Ocean research collaborative turns 5, celebrates accomplishments

Ocean research collaborative turns 5, celebrates accomplishments

The Westerly Sun

NARRAGANSETT — With a round of applause and a large cake, participants in the Ocean Special Area Management Plan, or SAMP, celebrated their accomplishments over the past five years and talked about where their work would take them in the future.

The SAMP is a collaborative scientific, planning and policy initiative to better understand the biology and the uses of the state’s offshore waters. The stakeholder meeting, a key feature of the SAMP process, took place on Tuesday at the Coastal Institute of the University of Rhode Island.

SAMP coordinator Jennifer McCann pledged to keep Rhode Islanders engaged in the process.

“We are working to keep going, to keep learning, and to keep Rhode Islanders involved in this process that’s so important,” she said.

Coastal Resources Management Council Executive Director Grover Fugate, Aileen Kenney of Deepwater Wind and Fisheries Liaison Elizabeth Marchetti provided an update on offshore renewable energy.

Fugate said that rather than simply reacting to proposals, Rhode Island had been proactive in marine planning, and as a result, the state had benefited from additional input into the location of the Deepwater Wind project.

“It comes down to, who do you want to control your destiny,” he said. “As a state, by taking a proactive stance in terms of documenting, what the results were in terms of the science behind this, what the uses were, what we wanted to protect, what we thought we might be able to utilize for new development, it was the state that took the role of setting forth where they wanted to see that development go.”

Kenney provided an update on Deepwater Wind’s Block Island wind farm. The foundations for the five turbines have been installed, and the towers and turbines will be added this summer. Kenney said the farm was expected to begin producing electricity by the end of this year.

Marchetti’s job as fisheries liaison is to ensure that fishermen have access to information about the wind farm at every stage of construction. She admitted that there was some initial confusion about her role.

“I think there was a lot of confusion in the fishing community as to what my role was and they really didn’t understand that I was a primary resource for them to get their concerns addressed,” she said.

URI researchers Peter Paton, Jeremy Collie and John King presented results of some of their recent studies. Paton studied the use of the SAMP area by offshore birds, in particular common loons. Using several survey methods, he determined that a large population of loons from all over New England spends winters in Rhode Island waters.

“It’s a really substantial percentage of the loon population that’s occurring in offshore areas in Rhode Island,” he said. “Rhode Island is a critical area for common loons in the winter months.”

Loons, and ducks like eiders and scoters, prefer water that is less than 65 feet deep, and as part of the SAMP process, it was agreed that no development would take place in that important, shallow water habitat.

Collie began to assess the effects that wind farms might have on currently healthy offshore lobster populations by first documenting existing conditions.

“We have established pre-construction conditions for the lobster population in this area prior to any development, and the continuation of monitoring during construction and post-construction will assess the possible impact of the construction and operation of turbines in this area,” he said.

King, an archaeologist, is working with members of the Narragansett Indian Tribe to locate and document underwater archaeological sites.

“Fishermen will occasionally dredge up artifacts from the Continental Shelf, but the primary piece of evidence is in the oral history of the Narragansett Tribe,” he said. “15,000 years ago, they had their villages out there and sea level rose relatively rapidly and they had to flee.”

King stressed the importance of capacity-building in the Narragansett community, so tribal representatives can actively participate in the SAMP process.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) is currently developing the Northeast Ocean Plan that will provide information in a broader, regional context. The plan, the first of its kind in the country, is expected to be completed in September and is largely based on the Rhode Island SAMP. The two plans will share a common database.

“It’s meant to give us a much better idea regionally of what’s going on, on the water and in the water,” said Betsy Nicholson of NOAA, a co-leader of the ocean plan. “We can use that information to inform and guide our decisions … by looking at the regional context, you have a much better idea of where your conflicts are going to be.”

Fugate said one of the next initiatives of the Rhode Island SAMP will be to expand its focus to include inshore waters.

“The irony of all of this is that the Ocean SAMP is much more advanced and much more protective of our offshore waters than we are of our bay waters,” he said. “One of the things we are now looking at doing is extending this up into the bay, because we need to provide the same level of protection for our inshore as for our offshore.”




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