New research centre to monitor marine pollution

Centre for Innovation and Research in Ocean Health (CIROH) wants to develop new measurement technology that provides direct monitoring of seas surrounding oil installations and fish farms in coastal areas, in order to promote immediate action.

Oil spills onto a beach, used as photo to illustrate an article about the Centre for Innovation and Research in Ocean Health (CIROH).
MONITORING THE OCEAN: Researchers at the University of Bergen are working with other researchers and marine industry interests to establish a research centre to develop world-leading mechanisms for monitoring ocean pollution.

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Pressure is building on the world oceans due to maritime activities. Climate models show changes in the chemical composition of the oceans, which may result in diminishing biodiversity in the future. As a result the maritime industry must take more account of their activities to ensure a sustainable development.
There are currently different types of monitoring of the seas around oil installations and fish farms, and how these industries affect the environment and the ecosystem. What the current monitoring methods have in common is that they are slow when it comes to responding to immediate threats and disasters.
“The challenge is that it may take days or even months to analyse what happens to the marine environment with current methods. It may then be too late to initiate action to prevent or limit oil spills from spreading, or to counter pathogenic organisms and algae that threaten fish farms,” says Professor Anders Goksøyr at the Department of Biology at the University of Bergen (UiB).

World-leaders in ocean monitoring

Goksøyr heads the Centre for Innovation and Research in Ocean Health (CIROH), which has applied to the Research Council of Norway to become a Centre for Research-based Innovation (SFI). The CIROH researchers and their industrial partners aim to become world-leaders in monitoring the ecosystem and biological diversity of the seas.
“We wish to develop a monitoring technology that benefits Norway’s two main export industries: the petroleum activity offshore and the aquaculture industry in coastal waters,” explains Goksøyr.

Providing data via satellite

Bergen based Aanderaa Data Instruments AS is one of the industry partners in the CIROH proposal. The company has developed buoys that measure physical parameters, such as oxygen levels, salinity and temperature. Project partners from the United States have also developed buoys that collect water samples and analyse these. The collected data can immediately be transmitted via satellites and reach researchers onshore within minutes of an accident.
“The SFI project is largely about putting together and developing sensor technology and making use of existing biological knowledge. This knowledge sits in the lab. In addition, there are a number of instruments and sensors available, which are yet to be put to use for our purposes,” says Goksøyr. “We want to develop this technology further by adding biological sensors to these buoys to include tests for various contaminants and toxins.”
CIROH wants to connect knowledge about environmental impact on genome levels in organisms. This is something the researchers have worked on for quite a while. By working with industry this knowledge is put in an industrial and operational context to the benefit of society at large. “If our application is successful and we get a good consortium in place, the goal is to develop real-time sensors to be placed in marine settings and provide us with immediate data,” says the biology professor.

The canaries of the oil industry

Today environmental conditions around oil installations are measured through sediment samples from the surrounding sea bed. In addition, samples are derived from selected waters every second year. Fish are also set out in cages for samples of the environmental conditions.

“Caged fish are the canaries of the oil industry, and biological analysis is performed on the fish afterwards. However, the responses from the samples can take months to process,” explains Goksøyr.
Sediment surveys are also conducted around fish farms, a method that was introduced several decades ago. As for harmful algae, the main method is algae counts in coastal waters. Samples are gathered, counted under the microscope and classical species identification methods used to estimate the diversity of the fauna.
“You are literally sitting in front of the microscope counting algae. These methods are unreasonably old-fashioned and time-consuming. Today there are DNA based methods that can provide us with biological data in minutes,” says Goksøyr.

Positive dialogue with industry

By using CIROH’s new type of real-time monitoring, oil installations and fish farms can take immediate action when unwanted situations are reported.

“This way, fish farmers can be alerted and remove their cages to prevent environmental damage, that may lead to slaughtering of damaged fish, which is often the case today,” explains Goksøyr, pointing out that this will benefit both industry and the environment.
Goksøyr and his colleagues at UiB’s Department of Biology, who initiated the SFI application, were met with open arms by companies in both the oil sector and fish farming industry.
“We all feel the need for real-time knowledge on the environment. Industry interests were very positive when we approached them with the proposal,” says the biology professor.

Better technology, a cleaner environment

Goksøyr considers it a social responsibility to develop the marine industry in a way that benefits the environment and the ecosystem.
“Developing and using new, advanced technology is good for both research and industrial development. And to top it off, the environment benefits too,” says the biology professor.
Current Norwegian research in the field is based on North Sea samples; an area where there is no documentation of major ecological changes attributable to the oil industry.
“However, the biological measurements indicate that the North Sea is not completely unaffected by all this oil activity. This suggests that we need to take extra care when oil activities and shipping move into the Barents Sea and even further north,” says Anders Goksøyr.

Read more about the other UiB centres applying for the SFI status.

(Translated from the Norwegian by Sverre Ole Drønen.)