This report provides an awareness of the environmental issues related to marine habitats and species for developers and regulators of offshore wind farms. The information is also relevant to other offshore renewable energy developments.
The marine habitats and species considered are those associated with the seabed, seabirds, and sea mammals. The report concludes that the following key ecological issues should be considered in the environmental assessment of offshore wind farms developments:
- likely changes in benthic communities within the affected area and resultant indirect impacts on fish, populations and their predators such as seabirds and sea mammals;
- potential changes to the hydrography and wave climate over a wide area, and potential changes to coastal processes and the ecology of the region;
- likely effects on spawning or nursery areas of commercially important fish and shellfish species;
- likely effects on mating and social behaviour in sea mammals, including migration routes;
- likely effects on feeding water birds, seal pupping sites and damage of sensitive or important intertidal sites where cables come onshore;
- potential displacement of fish, seabird and sea mammals from preferred habitats;
- potential effects on species and habitats of marine natural heritage importance;
- potential cumulative effects on seabirds, due to displacement of flight paths, and any mortality from bird strike, especially in sensitive rare or scarce species;
- possible effects of electromagnetic fields on feeding behaviour and migration, especially in sharks and rays, and
- potential marine conservation and biodiversity benefits of offshore wind farm developments as artificial reefs and 'no-take' zones.
The report provides an especially detailed assessment of likely sensitivity of seabed species and habitats in the proposed development areas. Although sensitive to some of the factors created by wind farm developments, they mainly have a high recovery potential. The way in which survey data can be linked to Marine Life Information Network (MarLIN) sensitivity assessments to produce maps of sensitivity to factors is demonstrated.
Assessing change to marine habitats and species as a result of wind farm developments has to take account of the natural variability of marine habitats, which might be high especially in shallow sediment biotopes. There are several reasons for such changes but physical disturbance of habitats and short-term climatic variability are likely to be especially important. Wind farm structures themselves will attract marine species including those that are attached to the towers and scour protection, fish that associate with offshore structures, and sea birds (especially sea duck) that may find food and shelter there.
Nature conservation designations especially relevant to areas where wind farm might be developed are described and the larger areas are mapped. There are few designated sites that extend offshore to where wind farms are likely to be developed. However, cable routes and landfalls may especially impinge on designated sites. The criteria that have been developed to assess the likely marine natural heritage importance of a location or of the habitats and species that occur there can be applied to survey information to assess whether or not there is anything of particular marine natural heritage importance in a development area.
A decision tree is presented that can be used to apply ‘duty of care’ principles to any proposed development. The potential ‘gains’ for the local environment are explored. Wind farms will enhance the biodiversity of areas, could act as refugia for fish, and could be developed in a way that encourages enhancement of fish stocks including shellfish.