Social network analysis as a tool for marine spatial planning: impacts of decommissioning on connectivity in the North Sea.
Connectivity of marine populations and ecosystems is crucial to maintaining and enhancing their structure, distribution, persistence, resilience and productivity. Artificial hard substrate, such as that associated with oil and gas platforms, provides settlement opportunities for species adapted to hard substrates in areas of soft sediment. The contribution of artificial hard substrate and the consequences of its removal (e.g. through decommissioning) to marine connectivity is not clear, yet such information is vital to inform marine spatial planning and future policy decisions on the use and protection of marine resources. This study demonstrates the application of a social network analysis approach to quantify and describe the ecological connectivity, informed by particle tracking model outputs, of hard substrate marine communities in the North Sea. Through comparison of networks with and without artificial hard substrate, and based on hypothetical decommissioning scenarios, this study provides insight into the contribution of artificial hard substrate, and the consequence of decommissioning, to the structure and function of marine community connectivity. This study highlights that artificial hard substrate, despite providing only a small proportion of the total area of hard substrate, increases the geographic extent and connectivity of the hard substrate network, bridging gaps, thereby providing 'stepping stones' between otherwise disconnected areas of natural hard substrate. Compared to the baseline scenario, a decommissioning scenario with full removal of oil and gas platforms results in a nearly 60% reduction in connectivity. Such reduction in connectivity may have negative implications for species' distribution, gene flow and resilience following disturbance or exploitation of marine hard substrate communities. Synthesis and applications. Social network analysis can provide valuable insight into connectivity between marine communities and enable the evaluation of impacts associated with changes to the marine environment. Providing standardized, transparent and robust outputs, such a tool is useful to facilitate understanding across different disciplines, including marine science, marine spatial planning and marine policy. Social network analysis therefore has great potential to address current knowledge gaps with respect to marine connectivity and crucially facilitate assessment of the impacts of changes in offshore substrate as part of the marine spatial planning process, thereby informing policy and marine management decisions.