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October 29, 2018
Contact: Shelley Dawicki

NOAA Fisheries Researchers Map Habitat, Assess Northeast Wind Energy Areas

Comprehensive Benthic Habitat Database Created

With large areas off the Northeast U.S. coast designated for offshore wind energy development, researchers from NOAA Fisheries 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, NJ, conceived a project to study bottom habitat in these wind energy areas. They approached the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, also known as BOEM, in the Department of the Interior with their idea. They submitted a proposal to BOEM for funding the project, and it was funded.

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 13,800 square kilometers, just over 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.

“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 project lead Vince Guida, now 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.”

Building an Area-Specific Habitat Database

The result: the NEFSC Wind Energy Benthic Habitat project. For 4 years, Guida’s team reviewed prior research and data collections conducted in the WEAs, conducted numerous research cruises and collected and analyzed approximately 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.

Their report on the project, Habitat Mapping and Assessment of Northeast Wind Energy Areas, was published in December 2017 and is available online. The database is housed at the Howard Lab in Sandy Hook, NJ.

The eight wind energy areas studied are all large areas in federal waters off Massachusetts, Rhode Island-Massachusetts, New York, New Jersey, Delaware, Maryland, Virginia, and North Carolina-Kitty Hawk. Since the end of this 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. “Some of it was from NEFSC survey data and a lot came from other parts of NOAA, including the National Centers for Environmental Information. We also obtained data from the US Geological Survey and many other sources for the database, all of it publically available, which we could then use for the report. 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.”

What’s in the Report

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 is 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.

The Delaware WEA, about 96,000 acres southeast of the mouth of Delaware Bay, is also a single lease area. It has a 1,000-acre artificial reef known as the Fish Haven and at least one natural blue mussel reef. Mussel reefs and communities dominated by hard and soft corals are of concern as important habitat for black sea bass.

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

In addition to Guida and 10 colleagues from the Northeast Fisheries Science Center’s Howard Laboratory who are co-authors of the report, contributors to the project included scientists from the University of Massachusetts, Dartmouth and the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution.