Wind Farm’s Impact On Marine Life To Be Studied

OCEAN CITY — With the development of a vast offshore wind farm off the coast of the resort likely still years away, a study will soon get underway to determine the potential short- and long-term impacts of the project on whales, dolphins and other marine mammals that frequent the designated area.

In August, a future wind energy farm off the coast of Ocean City cleared another significant hurdle when a Texas-based company successfully bid on Maryland’s Wind Energy Area, an 800,000 acre tract off the coast of the resort designated for a future offshore wind farm. The Maryland WEA covers roughly 94 square nautical miles with its western edge just about 10 miles off the coast of Ocean City and extending about 30 miles out.

There are still several regulatory hurdles to pass, including an approval by the Maryland Public Service Commission, but before a single turbine is installed on the ocean floor off the coast of Ocean City, a study will be undertaken to determine the potential impact on marine life in the WEA. Technological advances are allowing higher capacity turbines to be installed in deeper water, but there is still much unknown about the effects on the environment.

The University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science recently released a report on the potential impacts and will soon conduct a practical study in an attempt to bear out its findings, including the anchoring of underwater microphones to the ocean floor in the WEA off the coast of Ocean City.

The microphones will continuously record sounds produced by large whales and other marine animals. Led by UMCES researcher Dr. Helen Bailey, the study will collect two years of base-line data that can be used to determine the design of the future wind farm, how to minimize the impact of construction noise, other environmental impacts and how to facilitate ocean planning in the area.

“As the number and size of wind developments increase, there is a growing need to consider the consequences and cumulative impacts of these activities on marine species,” said Bailey this week. “It is essential to identify where whales, dolphins and other species occur to help avoid adverse impacts and to continue to monitor their response to the construction and operation of wind turbines.”

While the study will help determine the short- and long-term impact of a massive wind farm off the coast of Ocean City, UMCES researchers are particularly considered with the possible environmental impacts during the development phase. Clearly, constructing as many as 40 huge offshore wind turbines off the coast will require a significant amount of vessels, equipment and manpower and will take a considerable amount of time. For that reason, construction noise is of particular concern to researchers because of its potential to harm sound-sensitive whales and other marine mammals.

For example, the loud sounds emitted during pile driving could potentially cause hearing damage, mask communication or disorient animals and fish as they move out of the area to avoid the noise. There is also a risk of marine animals being injured by ships or being disturbed by vessel movements associated with surveying and installation activities.

“A critical element of wind energy planning is developing projects in such a way that we avoid or minimize negative environmental impacts those installations may cause,” said Tom Miller, director of the UMCES Chesapeake Biological Laboratory. “Making these decisions requires a year-round understanding of the species that frequent the area, particularly for protected species that are sensitive to sound, such as marine mammals.”

In the long term, researchers believe there could be an environmental benefit to a vast wind energy farm off the coast of Ocean City. For example, wind turbines may act as artificial reefs and increase food sources. They could also provide a de facto marine reserve because of restrictions on boating and fishing around the wind turbines.

In the meantime, however, UMCES researchers are directing much of their efforts on the impacts during the construction and installation of the turbines.

“It is becoming increasingly clear that the most significant impact of offshore wind farms on marine mammals is the avoidance of construction noise,” said Bailey. “There needs to be a greater focus on assessing the longer-term impact of any behavioral responses.”

To that end, Bailey and her colleagues are expected to install their underwater microphones in the WEA later this month. In advance of that effort, however, researchers will test their equipment and plan for their larger study inshore. Next week, Bailey and her team are planning on installing their underwater microphones in an area off Solomon’s Island in the Chesapeake to practice the deployment and test the equipment before the larger effort off the coast of Ocean City later this fall.