Having once hunted whales to the ends of the earth for their oil, Massachusetts is now going out of its way to protect the marine mammals as it once again looks offshore for energy.
With planes and underwater recordings, the Massachusetts Clean Energy Center has been cataloguing which marine mammals and turtles pass through two offshore areas set aside for wind turbine development.
The survey aims to paint a full picture of the underwater residents of these energy areas in order to make sure the whales, dolphins and turtles are not disturbed by any turbines that will be driven into the seabed.
“We want to understand the distribution and habitats of these animals to minimize the turbines’ conflict with existing resources,” explained Tyler Stubbs of Mass CEC.
Stubbs worked in conjunction with the U.S. Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, the New England Aquarium and the Cornell University Bioacoustics Laboratory to conduct its study.
During the first year of the study, researchers recorded six species of whales, among them humpback, fin, minke, sei, sperm and right whales. It also recorded four types of dolphins, pilot whales and harbor porpoises, as well as leatherback, loggerhead and kemps ridley sea turtles.
That means 88 large whales and 191 turtles swam through the same 877 square nautical miles south of Martha’s Vineyard between November 2011 and October 2012.
State officials hope these detailed results will help to expedite the process of getting turbines into water.
The 877 square nautical miles being studied encompass two areas that have been designated by the federal government as appropriate for offshore wind development. A lease for the smaller one, offshore Rhode Island and Massachusetts, has already been gained by Rhode Island’s Deepwater Wind for development. The lease for the second, directly south of Gayhead, is slated to be auctioned off in early 2014.
Once companies win the lease, they are given up to five years to conduct an environmental assessment of the area to ensure that their proposed projects will not disturb the sea life.
That’s where the MassCEC’s survey comes in, said the organization’s Director of Offshore Wind Development, Bill White.
“This is going to help the other developers and inform the permitting process,” he said.
More than that, the study provides a unique, detailed look at the diversity of marine life that renewable energy proponents hope to preserve.
“This energy source is carbon-free and has a tremendous environmental benefit to these species,” he said.
He noted that wind turbines not only do not pollute the air or the water, but also could help slow the effects of global warming like ocean acidification and warming waters.
“We are already seeing changes in these habitats with negative consequences,” White said. “We want to try and mitigate that with wind.”
With the first year of the survey complete, Studds said the count will continue for at least another year. MassCEC also announced this week it is looking for companies to study optimal locations for offshore transmission lines. That study will take into account the wildlife data that has been collected already.
“This baseline of marine mammals and other animals in these areas will help us develop a road map for the industry,” White said.
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