KINGSTON — A recent study headed by a professor of marine affairs at the University of Rhode Island shows that recreational boaters prefer to avoid the five wind turbines that comprise the Block Island wind farm.
Published in the December 2020 journal “Marine Policy,” the study also found that recreational fishermen were more likely to take their boats close to the turbines because fish tend to congregate near the turbines’ foundations.
Tracey Dalton and her team, which included students and faculty and a staff biologist from the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management, surveyed 680 recreational fishermen in 2018. The study was funded by Rhode Island Sea Grant.
“It was kind of done in phases,” Dalton said. “First we held focus groups with boaters to build the survey, and once the survey was created, we sent out mail invitations, because we only had mailing addresses, and participants could take the survey by mail or they could take it online.”
Participants were given four months to fill out and return the surveys. Dalton explained that the survey was limited to owners of boats 26 feet and longer because those vessels are registered with the United States Coast Guard.
“The findings are really specific to people with U.S. Coast Guard-documented vessels, which are generally 26 feet or larger,” she said. “We needed to focus in on one particular user group. These are people that would be going out to the wind farm and even some of the newer wind farms that are being proposed offshore.”
Extensive wind energy development is planned for 1.7 million acres off the East Coast over the next 10 years. The introduction to the study stresses the importance of understanding the impacts offshore wind farms will have on the people who use those waters:
“There are currently fifteen active commercial offshore wind leases in US federal waters at the time of this writing. These projects will advance state and federal goals to increase renewable energy development in the United States. However, there is limited knowledge on the potential impacts of wind farms on individuals that have historically used areas where wind farms are proposed, and only a few studies have investigated the perceptions and preferences of these water-based users.”
The objective of the survey was to gauge the impacts the Block Island wind farm might have on people’s recreational boating experiences. The results showed that boaters tended to remain at a distance from the turbines.
“We gave them some scenarios and asked them which scenarios they preferred,” Dalton explained. “On average, boaters were hesitant to get close to the turbines. They didn’t mind seeing them far off in the distance, or being out on the water with the turbines a mile away, but it was once they got within 100 feet — they were a little bit more hesitant to do that.”
The reasons for that reticence are not specifically mentioned in the study, however Dalton said previous research has shown that navigation near the turbines is a concern.
On the other hand, boaters who were also fishing were less reluctant to get close to the turbines.
“Certainly, those who go out to fish seem to be less hesitant,” Dalton said. “We also found that people who had visited the Block Island wind farm were less hesitant to get closer to the turbines.”
The results of the study were eye-opening, Dalton said.
“Going into the study, we weren’t sure at all what direction the findings would go, whether boaters would want to get close to the turbines or not get close to the turbines, so I guess the end findings were just interesting to see that on average they kind of preferred to stay away,” she said. “I think the other finding that’s important is that boaters are not a homogeneous group and some boaters might want to get closer to turbines; some might not.”
Additional studies will be conducted in the coming years to determine whether people’s perceptions of wind farms change over time and as more offshore wind farms are built. The proposed wind farms will be much farther offshore than the Block Island wind farm.
“As more wind farms are installed, do people’s feelings about getting closer to them, does that change over time and as they become more familiar with it, do they become more comfortable around these places? That’s something we’ll definitely watch over time as more wind farms go into the water. It could also be something that managers want to think about. If people who go to the wind farms are more comfortable around them, maybe there’s some way of bringing boaters out to wind farms, or some sort of strategy that might ease the comfort of some of these boaters,” Dalton said.