanographic Research

Despite much recent progress with oceanographic modelling associated with hydrocarbons activity, there are gaps in knowledge that underlie these models. In addition to identifying extant data that could be used to elucidate oceanographic conditions and validate models, particularly for oil-spill contingency planning, one of the goals of the Gap project was to develop strategies that would not only further research, but also identify and fill data gaps.

There are two general ways to generate information on oceanographic conditions, modelling from derived and indirect measures, such as satellite imagery, and in situ measurements using equipment deployed in the field (e.g. buoys, water quality probes etc.). The advances in underwater autonomous vehicles means that the latter type of research can be conducted far more cheaply and effectively than previous vessel based surveys and allows for a more detailed picture of the water column than modelling from satellite data alone. As such, by using autonomous vehicles, coupled with experience in designing oceanographic surveys, marine data management systems and analysis, there is the potential to advance these projects within the waters of the Falkland Islands.


Fisheries Related Research

There were two areas identified by the FIOHEF Gap Analysis Group as priorities for attention within the Gap project: Firstly, with respect to developing strategies for the identification of spawning grounds for the local squid Doryteuthis gahi (known locally as loligo); and secondly with regards to potential accumulation of polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons in marine ecosystems.

The squid fishery is an important component of the Falkland Islands economy and the stock has been scientifically managed, yet there are still uncertainties about aspects of their life history. Identification of D. gahi spawning grounds is important for inclusion in potential risk assessments associated with hydrocarbons activity, particularly in regards to oil spill. Two strategies have been proposed by the Gap project to address this. The first is direct measurements using diver surveys and remote observations (i.e. drop cameras or video). The second method would be to use chemical signatures contained with the statolith (a calcareous structure within the body of the squid) which can be linked to areas that it has spent time during its life history, including their early life history within spawning grounds. This would require additional research that would build on current research being conducted at the Falkland Islands Fisheries Department.

Polycyclic Aromatic Hydrocarbons or PAH are a group of chemical compounds that can occur naturally, or as a by-product of industrial processes. There are a suite of PAH that are contained within material extracted through hydrocarbon development activity which can accumulate in organic tissues and have a deleterious and carcinogenic effect on biological material.

In order to support risk assessment with regards to possible PAH contamination, it will be necessary to have a robust and ongoing monitoring programme. This would need to be a suite of tests that look for exposure to PAHs. The reason for this is that vertebrates metabolise PAHs very quickly and so there may not be measurable quantities in their bodies, especially if there is only episodic dosing. This suite of tests is well defined and has been used in European waters. As such there are laboratories accustomed to undertaking such assessments. The bottom of the ocean is a large potential destination for any hydrocarbons that were released into the environment and hence a pathway by which PAHs could enter the food web. Many of the organisms living on and within the seafloor can absorb or ingest contaminated sediment and are, in-turn, eaten by other organisms. As such, additional sampling of sediments should be done to monitor for contamination.


Newsletter

 

Mind The Gap Issue 1, October 2014

 

Mind The Gap Issue 2, February 2015