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Considering Habitat: A Closer Look at America’s First Offshore Wind Farm

By Susan Tuxbury, Greater Atlantic Region, Habitat Conservation Division

America’s first offshore wind farm will begin construction this summer in state waters off Block Island, Rhode Island. Starting in 2016, the five turbine wind farm will generate 30 megawatts of power, supplying enough power for much of Block Island. The project also includes a power cable running between Block Island to the mainland.

Located approximately three miles southeast of Block Island, the new wind farm will be situated in an area set aside for offshore renewable energy development by the Rhode Island Ocean Special Area Management Plan (Ocean SAMP). We (NOAA Fisheries Habitat Conservation Division) actively participated in the Ocean SAMP stakeholder process and provided technical assistance on fisheries resources to the Rhode Island Coastal Resources Management Council as they were developing the plan.

Credit: Rhode Island Ocean SAMP

As part of the permitting process required by the Magnuson-Stevens Act, we do a consultation on impacts to essential fish habitat (EFH) in the project area. We worked with the state, the Army Corps of Engineers (the permitting agency), and Deepwater Wind (the applicant) at the earliest stages of project development beginning in 2009 to ensure impacts to EFH were minimized. Our role in the process included providing information on fish habitats of concern, and analyzing the effects this project might have on fish and the habitats they depend on for spawning, feeding, and refuge.

Even though the project area was designated as Rhode Island’s offshore renewable energy area, we were still concerned about the sensitive eelgrass and hard bottom habitats near the proposed cable and turbine locations. Eelgrass provides critical nursery and foraging habitat for commercially important finfish and shellfish species, including summer flounder, winter flounder, cod, red hake, black sea bass, quahog, and, lobster. We were able to ensure this habitat was avoided very early in the process through careful siting of the cable location.

Hard bottom habitat was also present near both the cable route and the proposed turbine locations, making it more difficult to avoid effects on fish. Hard bottom habitats, including gravel, cobble, and boulders are structurally complex, providing fish with shelter, refuge from predators, and foraging grounds. This habitat is especially important for Atlantic cod and American lobster. Hard bottom habitats take a long time to recover from disturbances, so we were particularly concerned about the effects such large-scale construction might have.

Complex hard bottom habitats in the project area. Credit: Deepwater Wind

By being involved early in the process, we helped develop the cable route between Block Island and the mainland so that it avoids both eelgrass and the hard bottom habitat that extends offshore of Pt. Judith. Areas of hard bottom habitat also exist near the turbine location, and we were particularly concerned about the effects of barge anchoring during construction. Through our EFH consultation, we were able to ensure impacts to these habitats were largely avoided, and “no anchoring” zones are being developed by Deepwater Wind to help avoid impacts to these sensitive areas. Deepwater Wind will also be developing a monitoring plan should any sensitive hard bottom habitat be impacted during construction.

In addition to impacts to bottom habitat, our consultation also addressed potential changes to fish communities in the project area and impacts of noise on EFH. Trawl surveys at the project site and two reference sites are underway, providing pre- and –post-construction monitoring of fish species to help resource managers understand impacts of the project on fish communities. Deepwater Wind is also conducting surveys to assess potential impacts on lobster populations. As part of our consultation, we recommended monitoring noise levels during both construction and operation of the wind farm to provide more accurate information on areas where sound levels may disturb fish.

Since this project will be the first of its kind in the nation, there are many unanswered questions about how wind farms will affect our fisheries resources. Results from the monitoring work on habitat, fish communities, and noise will help us answer some of these questions. We expect that the Block Island Wind Farm will provide valuable information as offshore wind development projects move forward in federal waters off the East Coast.

The Habitat Conservation Division and the Protected Resources Division represent NOAA Fisheries on the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM) state task forces for Maine, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, New York, New Jersey, Delaware, Maryland, and Virginia. Site assessment leases in designated wind energy areas have already begun in some states. We will continue to protect critical habitat and fisheries marine resources during all phases of development.

Find out more about renewable energy projects on the Outer Continental Shelf.