CANBERRA-Researchers have discovered more than 400 new marine species in water off Australia’s south coast that will soon be subjected to oil exploration.

The comprehensive survey of the Great Australian Bight, a 1,160-km open bay covering the coasts of South Australia (SA) and Western Australia (WA), was carried out by oil giant BP, the University of Adelaide, Flinders University, Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO) and SA Research and Development Institute.

Hugh Macintosh, lead author of the study, said that his team found more than 400 previously-undiscovered species of invertebrates in the bight, which has previously been recognized as a bio-diverse region, over six years of surveying.

“Decisions like (oil exploration) can’t be made when you don’t have any information about the local environment, and it was identified that we knew nothing about the Great Australian Bight,” he told the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC) on Monday.

“(We) were given free rein to design these studies, to go out and report back to government and industry stakeholders so that we could help informed decision making.

“All we can hope for is that people make these kinds of decisions with evidence so that people can weigh (up) those when they make these decisions.” Norway’s Equinor is the only company currently planning to drill for oil in the bight despite the Australian government having awarded 11 exploration permits since 2011.

Both BP and Chevron abandoned their plans for the region in 2016 and 2017 respectively, citing the low price of oil at the time rather than environmental concerns.

According to an environmental plan authored by Equinor, a “worst case” oil spill in the Great Australian Bight would see oil spread all the way from Sydney on Australia’s east coast to Albany in the west.

It warned that such a spill would be twice as bad as 2010’s Deepwater Horizon spill in the Gulf of Mexico, the worst spill in history, as a result of rough seas. Jone Stangeland, head of Equinor in Australia, said that the modelling was “based on an extremely unlikely worst-case event, simulated 100 times in different weather conditions and without any response action taken.”

“The images don’t represent an actual scenario, but the combination of 100 different extremely unlikely worst-case scenarios,” he said.

“For Equinor, no oil spills are acceptable, and we will not go ahead until we are convinced we can drill safely.”

Such a spill would be devastating for the newly-discovered invertebrates as well as for the southern right whales the bay is best-known for.

“The deep sea is fascinating you find things with fangs, that glow, that have jelly you find really weird, wonderful, alien creatures,” Macintosh said of the deep-sea invertebrates.

“A lot of the stuff we found is typical for the deep sea, but deep sea species are really weird there are giant sea spiders that roam the landscape, big sea cucumbers that are the consistency of Jell-o.

“My work is on clams. Clams usually eat plankton, but there isn’t a lot down there, so there are carnivorous clams that lie in wait to eat things that wander past them.”