A New Plan for Offshore Wind Research Will Help Prioritize Seabirds and Other Wildlife

The RWSC science plan will guide offshore wind and wildlife studies along the East Coast.
Roseate Terns. Photo: Jean Hall/Audubon Photography Awards

Today the Regional Wildlife Science Collaborative for Offshore Wind (RWSC) released a historic research plan that sets priorities for all stakeholders to fully avoid, minimize, and mitigate any harms to wildlife caused by offshore wind energy development in much of the U.S. Atlantic Ocean. The new plan is the first of its kind in establishing a collaborative regional approach to study potential effects of offshore wind on birds as well as marine mammals, sea turtles, bats, fish, and ocean habitats along the East Coast.  

Transitioning to renewable energy sources like offshore wind will be key to protecting vulnerable bird species from the worst impacts of climate change, but research is needed to ensure that seabirds like Roseate Terns aren’t impacted by development. Some birds like the Black-capped Petrel are considered especially vulnerable to collisions, whereas species like the Northern Gannet are known to be heavily displaced away from offshore wind farms, a form of habitat loss. The RWSC Science Plan lays out how we can better understand potential regional scale impacts to wildlife and the marine ecosystem through collaborative and consistent research methods and data standards.  

Audubon worked with offshore wind companies, U.S. federal agencies, Atlantic coast states, and other environmental nonprofits to establish the RWSC, and we continue to serve on the Steering Committee. During the plan's review, we added key information about three important threats to seabirds from offshore wind energy development: phototaxis (bird disorientation and collisions from attraction to lighting), underwater acoustic disturbance to diving birds, and bird flux density (repeated flight movements at one location—a source of greater risk, and an essential variable for collision risk models).  

To help seabirds and other marine wildlife, the plan…  

  • identifies current data and research priorities,  
  • calls for a coast-wide wildlife detection and monitoring network, 
  • and recommends that data and results of all studies be shared with the public as soon as possible. 

While some Atlantic states are already requiring funding for regional wildlife research and collaboration with RWSC as part of their offshore wind procurements, this new plan emphasizes the need for ecosystem-wide holistic studies. This approach is important because some risks to birds and other marine life may only be detectable or impactful at certain scales. Collaborative research that looks at cumulative impacts can be important in determining whether offshore wind development affects factors like ocean productivity or prey fish, as well as whether some impacts are beneficial, such as perches for cormorants facilitated by project infrastructure. 

As we move forward with renewable energy programs at sea, it will be very important to remember that some birds that could be most vulnerable breed outside the United States, and could otherwise easily be overlooked or ignored when factoring appropriate mitigation measures. 

As the Integrated Science Plan for Offshore Wind, Wildlife, and Habitat in U.S. Atlantic Waters is implemented, RWSC will support independent and peer-reviewed science that can help inform management and conservation decisions in Atlantic states. Ongoing research and findings will be reported annually, and the Science Plan will be updated every five years, as needed, to keep pace with new information. Audubon will continue to meet as part of the Bird & Bat Subcommittee to share information and advance recommendations while supporting similar efforts in other regions that protect birds and the places they need. 

To learn more, including how to participate, register for the RWSC Science Plan Release webinar on Friday, February 9, from 1-2 p.m. ET. Visit Birds and Clean Energy for more about Audubon’s approach to renewable energy.