Balancing Act: New offshore wind research aims to deliver net gain for biodiversity

Data collected by industry, government, and academics across seven countries – including 50,000 seabed samples – is to be included as part of efforts to ensure the expansion of offshore wind projects delivers a net gain for marine biodiversity.

The North Sea Net Gain The study – which is to be led by The Crown Estate in partnership with the Dutch-led Rich North Sea program – will use state-of-the-art modelling to map seafloor biodiversity across international boundaries.

“We need to conserve, enhance and sustainably use our North Sea,” said Erwin Coolen, director at The Rich North Sea Programme. “The roll-out of offshore wind, which we urgently need to tackle climate change, must be within the ecological boundaries of our North Sea, meaning sustainable development that includes enhanced understanding of the conditions at site.”

Two new online apps have been produced under the name ‘OneBenthic’. The OneBenthic Data Extraction Tool provides developers, regulators, and decision makers with access to the enhanced data collected by the study. In addition, the OneBenthic Layers Tool provides access to seabed or benthic biodiversity models developed under a range of research projects. Both apps have been made publicly available.

The data is already being used in other Offshore Wind Evidence and Change program projects to develop additional knowledge about the potential impact of offshore wind farms on biodiversity, including POSEIDON, a four-year project launched in January 2022 and led by Natural England, which aims to improve the knowledge of environmental risks across UK waters.

“Offshore wind is set to play a pivotal role in decarbonisation and the UK’s transition to net zero – but delivering on that potential in the most sustainable way requires balanced and holistic consideration of the natural environment and other marine activities,” said Huub den Rooijen, managing director of marine at The Crown Estate. “It will be invaluable not just to the UK but across the world, helping to ensure the successful and sustainable expansion of new offshore wind farms in other locations.”

The project is funded by The Crown Estate’s £25m investment into its Offshore Wind Evidence and Change Program and will be delivered through international collaboration between the UK government’s Center for Environment, Fisheries and Aquaculture Science (Cefas) and Flemish research marine organization The Flanders Marine Institute (VLIZ). It will be supported by a project advisory group which included members from Natural England and the Joint Nature Conservation Committee.

Last week, The Crown Estate published its tenth annual Offshore Wind Report. It highlighted that global offshore wind capacity in operation has now reached over 48.2GW, more than 20 per cent of which was in the UK. By the end of 2021, the capacity of fully commissioned sites reached 11.3GW, an increase of 8 per cent on the previous year.

Technological developments, collaboration with communities, a focus on skills and diversity, improved data collection, and a commitment to accelerating development while maintaining and rebuilding a healthy natural environment, have all contributed to this progress, the report said.

Advocates of offshore wind maintain that projects can be delivered in a way that has a minimal impact on biodiversity, and there is a school of thought that with turbine foundations acting as artificial reefs and projects creating de facto ‘no fish’ zones offshore wind development can help boost biodiversity.

However, some conservation groups have voiced concerns about the potential impact of new offshore projects on seabird and cetacean populations.

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