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Are wind farms and protected areas compatible in the sea?

Scientists at the CSIC participate in the European project COCONET to find out if wind farms and marine protected areas can coexist. It will also establish a net of marine protected areas, which will enable the animals to move safely between them.  Can a wind farm be a threat to biodiversity?UE environmental policies focus on protecting habitats valuable for their biodiversity as well as producing energy in cleaner ways. The establishment of marine protected area networks and installing offshore wind farms are important ways to achieve these goals but are they compatible? Can a wind farm be a threat to biodiversity?

This is what the European project COCONET tries to find out. COCONET, an acronym for “Towards COast to COast NETworks of marine protected areas (from the shore to the high and deep sea), coupled with sea-based wind energy potential”, involves scientists at 39 centres and universities from more than 20 countries. They will try to discover if marine protected areas and wind farms can coexist in the same areas in the Mediterranean and Black seas.   

Enrique Macpherson, scientist at the CSIC’s Centro de Estudios Avanzados de Blanes explains that “wind farms apparently jeopardize some marine species but not others. “The biggest problems are the noise generated and the electromagnetic field alteration”. The second one would affect species that orient themselves by electromagnetic fields, such as cetaceans or migratory fishes.

“Wind farms apparently jeopardize some marine species but not others".

In regard to noise, Macpherson says that “it has to be noticed that the noise from a wind farm is not really worse than the one produced by ship motors. And on a wind farm human activities such as fishing or aquatic sport would be not allowed”.

Nevertheless, no research has been done with Mediterranean species, warns this expert. There are few studies on species of the North Atlantic, where some wind farms are working already. Also, it is known that migratory species like eels or salmons modify their routes although it is still a mystery whether their populations are really harmed by wind farms.

“The echolocation capacities of some cetaceans are affected, but these animals can easily adapt themselves to these alterations”, explains Macpherson. “Some fish larvae, like sole, are not affected by the noise produced by wind turbines. Some marine birds, however, are negatively affected. The knowledge is, so, scarce and the issue very important”.

International networks of marine protected areas

The project will focus exhaustively on every aspect related to biodiversity in two pilot zones, one between the South Adriatic Sea and the North Ionian Sea, and the other in the Black Sea.

The analyzed aspects will include the connectivity between protected areas (given through marine currents, biological corridors), the species vulnerability and their reaction when faced with different threats (chemical and acoustic pollution, invasive species, climatic change…). It will also be studied the economic and sociological aspects, along with the benefits and changes generated in places where these protected areas have been created.  

Management and protection of biodiversity, say COCONET scientists, has been focused until now in establishing protected areas. This has been proved successful within the protected areas but has little effect beyond their boundaries.

The goal of COCONET is to establish international networks of marine protected areas, in order thet the species can move safely between them.

The network structure ensures the success in time of marine reserves and it is a key factor in conservation policies, as it is being done for the Australian Great Barrier Reef. The connection between protected areas is established through the plankton larvae of species, which allows the permanent connection of places at tens or hundreds of kilometers distant. Connection is a key factor for preservation because it enables a good recovery after any environmental disaster.

The scientists want to expand the protected areas to both offshore and deep sea habitats, incorporating them into the networks through examination of current legislation, to find legal solutions to set up international networks of marine protected areas.

There is the possibility that, in some cases, wind farms could act as a connection point, as stepping-stones between protected areas

Placing wind farms

At the same time, scientists will investigate where to place wind farms in the Mediterranean and Black seas. Locations will avoid sensitive protected areas but there is the possibility that, in some cases, wind farms could act as a connection point, as stepping-stones between protected areas for larvae and juveniles, without interfering with human activities.  

The COCONET project will run until the end of 2015. It involves researchers across a vast array of subjects, in order to achieve a much-needed holistic approach to environmental protection.