Recap: Advancing Wind & Protecting Wildlife Webinar

May 5, 2021

On April 21, together with Citizens Campaign for the Environment, we held an event on Advancing Wind and Protecting Wildlife. The event focused on how offshore wind energy projects can be built without causing any adverse effects on the neighboring wildlife. It was held in response to frequently asked questions from the public and featured several expert speakers. View the slideshows here and here.

Adrienne Esposito, the Executive Director of Citizens Campaign for the Environment, kicked off the session by saying that she thinks wildlife is critical when talking about offshore wind. NYLCV President Julie Tighe then spoke to the state’s commitment to bring 9 gigawatts of offshore wind energy to shore by 2035. Ongoing and planned projects include the Southfork Wind Farm (132 megawatts), Sunrise Wind Farm (880 MW), Empire Wind 1 (816 MW), Empire Wind 2 (1260 MW), and Beacon Wind (1230 MW). At the federal level, President Biden released a comprehensive plan to jumpstart offshore wind, including a nationwide goal of 30 gigawatts by 2030, creating 80,000 jobs. Tighe added that we want to make sure we are getting these wind projects done in a way that does not negatively impact wildlife.

Howard Rosenbaum is the Director of the Wildlife Conservation Society’s Ocean Giants Program. At the event, he talked about the prevalence of the different species of whales present in the State’s waters, including Humpback, Fin, Blue, Sei, and Minke Whales. Of particular note is the critically endangered North Atlantic Right Whale. He also mentioned that there are large concentrations of acoustically-sensitive small cetaceans such as beaked whales. He then talked about the threat of ocean noise pollution to whale species that rely on sound. According to Rosenbaum, elevated noise levels can negatively impact whales by leading to behavioral disturbance, masking vital communication, and even causing physiological damage. As a result, it is important to consider the cumulative impacts of the noise before installing any offshore wind projects. Rosenbaum then played a video showing whales in the city and illustrating how genetic information is collected from them. Whales, he said, migrate through New York waters during the spring and fall. He then gave an example of how we can protect whales: there were recently real-time acoustic detections of the North Atlantic Right Whale in the New York Bight. This triggered a “Right Whale Slow Zone” Southeast of the New York City area to protect those whales.

Drew Carey, CEO of INSPIRE Environmental, is a marine scientist with over 30 years of experience in the assessment of the seafloor. He talked about his experience from working with the Block Island Wind Farm, a Rhode Island offshore wind project. His presentation focused on the effects of offshore wind projects on local fish populations. He began by talking about a phenomenon known as the artificial reef effect. An introduction of a hard surface on the ocean floor allows the growth of organisms, almost immediately attracting fish seeking food and refuge to the structure. This creates a small “island of biodiversity.” Carey then talked specifically about several studies conducted at the Block Island Wind Farm. Overall, the studies found that artificial reef effects are local and may take 10 years to fully develop. Additionally, there was no significant change in fish populations between the turbine and no turbine periods, while changes in abundance across the survey areas were consistent with regional trends. The first study he mentioned was a Demersal Trawl Survey, conducted on a commercial trawler using ordinary fishing gear and calibrated to be consistent with other studies in the area. Samples were collected every month for seven years (two years before construction, two during construction, and three after construction). In total, 750,000 fish and invertebrates were collected. The findings showed a temporal change consistent with the region in populations of Northern Sea Robin and Atlantic Herring. However, Black Sea Bass were attracted to the structure and their population increased enormously. Additionally, the population of Blue Mussels increased because of the introduction of an intertidal region. As a result, blue mussels became included in fish diets. The Atlantic Cod population also exhibited a large increase. A Lobster Trap Survey was also conducted over the same time period, but only during the months of May through October each year. Over seven years, 12,037 traps were sampled with 44,932 lobsters collected. The lobster population increased during construction and then declined afterward. Other main takeaways were that study designs should balance the interests of scientists and the fishing community and that they should be site-specific. Additionally, it is important to know what is and what is not an ecologically meaningful difference. Regional data is necessary to properly interpret site-specific data, and regional funding and cooperation would help leverage efforts.

Catherine Bowes, Program Director of Offshore Wind Energy at the National Wildlife Federation, gave a presentation focused on the policy aspects of protecting wildlife while advancing offshore wind. She started her presentation by mentioning how on March 21, the US Secretaries of the Interior, Energy, Commerce, and Transportation announced a sweeping national commitment to offshore wind power which includes achieving a 30-gigawatt national goal by 2030 while protecting biodiversity. The commitment also includes federal funding for port infrastructure, loan guarantees, and research, as well as a plan to advance the stalled offshore wind leasing and permitting process in the Atlantic. For any offshore wind project, the plan should be guided by the best available scientific data, expert and stakeholder engagement, current ocean planning efforts, and comprehensive monitoring. Environmental protection must be in place at all stages of development: during siting (avoid locating projects in sensitive, critical wildlife habitat areas), construction (adjust timing and method of survey and construction activities to protect wildlife), operations and maintenance (employ proven wildlife impact reduction strategies), and decommissioning (make sure infrastructure is removed correctly). Bowes emphasized how it is everybody’s job to make sure offshore wind projects are done responsibly. The federal government should conduct science-based reviews of all leasing and project permitting decisions, state governments should offer a procurement process that requires or incentivizes responsible development, and industry should commit to responsible development practices. Additionally, federal governments, state governments, and industry should provide ongoing, robust stakeholder outreach and engagement, and advance research, while NGOs and other stakeholders should engage early and often. Bowes also said that there are signs of hope: new federal leadership, state leadership, collaboration, industry leadership (Right Whale agreements, not building turbines within 15 miles of the New Jersey shore), and unity (an April statement being signed by over 100 leaders).

The event concluded with a question-and-answer session. In response to a question about why we should pursue offshore wind projects if there are whales in New York, Julie Tighe explained that whales can co-exist with wind turbines and that offshore wind is one of our few options for clean energy. Rosenbaum added that we have to put the best practices in place and use the best available science to protect these animals while we still have them, while Esposito said that we will be using floating turbines, especially in deep water areas. In response to a question about whether complex bases for wind turbines would act better as artificial reefs, Drew said that the Block Island Wind Farm is doing a study with the Nature Conservancy considering how to improve the nature of the base of turbines. Responding to an inquiry about whether benefits extended across socio-economic divides, Bowes said that it is a really important question that a lot of people are thinking about, and Rosenbaum said that they will make sure that job and engagement opportunities for various socio-economic backgrounds are available.

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