URI teams up with state to collect data on effects of Block Island wind farm

URI teams up with state to collect data on effects of Block Island wind farm

The Westerly Sun

KINGSTON — Researchers from the University of Rhode Island and the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management are collaborating on studies examining the effects of the Block Island wind farm, both above and below the water.

The first off shore wind farm in the United States, the Block Island wind farm is located 3.8 miles off the coast of the island. The 30-megawatt project, developed by Deepwater Wind, began generating power in December 2016.

Tracey Dalton, chairwoman of the Department of Marine Affairs at URI, and Julia Livermore, chief marine biologist at the DEM, have spent the summer looking at how the wind farm has affected marine life and the people who use the waters near the five wind turbines. The $130,000 study, funded by Rhode Island Sea Grant, began in 2016.

Dalton’s team of four students is talking to recreational boaters and fishermen to collect anecdotal evidence of how they have been affected by the wind farm.

Another component of the study is a survey, designed by URI natural resource economics professor James Opaluch, which will be sent to recreational boaters who are on the list of vessels registered with the United States Coast Guard. Dalton said she expects the survey to be mailed out in September.

“The survey’s going to be distributed by mail and respondents can respond by mail or online,” she said. “We’re still in the process of developing the actual surveys, but in order to develop it, we’ve held focus groups with recreational boaters, so that’s giving us a sense of what people think about turbines, but also how they experience the water and what they do and how wind farms might impact that experience.”

Livermore is analyzing fish and lobster population data collected during the wind farm permitting process.

“When we issued our water quality certificate and our dredge permit to Deepwater Wind, we required that they conduct a ventless lobster survey and then a trawl survey as well,” Livermore said. “This is part of the before-after control impact study. Those data are provided to me as raw data, and I’m doing data analysis on that to look for changes in the biological community around the wind turbines and also, the control areas.”

Ventless lobster surveys use traps without the vents that would normally allow undersized lobsters to escape. In catching all sizes of lobsters, the traps give researchers a more complete picture of entire populations.

The researchers are also soliciting input from the people who would be most likely to notice ecological changes; commercial and recreational fishermen and charter boat captains.

“We’re doing somewhat structured interviews with those individuals, to kind of get a broader picture of what they’re seeing on the water, because that may differ from what I’m seeing in the data analysis, and part of that’s probably due to the limitations of the survey, so that just gives us a broader picture of what’s happening ecologically out there,” Livermore said.

While the data on fish and lobster populations before and during construction of the wind farm are available, Livermore is still awaiting post-construction data. Further complicating the analysis are fluctuations in fish populations as a result of warmer waters and other ecological changes.

“We have to parse out some broader environmental trends going on, changes in temperature, or different abundances of different types of plankton,” Livermore said. “Those can all drive some of the changes, so we really need to find a way to separate that from what could be caused by the wind farm.”

Livermore said that is why the data collected from the users’ surveys will be helpful.

“That’s kind of where the qualitative data comes in,” she said. “It’s not the same type of data, but it just helps to kind of see the complete picture of what’s going on.”

Studies conducted in Europe have shown that wind turbines also serve as artificial reefs which attract fish.

“We’re looking for that,” Livermore said. “Anecdotally, we’ve heard a lot of people say they’re catching a lot more fish out there. They’re seeing scup higher in the water column, which is kind of interesting.”

The results of the study are due in Jan. 2018. Livermore said she would continue to analyze the data as it becomes available.

Dalton said her survey, which she expects to continue beyond January, will be different from previous polls because it will focus not on how the turbines are perceived by people seeing them from land, but on those people who are using the water near the wind farm.

“A lot of the wind farm-type studies have really looked at on-land users, what people think about these things from land,” she said. “We’re trying to get a better sense of what people on the water, people who go out to the area, how they might be impacted.”




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