Proposed Sale Notice for Offshore Wind in Development; Right Whale Migration in Flux

Dec 20, 2015

Offshore wind is working its way to the mid-Atlantic – and specifically to areas off the North Carolina coast.  Broadly supported by environmental advocates, this form of energy exploration faces some resistance by coastal communities concerned about visual impacts on tourism and real estate values. 

Now that the Environmental Assessment is complete, the next step in the development of offshore wind is the publication of a proposed sale notice.   

Environmental advocates and researchers say that while more needs to be understood about the marine ecosystem and how to mitigate disturbance to it, offshore wind is a welcome development in the arsenal of alternative energy. By far, the most environmentally concerning element of offshore wind energy is the construction phase – the pile-driving. 

"That’s a relatively short-term component… You get into the issues of potential disturbance of the physical bottom habitat, but once you get outside of that construction period, I think other than having additional obstacles in the water for whales or other fish to swim around, the impact would probably be minimal – compared to all of the other things that are happening."

That’s Aaron Rice.  He’s the Science Director at Cornell University’s Bioacoustics Research Program.  Rice recently led a study, commissioned by the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management – or BOEM.  No one, says Rice, has surveyed these ecosystems extensively before. 

"The purpose of the study was, in starting to scope out areas along the U.S. Atlantic coast for possible offshore wind farm development, they realized that there was going to be a possible overlap with right whale migration locations.  But in many of the areas where these wind farms were being proposed, there was scant or no data about the species in question."

Three blocks are slated for wind turbines off the North Carolina coast.  The northernmost area is about 24 miles offshore Kitty Hawk.  There are two blocks in the Cape Fear region – Wilmington West and Wilmington East – both nearest to Brunswick County. 

Will Waskes is an oceanographer and Project Coordinator with BOEM’s Renewable Energy Activities offshore North Carolina. 

"The Wilmington West wind energy area is roughly 10 miles from the coastline at its closest point and the Wilmington East area is about 15 nautical miles at its closest point and that is from Bald Head Island."

The next step, says Waskes, is to publish the proposed sale notice.  BOEM officials announced this phase at the last North Carolina renewable energy task force meeting in October. 

"We also received, at that meeting, some concerns from the state and the local counties regarding visual impacts."

Most of the comments came from municipalities within Brunswick County, says Waskes – the ones closest to the wind energy areas.

WW:  So we’re currently taking the feedback that we got from that Task Force meeting, and we'll be developing a proposed sale notice.  That proposed sale notice will eventually be published in the Federal Register.  And it’ll have a 60-day comment period associated with it.

RLH:  How do you address issues like visibility?  You’re not going to change the scope of the areas that you’re looking at, are you?  Would you move it farther offshore?

WW:  We can change the areas that we offer for lease all the way up until the time that we actually lease.

Before that October meeting, BOEM had released its final Environmental Assessment with a “Finding of No Significant Impact”.  An Environmental Impact Statement, a broader and more developed version of the EA, will come later. 

Cornell researcher Aaron Rice says that, in broad strokes, the key to the least amount of disturbance to marine life will be in finding a window when right whales are not around.

RLH:  Were you able to establish that right whales aren’t there during certain times of the year?

AR:  Sort of.  What we saw and our study showed was off the coast of Georgia, we actually get right whales hanging out year-round, which was completely unexpected.  And then a little bit farther north, in the North Carolina region, we have low levels of presence.  But the fact that we even get some degree of occurrence of right whales in June and July -- and then again in September in Onslow Bay was extremely unexpected. 

Desray Reeb is a marine biologist in the Office of Renewable Energy Projects at BOEM.  She says the changing migratory patterns of right whales has been documented since 2010 by more than one researcher – including the New England Aquarium. 

"There does seem to be a change compared to historical knowledge… We traditionally thought they spent their winter times down in the southeast.  And then they migrate up in the spring time to the north but what seems to be indicated by this study is that the animals – potentially – we don’t know how many animals, but there seem to be right whales along the Atlantic throughout the year."

There is a long list of other species of concern, including other kinds of whales, but right whales get the most attention, says Cornell’s Aaron Rice, because their population is continuing to grow but is not yet stable.   That status makes them a major driver of offshore energy policy. 

This recent study, done by Cornell University’s Bioacoustics Research Program, appears to confirm what a number of other scientists are seeing:  the migratory patterns of right whales are changing. 

Desray Reeb of BOEM:

"A lot of other researchers have started to question where the animals are actually moving at this stage.  Because there does seem to be a change in their distribution compared to historical knowledge.  We traditionally thought that they spent their winter times down in the southeast.  And then they migrate up in the spring time to the north, but what seems to be indicated by this study is that the animals – potentially – we don’t know how many animals, but there seem to be right whales along the Atlantic throughout the year."

And that leaves the question of when construction – particularly pile-driving for wind farms in the ocean could take place – without seriously disturbing these protected species.  Reeb says research continues – and more studies are planned. 

"We’re still not 100% sure exactly what that migratory pattern looks like.  But based on the best available science, the seasonal management areas are based on potential for when right whales are most likely to be in a particular area.  And so those sort of seasonal periods in the southeast are from November 1 to April 30th."

This recent Cornell study, says Reeb, gave scientists information about the presence or absence of right whales using acoustic recorders. 

"It didn’t really give us much information about habitat use or residency time in particular areas.  You’re unable to identify how many animals are actually there; there was no localization abilities.  So, it actually addressed its objective which is looking at whether animals are there and if they are actually using those areas for migration."

Cornell's Rice agrees that the ocean is in flux in ways that are relatively new. 

"What we thought we knew about whale behavior even five years ago is now completely different.   For example, for the past several decades, right whales would spend their summers in the Bay of Fundy off the coast of Newfoundland.  And what we have now is that the right whales have largely abandoned that as one of their major summer feeding grounds within the past couple of years."

The behavior could be associated with climate change, shifting food resources, warmer waters… but basically, says Rice, scientists don’t really know why.  But Rice also notes that while whales are a major factor in policy decisions, there is long list of other organisms impacted by sound.

AR: Off the coast of North Carolina, there’s a tremendous amount of fish acoustic diversity. 

RLH:  Okay, and what are some of the species that you were surprised by?

AR:  Well, so, it was more a function of the number of fish sounds that we were recording.  We have no idea what species they are… A lot of the sounds that we were finding share the characteristics of different fishes, but understanding which species they are right now is a complete mystery.

BOEM continues to collect data through the Atlantic Marine Assessment Program for Protected Species – or AMAP Study.  BOEM’s Desray Reeb says that study is a collaboration between BOEM, the Navy, Fish and Wildlife Services, and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. 

"This is basically the largest broad-scale study of the Atlantic that currently exists.  And it has a focus on all the wind energy areas as well as offshore areas to help decision-makers from all federal agencies answer these difficult protected species questions."   

Reeb says the federal government is also still working with Cornell’s bioacoustics lab, they get data from UNCW aerial surveys, and they’re hoping to undertake a study using high-definition photogrammetry to look at wildlife throughout the south Atlantic.

It’s a phased approach that BOEM is taking, says Reeb.

"We actually have multiple decision points, so if new data becomes available and new decisions need to be made, we have that facility."

At this stage, the first U.S. wind farm likely to go into operation sometime next year is Block Island, off the coast of Rhode Island.