URI Scientists Process a Sea of Data

By SARAH SCHUMANN/ecoRI News contributor

NARRAGANSETT, R.I. — The size and scope of the Special Area Management Plan (SAMP) makes it a rather ambitious scientific investigation. On the surface, the area studied by the state's Ocean SAMP team measures almost 1,500  square miles. Below that surface, nearly 200 feet deep in some areas, lies a complex ecosystem of oceanographic processes that is home to millions of species.

Fortunately, decades of research by Univeristy of Rhode Island scientists and others, gave the technical team a solid foundation of knowledge about this area and the species found there, but it still took the participation of more than 60 URI scientists, staff members and students to observe, record and catalog information about the Ocean State's offshore environment.

The advantage of enlisting the expertise of university scientists, said Grover Fugate, the executive director of the state's Coastal Resources Management Council (CRMC), is that, “It’s impartial. It hasn’t been gathered by any developer that’s trying to build. Impartial data is extremely valuable for both state and federal agencies, to help us look at whether things are permittable or not within the ocean environment.”

Impartial or not, some facets of this ecosystem remain mysterious.

“For example,” Fugate said, “there was no bird data offshore, so we knew we were going to have to get bird data. And we wanted to gather as much fishery data as we could.”

Those studies, and the wealth of previous data, helped create a baseline image of Rhode Island's ocean ecosystem. The next step was to predict the impacts of potential development, such as wind farms, on this ecosystem. The SAMP team looked to Europe, where offshore wind power has been up and running for nearly 20 years, and scientists have hard data on its environmental impact.

 “We wanted get ahead of the learning curve,” Fugate said, “so we got access to people in Europe dealing with fisheries issues, with whale issues, and with avian issues. We brought those people over and had an open and honest discussion about what the impacts were and what pressure points you have to consider when you’re dealing with offshore energy.”

One such pressure point is the feeding habitat of the diving duck. The diving duck forages in waters 65 feet deep or less. European studies have indicated that this habitat cannot recover from disruption by wind energy infrastructure. Based on this information, the SAMP team took all areas 65 feet deep or less out of consideration as potential wind energy development sites.

Because understanding of the state's ocean ecosystem will continue to grow and evolve, the SAMP establishes a habitat advisory board. Nine members, selected from research institutions and non-governmental organizations, will meet twice yearly to advise the council on the ecological status of marine resources and on concerns regarding the siting, construction, and operation of offshore development in the Ocean SAMP area.