Offshore wind-energy installations—“wind farms”—are expanding along the East Coast of the United States as a way to increase the use of renewable energy, but these installations are not without their own significant impacts on marine resources and their associated fisheries. They have innocuous-sounding names such as Revolution Wind, Sunrise Wind, Mayflower Wind Phase 1 and Park City Wind.
The Bureau of Ocean Energy Management is the federal agency responsible for offshore-energy exploration and development in the US. To date, BOEM has leased approximately 1.7 million acres in the northeast and mid-Atlantic US outer continental shelf for offshore wind development, with approximately 25 active leases from Cape Cod to Cape Hatteras. And in late August, BOEM and the Department of the Interior announced that they will hold the first offshore wind-energy lease sale in the Gulf of Mexico.
In 2020, a group known as the Responsible Offshore Development Alliance—along with BOEM and NOAA’s Northeast Fisheries Science Center—convened a first-of-its-kind workshop to evaluate the current state of science relevant to the interaction of fisheries and offshore wind-energy production. The final peer-reviewed report of the workshop, “Fisheries and Offshore Wind Interactions: Synthesis of Science,” also known as NOAA Technical Memorandum NMFS-NE-291, is available to the public. And it’s an eye-opener.
RODA brought together fishermen, fishing-industry representatives, federal and state agency experts, wind-energy developers, academics, and other prominent scientists from the US and Europe to attend the workshop and contribute to the report, which enhances the understanding of the existing science as well as the data gaps related to offshore wind-energy-development interactions with fish and fisheries on regional and broader levels. What the report admits that we don’t know is alarming. For example:
- The report acknowledges that offshore wind-energy development is likely to affect the distribution, localized abundance, ecology, and behavior of highly migratory species, as well as other species they interact with as predators and prey. Localized impacts have the potential to affect these species throughout their natural ranges, particularly if these wind farms are constructed in essential fish habitats. But to what extent is unknown.
- The effects of electromagnetic emissions from high-voltage transmission cables on electrically and magnetically sensitive marine organisms are largely unknown.
- Because fish are known to be sensitive to sound, and given the limited information regarding the effects of long-term exposure of fish to persistent sound, there are concerns that this could result in major shifts in distribution, but again, to what extent is unknown.
- Offshore wind-turbine foundations and floating turbine moorings may present an entanglement risk for species such as sea turtles and marine mammals, including the endangered right whale.
A major concern is the vast scale at which wind-farm construction is currently occurring in the northeastern US. There is no upper limit to the area that could potentially be leased for development, and there is no minimum distance between projects, with large contiguous areas planned to be developed. The size of the turbines themselves is increasing, and the spatial arrangements of turbines and cables are almost limitless. This means that the amount of marine habitat ultimately being shifted from one form to another is unknown.
And finally, the report is clear that scientific research on the impacts of offshore wind development on highly migratory species is an emerging field of study, particularly in US waters. But it’s happening, whether it’s good or bad for the environment, and everything in it that might be affected. To paraphrase Admiral Farragut: Damn the torpedoes! Full speed ahead!
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