Offshore wind energy (OSW) development activities are expanding rapidly in the eastern U.S. and regional coordination of environmental research efforts is needed to improve our understanding of OSW effects on wildlife populations and marine ecosystems. To address this need, in 2021 the Offshore Wind Environmental Technical Working Group (E-TWG) formed the Regional Synthesis Workgroup, comprised of subject matter experts, to develop recommendations for regional environmental research and monitoring related to OSW development. The Regional Synthesis Workgroup, in turn, recognized that research and monitoring efforts at multiple spatial and temporal scales can contribute to a broader understanding of the environmental effects and impacts of OSW development. Thus, the group focused on recommendations for addressing research questions that: a) require data from a larger geographic scope than that of a single wind farm site, b) focus on methodological needs and/or implementation of mitigation to inform environmental research, risk assessments, and adaptive management decisions, and c) contribute to a mechanistic understanding of ecosystem processes, even if such studies are conducted at small spatial scales.
The two main products from the Regional Synthesis Workgroup include:
- A database that compiles and synthesizes previously identified research needs related to wildlife and environmental effects of OSW energy development for the U.S. Atlantic (available at https://tethys.pnnl.gov/atlantic-offshore-wind-environmental-research-r…), and
- High-level recommendations on how to design, implement, and communicate regional research and monitoring efforts (this document).
Potential end users of these products include state and federal government entities, OSW developers, academics and other researchers, and groups such as the Regional Wildlife Science Collaborative (RWSC) and Responsible Offshore Science Alliance (ROSA) that are funding and/or conducting regional research to inform our understanding of the effects of OSW development on wildlife and ecosystems.
This document defines the rationale and need for regional research and monitoring (Section 2), provides background information about the Regional Synthesis Workgroup effort (Section 3), provides clarity in language around research and monitoring and OSW effects terminology (Section 4), aids in the identification of key data gaps and research needs for regional research (Section 5), identifies common considerations to help prioritize future research (Section 6), defines key components of a research framework, including study design and methodology considerations (Section 7), and provides recommendations on effective collaboration, communication, data consistency, and data transparency for regional-scale research and monitoring efforts (Section 8).
To help foster clarity of purpose and mutual understanding, there is great value in the development of a common language. This document defines research as any type of hypothesis-driven scientific study that improves our understanding of populations and ecosystems, and/or our ability to measure or manage these systems; this understanding may be general or in relation to the effects of OSW development. Monitoring (unless it is for the sole purpose of mitigation, such as the use of Protected Species Observers) is a subset of research that involves collection of repeated, systematic observations. As such, we recommend that monitoring should always be aimed at answering research questions and testing scientific hypotheses. There is also value in clearly defining a conceptual model that describes the factors 5 contributing to effects from offshore wind energy (OSW) development on wildlife and marine ecosystems, and in clear definitions and consistent use of terms such as receptor, risk, effect, and impact.
A variety of research needs and data gaps have been identified for the offshore wind industry in recent years, many of them regional in scope. As part of workgroup efforts, these needs were compiled and synthesized into a single database to help inform the direction of future research and funding efforts. The U.S. Atlantic Environmental Research Recommendations Database, hosted on Tethys (https://tethys.pnnl.gov/atlantic-offshore-wind-environmental-research-r…) allows researchers and funders to easily access, sort, and prioritize research needs relevant to understanding the effects and impacts of OSW energy development of wildlife and ecosystems. It compiles and synthesizes research and monitoring needs and recommendations identified in a range of source documents published between 2015-2021 that are relevant to OSW and environmental research in the U.S. Atlantic. A synthesized list of 219 research recommendations is included in the database, representing a broad range of topics.
While the database does not prioritize among these data gaps and research needs, it is recommended that prioritization processes consider several aspects of potential research projects, including importance/urgency of need, achievability, and efficiency and innovation. Once regional research needs have been identified and prioritized, the design and methodologies employed in regional studies must be carefully considered to ensure they can effectively answer ecological questions of interest. Regional research efforts should have a clearly defined research plan that delineates how the proposed work will allow for a better understanding of population- or ecosystem-level effects and cumulative impacts from OSW energy development. Research plans should build from existing efforts where possible, including monitoring at the OSW site level. Regional study plans should clearly delineate: 1) a conceptual framework, 2) study objectives, research questions and testable hypotheses, 3) a study design, data collection methods, projected samples sizes/treatment units, and analytical approaches, 4) data sharing and coordination plans, and 5) a process for evaluating effectiveness and validity of results.
Effective planning and implementation of regional OSW research requires a degree of collaboration that may be unfamiliar to both academic researchers and OSW industry professionals. This collaboration should include, at minimum, consultation and/or cross-referencing with regional expertise including regional research entities, such as ROSA and the RWSC, and may also include more formal engagement of experts as collaborators or project investigators. Further, collection and archiving of data should be conducted in as standardized and transparent a manner as possible, following existing standards and protocols, to help ensure that results are accessible and can be used to inform future regional and sitespecific research efforts.