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On Reflection: How offshore wind can help marine wildlife

WORLDWIDE: Developers of marine renewables can help "rewild" our seas through intelligent siting and working with ecologists. The offshore wind sector should make increasing biodiversity part of its strategy to mitigate impacts on wildlife.

(pic:Alamy)
(pic:Alamy)

Environmental polemicist George Monbiot has called for a mass culling of sheep in the uplands of Britain to allow nature to return. "Rewilding" he calls it in his latest book, Feral. Monbiot wants to see the return of wolves and beavers, and maybe even hippos and elephants.

But what about our marine environment? Much of this is now devoid of wildlife too, due to the activities of the fishing industry over the past 100 years. We should be aiming to rewild the seas around the UK as well. This is not a call to hold back the development of marine renewable energy. Quite the reverse, it is a call to embrace offshore wind, wave and tidal power. To develop it in a way that facilitates the return of biodiversity.

Let's be absolutely clear, we must develop marine renewable energy. The latest report by leading climate-change scientists says that without significant and rapid cuts in carbon pollution our oceans will become more acidic, posing "potentially serious threats to the health of the world's oceans ecosystems". Without deep cuts in carbon pollution we will see much more extreme weather across the globe, with the dreadful scenes we recently witnessed in the Philippines repeated more frequently. Yes, we need energy efficiency, solar power and onshore wind. But we cannot make the necessary emissions reductions in the UK without the large-scale deployment of offshore renewable energy.

But is it really possible to develop marine renewables and help nature? I chaired a session at RenewablesUK's recent annual conference that addressed this question. Emma Sheehan from the Plymouth University Marine Institute presented findings from the Marine Renewables, Biodiversity and Fisheries report produced for Friends of the Earth. The report summarises research into marine renewables and marine biodiversity. It concluded that, when done well, marine renewables could indeed help wildlife. It also found that offshore wind farms can significantly help populations of commercial fish species.

Angela de Burgh, a consultant at Marine Ecological Surveys, told us of soon-to-be-published research on the 300MW Thanet offshore wind farm off the Kent coast. Prior to its construction, the company's survey found that much of the sea floor was degraded due to trawling. But some colonies of ross worm that had escaped the damage. Through its burrowing activities this worm creates a reef structure that other sea creatures colonise. By using this survey information the firm could locate the turbines in such a way that no further damage to this important reef-forming species was caused. Because of the wind farm there has been a reduction in damaging trawling activities. The ross worm is now flourishing and marine wildlife such as the pink shrimp, hermit crab and anemone are returning. This is rewilding in action.

Of course it would be wrong to assume offshore renewables can be located willy-nilly. Mark Rehfisch, head of ornithology at environmental consultancy APEM, showed how bird tagging can be used to identify areas that are important feeding grounds for birds. Developers need to work with ecologists before siting and construction, and afterwards on long-term monitoring.

Take up the challenge

So here's my challenge to the industry: Set yourself an ambition to not only provide a plentiful supply of low-carbon energy, create much-needed jobs and economic development, and mitigate impacts on wildlife during construction and operation of renewables, but to also help rewild our seas.

The marine renewables industry can help rewild our oceans and save us from dangerous climate change. Now that's a vision to get behind.

Mike Childs is head of science, policy and research at environmentol organisation Friends of the Earth

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