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Protecting Habitat: Going Where the Wind Blows

By Sue Tuxbury, Habitat Conservation Division

Is the East Coast the “Saudi Arabia of wind,” as some claim? According to the U.S. Department of Energy, the shores off New England and the Mid-Atlantic are “outstanding” wind resources. Some areas even qualify for the “superb” classification, the best there is. Offshore winds tend to blow harder and more uniformly than winds over land. While Pacific winds are stronger, the shallower waters off the Atlantic coast make our area more inviting to wind energy developers.

The nation’s first offshore wind farm, located off Rhode Island, enters its final stage of construction this summer. Given the region’s reputation, this may be the first of many.

As the agency responsible for conserving and managing the oceans, we want to know how this pursuit of “green” energy will affect the fish and their habitats. We work with the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM) to evaluate the effects of offshore wind projects. Our job in the Habitat Conservation Division is to recommend ways to protect fish and their habitats.

Size Matters

Offshore wind turbines are enormous: The towers can be taller than 300 feet. Rotor diameters can be more than 500 feet–longer than a football field! The entire wind turbine structure can extend more than 650 feet out of the water. Like the tip of an iceberg, the structures are installed on foundations that can extend from the water surface to about 250 feet below the mudline. These are formidable structures, indeed.

Seven Sites

BOEM designates “Wind Energy Areas” for commercial offshore wind development. Before choosing these areas, BOEM gets input from federal agencies, states, communities, tribes, and the general public. Ideally, they select areas that present the fewest environmental impacts and user conflicts. BOEM maintains an Atlantic Fishing Industry Engagement and Communication web page to provide information to fishermen about plans, surveys, studies, workshops, meetings, and more.

BOEM Wind Energy Areas within the Greater Atlantic Region. BOEM has already issued leases to conduct site assessment activities in many areas. Others, including New York and part of Massachusetts, remain in the planning stages.

BOEM has identified seven Wind Energy Areas in our region, the most recent being the New York Wind Energy Area. Together, these Wind Energy Areas cover approximately 1.6 million acres of ocean off the East Coast, from Massachusetts to Virginia

A Seat at the Table

Staff from NOAA Fisheries Habitat Conservation have a seat on the BOEM task forces for each state in our region. At task force meetings, we get updates on activities planned for the wind energy areas. We also have regular discussions with BOEM on the potential effects of wind projects on fish habitat, including noise, suspended sediments, and direct crushing of the bottom from structures and barge anchors, among others.

Getting involved early allows us to propose changes to protect habitats. For example, when we reviewed the Deepwater Wind project, we were able to route cables around sensitive fish habitat.

Sensitive Fish Habitats

Sensitive fish habitats are areas where fish spawn, breed, feed, and grow. These include gravel, cobble, boulder, vegetated or sand wave bottoms. These habitats provide substrate for eggs, protection from currents and predators, and are rich in food. Complex ocean bottoms recover very slowly from damage. Protecting these habitats helps maintain productive fisheries and rebuild depleted fish stocks.

Where are these habitats? Our Northeast Fisheries Science Center works with BOEM to map the bottom habitats to identify sensitive areas. We then make recommendations to BOEM on how to avoid and reduce impacts. We also encourage BOEM to communicate with regional Fishery Management Councils and fishing communities that may be affected by offshore wind development.

What does the future hold?

Given the large area of potential development, we will continue to work with BOEM and our partners to protect the valuable ocean ecosystem. Our goal is to make protecting fish habitat part of every offshore wind development plan.