Pioneering projects to deepen understanding of human and wildlife impacts of offshore developments

02 Aug 2017
Guillemots are one species that could be argued to be affected by offshore wind developments

Guillemots are one species that could be argued to be affected by offshore wind developments

The Swedish wind energy company Vattenfall has announced plans to jointly fund pioneering research to explore how bottlenose dolphins, sea trout, salmon, sea birds and humans are affected by offshore wind developments.

As part of the initiative, jointly funded by the European Union (EU), the company will contribute some €3 million for a total of four projects based at Vattenfall's European Offshore Wind Deployment Centre (EOWDC) - Scotland's largest offshore wind test and demonstration facility, located off Aberdeen Bay.  According to Adam Ezzamel, Project Director for the EODWC at Vattenfall, three of the projects will focus on building a 'basic knowledge' of the behaviour and movements of 'relevant populations' of bottlenose dolphins, sea birds and sea trout and salmon - while a fourth socio-economic project 'will document the effects of the EOWDC and offshore wind farms more generally on the people and communities living in the immediate area.'

"The EOWDC [Centre] was conceived as an opportunity to advance not only technological knowledge, but also our understanding of the interactions between offshore wind and the natural environment," he says.

DOLPHINS, SEA BIRDS AND SALMON
As Prof. Dr Philip Hammond, Professor of Marine Ecology at the University of St. Andrews, explains, the key objectives of the project studying bottlenose dolphins is to build knowledge of the ranging patterns of the creatures and improve understanding of their abundance, mortality rates and birth rates. We have sound knowledge of this at present but this project will enable us to update existing information.

"It is incredibly important to have a good understanding of the population dynamics and behaviour of wildlife populations to predict and understand the potential effects of any industrial activity in the sea," says Dr. Carol Sparling, Technical Director at SMRU Consulting.

"Impact assessments for projects such as offshore wind farm developments and harbour construction often have to be done without good information on the baseline conditions for the populations potentially being impacted.  This project will provide extremely valuable baseline information," she adds.

A second project aims to provide detailed and accurate data on the year round movements of adult guillemots and razorbills, with particular reference to populations likely to interact at some stage of the year with offshore wind farms in the North Sea. According to Mark Trinder, Principal Project Ornithologist at MacArthur Green, these species are among the seabirds considered 'most vulnerable to displacement' by offshore wind farms, and the consequent habitat loss resulting from such displacement.

"Improving our understanding of how seabirds use the marine environment throughout the year will ensure that developments are located and constructed in as sympathetic a manner as possible in order that impacts are minimised or avoided," he says.

Over the next three years, a third wildlife focused project will identify the migration routes of salmon and sea trout around the North East coast of Scotland and develop a predictive capacity for fish migration routes in other marine areas around Scotland - information that would enable future offshore construction projects to consider of fish migration routes when deciding locations.

With the fate of salmon at sea in a perilous state - and some 95% of salmon dying at sea without ever returning to the river to spawn - Mark Bilsby, River Director at the River Dee Trust, argues that minimising any disruption to their migration routes is a 'high priority to prevent the tipping point of no return being reached.'

"Establishing 'go' and 'no go' areas should make planning applications easier and therefore save developers costs of disputation," he says.

CHARTING SOCIO-ECONOMIC IMPACTS
A final project will explore the methods used to predict the likely socio-economic impacts of offshore wind farms before permission is given for the scheme to go ahead and assess how valid the prediction methods are by gathering data of the impacts during the construction and initial operation phases of schemes.  It will also seek to enhance current understanding of the potential social and well-being impacts of developments on communities, identify good practice methods to assess these impacts and highlight best practice in how to maximise local socio-economic benefits.

"For those communities near to offshore wind farms it will provide a clear approach to the scope and methodology for assessing such impacts, which will be of great value in providing some consistency of approach for developers, and for stakeholder discussions prior to application and during the consenting process," says Dr. Bridget Durning, a Sustainability Consultant and Senior Lecturer at Oxford Brookes University.

"It will also enhance the current understanding of the potential social and well-being impacts on communities and identify good practice methods to assess the impacts," she adds.

'SOUND DECISION MAKING'
Although each of these projects are based around the EOWDC, Ezzamel expects that the findings will also be useful to offshore wind developers 'around the globe.'

"Improving our understanding of the effects on wildlife and humans is key for an informed discussion and sound decision making when planning offshore wind developments and securing an environmental, social and economically sustainable vision of offshore renewables," he adds.

Most offshore wind developers already put a lot of effort into documenting local environmental and human interests to inform impact assessments and mitigation measures for their individual developments - and many also take steps to monitor effects throughout the development process.  However, according to Ezzamel, it is more challenging to document impacts on relevant populations 'when a basic knowledge is not available or very limited.'

"What is unique about this programme is that it will address these two challenges - documenting ongoing effects through the construction phase of a development and building that knowledge that is key to informing planning," he adds.

By Andrew Williams

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