Fisheries Researchers Create Comprehensive Habitat Database for Offshore Wind-Energy Areas

This map shows the locations of the eight studied wind-energy areas between Massachusetts and North Carolina. (NOAA Fisheries/University of Massachusetts Dartmouth)

This map shows the locations of the eight studied wind-energy areas between Massachusetts and North Carolina. (NOAA Fisheries/University of Massachusetts Dartmouth)

By ecoRI News staff

With large areas off the Northeast coast designated for offshore wind energy development, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) researchers are helping people better understand how construction and operation of offshore wind facilities can affect ocean bottom habitats and the fishery species they support.

In 2013, researchers Vince Guida, Jennifer Sampson, and Rich Langton at NOAA Fisheries’ James J. Howard Marine Sciences Laboratory in Sandy Hook, N.J., conceived a project to study bottom habitat in these wind-energy areas. They approached the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM) and submitted a proposal for funding. The project was approved.

BOEM has issued leases in eight wind-energy areas (WEAs) along the outer continental shelf from Massachusetts to North Carolina for offshore renewable-energy development. The designated WEAs encompass some 4,000 square nautical miles, or 3.4 million acres, of seafloor. About 40 percent of that area has actually been leased to date, and more will likely be leased soon, according to NOAA.

“Large areas of fisheries habitat in the ocean would be involved and potentially impacted by these WEAs and the resulting construction and operation of wind facilities,” said Guida, the project’s lead and chief of the Howard Lab’s Habitat Ecology Branch. “We felt BOEM should know what is there now, what environmental issues and potential impacts there might be, before these areas are developed.”

The result: the Habitat Mapping and Assessment of Northeast Wind Energy Areas, which was published last December. For four years, Guida’s team reviewed prior research and data collections conducted in the WEAs, conducted numerous research cruises, and collected and analyzed about 1,000 new samples and other data. They built a contemporary and comprehensive benthic, or bottom, habitat database that can help provide insight into environmental issues. The database also serves as a baseline for evaluating the potential impacts to benthic marine resources during offshore renewable-energy facility construction, operation, and decommissioning.

The eight wind-energy areas studied are all large areas in federal waters off Massachusetts, Rhode Island, New York, New Jersey, Delaware, Maryland, Virginia, and North Carolina. Since the end of the project, and just prior to publication of the report, BOEM announced four more lease areas collectively known as the Mid-Atlantic Wind Energy Area at the request of the state of New York. This new WEA and lease areas not in federal waters, including Block Island and Vineyard Wind south of Martha’s Vineyard, are not included in this report.

“We collected as much environmental data — fisheries, oceanographic, hydrographic, and geological — as possible for all eight original wind-energy areas,” Guida said. “We also obtained data from the U.S. Geological Survey and many other sources for the database. … In addition, we conducted our own cruises to each of the WEAs to collect new samples where existing data was either too old, too scant, or not available from other sources.”

Each of the eight wind-energy areas is described in detail and concerns are expressed about the disturbance to the areas from construction and operations. Topics range from bottom water temperatures, bottom topography and features, types of sediments and ocean currents, to animals that live in and on top of the sediments and in the water column in that area either seasonally or year-round.

For example, the Massachusetts WEA, covering about 743,000 acres of flat, primarily sandy bottom south of Cape Cod, has been divided into four lease areas. Forty managed fishery species were found ranging from year-round catches of little skate, winter skate, and silver hake to seasonal species including longfin squid, scup, spiny dogfish, and Atlantic herring. Possible habitat disturbance from offshore wind construction and operations include concern for black sea bass (warm season), Atlantic cod (cold season), sea scallops and ocean quahogs (both year-round).

The Rhode-Island-Massachusetts WEA covers about 165,000 acres at the southern end of Rhode Island Sound adjacent to the northeast corner of the Massachusetts WEA. It’s divided into two lease areas and includes many of the same species found in the Massachusetts WEA, with the addition of ocean pout and yellowtail flounder during the cold season.

The New York WEA covers about 79,000 areas of flat, almost entirely sandy bottom south of western Long Island and is a single lease area. Possible habitat disturbance raises concern for black sea bass and longfin squid egg mops, sea scallop, surfclam, and ocean quahog.

Sea scallops, the most valuable regional fishery, were found in all WEAs, although major scallop fishing grounds only overlapped with WEAs in New England.