Using industry ROV videos to assess fish associations with subsea pipelines
Remote Operated Vehicles are routinely used to undertake inspection and maintenance activities of underwater pipelines in north-west Australia. In doing so, many terabytes of geo-referenced underwater video are collected at depths, and on a scale usually unobtainable for ecological research. We assessed fish diversity and abundance from existing ROV videos collected along 2–3 km sections of two pipelines in north-west Australia, one at 60–80 m water depth and the other at 120–130 m. A total of 5962 individual fish from 92 species and 42 families were observed. Both pipelines were characterised by a high abundance of commercially important fishes including: snappers (Lutjanidae) and groupers (Epinephelidae). The presence of thousands of unidentifiable larval fish, in addition to juveniles, sub-adults and adults suggests that the pipelines may be enhancing, rather than simply attracting, fish stocks. The prevalence and high complexity of sponges on the shallower pipeline and of deepwater corals on the deeper pipeline had a strong positive correlation with the fish abundance. These habitats likely offer a significant food source and refuge for fish, but also for invertebrates upon which fish feed. A greater diversity on the shallower pipeline, and a higher abundance of fishes on both pipelines, were associated with unsupported pipeline sections (spans) and many species appeared to be utilising pipeline spans as refuges. This study is a first look at the potential value of subsea pipelines for fishes on the north-west shelf. While the results suggest that these sections of pipeline appear to offer significant habitat that supports diverse and important commercially fished species, further work, including off-pipeline surveys on the natural seafloor, are required to determine conclusively the ecological value of pipelines and thereby inform discussions regarding the ecological implications of pipeline decommissioning.