Offshore wind is a quickly developing field with benefits and issues. Dive into background information on it, the challenges, what WDC is doing and what's coming up for offshore wind.
Offshore Wind Policy Brief
What is offshore wind? - The simple answer: wind blowing over the ocean (offshore)! To energy developers, a renewable resource that can be used to spin massive turbines and generate power.
How does it impact whales? - Different stages including planning, construction, operation, and eventual decommissioning of a project all have the potential to affect whales: noise, increased vessel traffic, habitat displacement, shifting existing ocean uses (fishing) into areas whales use, food resource disruption, and more general human activity in the ocean.
What can we do about it? - Use extreme caution in siting offshore wind facilities, avoiding areas that are important for the survival of vulnerable whale and dolphin populations, thorough and transparent data collection, monitoring, and risk reduction measures, adapt and change plans as needed.
The development of offshore wind facilities (“farms”) is moving forward at a rapid pace worldwide as many countries start to build up renewable energy resources and scale down on the use of fossil fuels. The United States is no exception, with multiple wind farms currently in various stages of planning off the East & West Coasts and in the Gulf of Mexico. This effort started even before the current Administration’s historic push to achieve 30 gigawatts (GW) of offshore wind energy by 2030. Individual states have also set their own goals, which means the wind is fully in the sails of offshore wind development.
Renewable energy sources including offshore wind are an essential tool to reduce the use of fossil fuels and combat the impacts of climate change, which are already affecting ocean ecosystems and marine life. North Atlantic right whales have already shifted their main feeding locations in response to changing ocean conditions, which has increased their risk of accidental entanglement and vessel strikes. To save whales, we have to tackle climate change – and whales themselves are an important part of fighting climate change! Technological advancements can and must co-exist with nature-based solutions including protecting whales and improving habitat, and the siting, construction, operation, and maintenance of offshore wind farms should not create a conflict with protecting marine life.
WDC supports the development of well-considered marine renewable energy such as offshore wind, and indeed any projects that mitigate the impact of climate change, which represents an existential threat to marine life. Such projects must not, however, be at the expense of biodiversity: development should be in the right place, at the appropriate scale, and must not negatively impact whales and dolphins or the habitats upon which they rely.
The challenge: Building offshore wind farms means putting new, massive infrastructure projects in areas they’ve never been before. While offshore wind development is much further ahead in Europe, not all the lessons learned overseas can be applied to U.S. waters. The impacts from development on large whales, like right whales and humpbacks, are largely unknown. Multiple projects developed in a short period of time increases cumulative risk, along with noise from construction and operation, increased vessel traffic, potential entanglement risk, coastal development, and injury and displacement of animals. And of course, we don’t know yet how whales will react to all these new structures built in their home.
What are the risks to whales and dolphins?
Noise, vessel traffic, entanglement, displacement from habitat, changes to prey availability and therefore feeding and breeding activity, increased disturbance, interaction with existing risks, and possibly more that are currently unknown. Offshore wind farms will be in place for decades, and the potential effects on whales and dolphins could last many years, impacting multiple generations. Risks to vulnerable populations are especially concerning given the long time spans needed for their recovery.
What WDC has been doing
WDC has been working with partners to develop recommendations for offshore wind developers and the federal agencies overseeing the process. We’ve compiled and provided information on specific species and populations that may be present in potential wind farm areas, noted where current information is lacking and more research is needed, outlined our concerns for whales and dolphins (and seals and sea lions!) and existing threats they face, and pushed for the consideration of cumulative impacts. We’ve participated in countless meetings to advocate for strategies that can reduce harm to marine mammals during every phase of wind energy development.
We’re calling for the collection of much-needed baseline data, robust monitoring and risk reduction plans through every stage of development, and a commitment to change and adapt plans as needed. What we learn from one offshore wind farm should be integrated into plans for the next, including completely canceling or moving projects if the impacts to whales and dolphins are too big. We are urging precaution at every stage, and transparency from developers and federal agencies on data collection, monitoring, and the effectiveness of risk reduction measures.
Many projects are being considered off the East & West Coasts of the U.S. and in the Gulf of Mexico. WDC continues to be engaged with multiple partners to review and weigh in on these projects and is compiling information on current and needed monitoring and data collection efforts for marine mammals on the West Coast. We are urging federal agencies to engage with stakeholders early and often, including fishing and Tribal communities, to protect local biodiversity and existing ocean uses.
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