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Offshore wind farm projects are moving forward as the need for renewable energy increases. Massachusetts has established a statewide limit of net–zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050. As stated on Mayflower Wind’s website, Massachusetts sees offshore wind energy as the least costly pathway to decarbonization, increasing state offshore wind targets from 3.2 gigawatts to 5.6 gigawatts.
However, spanning 25 to 30 years, offshore wind farms raise concerns about anthropogenic noise. This underwater sound can affect marine life and the industries which rely on them, detractors say.
“Offshore wind power is vital to stopping the effects of climate change, which is causing great harm to marine life. We believe our project and others like it will have a greater net benefit than continuing on with the status quo,” Mayflower Wind director of external affairs Seth Kaplan said.
Regardless of its effects, offshore wind is seen as a necessary step toward addressing climate change. Currently, seven projects have been awarded or are in development in the waters off Cape Cod and the islands, solidifying Massachusetts as a leader in offshore wind energy.
Noise is generated during every phase of these projects. Preconstruction includes geosurveys that use high-energy acoustic sources to transmit sound, creating an image of the seafloor. Construction requires a variety of sound-generating activities, including seismic exploration, excavation with explosives, dredging, ship and/or barge operations, and pile driving.
And concerns do not disappear once construction is complete. Operations and decommissioning can also result in underwater noise to varying degrees.
“The noise caused by offshore wind development doesn’t stop after the construction phase. The waters surrounding the lease areas will be subjected to noise, generated by the turbines, for the duration of the 30-year lease,” said Fiona Hogan, research director at the Responsible Offshore Development Alliance.
Possible effects of these noises include attraction toward the noise sources, avoidance of the area, temporary hearing damage and permanent physical injury. As the industry expands, to what extent these effects will disrupt marine life requires continued research from developers and scientists.
“The full impacts of this long-term noise on fish are not well understood, but research suggests some fish can detect this operational noise as far as four to five kilometers away,” Ms. Hogan said.
The Biden administration awarded Vineyard Wind the country’s first commercial-scale offshore wind project. Located 15 miles off the coast of Martha’s Vineyard, Vineyard Wind 1 will have 62 turbines that will generate about 800 megawatts of electricity. That is enough to power about 400,000 homes and businesses across the commonwealth.
Mayflower Wind was awarded a lease area that is 20 miles south of Nantucket in 2018. The project is expected to be completed by the mid-2020s and have the potential to generate more than 2,000 megawatts of low-cost clean energy, depending on technology.
“We are committed to conducting all aspects of the wind farm from planning, permitting, construction, generation and decommissioning in ways that are the least disruptive to marine life and to all of our stakeholders,” Mr. Kaplan said.
The production of anthropogenic noise in these lease areas has begun with geophysical surveys being conducted, accompanied by an increase in vessel traffic.
“We are actively engaged in research with Vineyard Wind,” said Beth Casoni, executive director of the Massachusetts Lobstermen’s Association. “There is an important value of being at the table.”
The association has been working with developers for years and has great concern for effects on their industry, including the effects on marine life because of wind farm construction, Ms. Casoni said. It has been “participating in management and survey efforts” to reach a reasonable outcome for both industries, she said.
“We won’t know the outcome until [the turbines] are erected,” Ms. Casoni said.
In order to understand the effects of these projects, wind farm developers are participating in scientific surveys and conversations with local fishing industries.
As its website states, studies are being conducted for Vineyard Wind by SMAST, the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth School of Marine Science and Technology. SMAST is using the Before-After-Control-Impact framework, commonly used to monitor potential environmental impacts, to monitor prior to development and during the construction and operations of the wind farm.
Its website states that changes in the ecosystem will be compared between the impact site and a control site with similar characteristics. Preconstruction surveys will create a baseline for the differences between natural changes and those resulting from wind farm development.
Approved offshore wind farms—Vineyard Wind and Mayflower Wind—have been engaging with the local fishing community since project inception. Explained in its Fisheries Communication Plan, Vineyard Wind is dedicated to keeping open communication with the fishing industry pre-, during and post-construction.
Mayflower Wind representatives made similar points.
“Mayflower Wind supports and participates in a number of collaborative efforts that bring together the offshore wind industry, academic researchers, and crucial stakeholders. These collaborative efforts study a wide range of topics, including the intersection of anthropogenic noise and marine life,” Mr. Kaplan said.
Mayflower Wind’s efforts include an ongoing study conducted by the New York State Environmental Technical Working Group to review and understand offshore wind farm developments’ cumulative effects on marine populations and ecosystems.
The study’s goal is to improve the understanding of cumulative biological impacts from offshore wind farms as the industry continues to grow. As stated in the study, anything that interferes with the ability of animals to detect sounds of biological relevance has the potential to impair the survival of individuals and populations of marine life.
Mayflower Wind is also conducting its own surveys.
“We are currently conducting surveys in our lease area and along the proposed cable routes. The vessels have on board Protected Species Observers operators to identify and appropriately manage any issues involving protected marine wildlife, especially marine mammals and sea turtles,” Mr. Kaplan said.
Environmental review under the National Environmental Policy Act found that offshore wind would likely result in some impacts. The statement says impacts to marine life are expected to be localized and not alter the overall characters and habitat. Mayflower Wind is still too early in its planning process to determine impact.
“We are still in the planning process for our first project and while we don’t have specifics to share at this time, we will address how the introduction of anthropogenic noise from our project impacts marine life,” Mr. Kaplan said.
Despite those and many other collaborative efforts to mitigate effects on marine life, the current and future impacts on species remains unknown, while the approval and preconstruction efforts of offshore wind farms continue to sail ahead.
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