Impact of offshore renewable energy developments on seabirds
Offshore renewables form an increasingly important part of the UK’s energy supply, particularly in Scotland. The expansion of offshore renewables is seen as a crucial step towards meeting the ambitious targets for reductions in greenhouse gas emissions.
The UK hosts a range of internationally important seabird populations, many of which are already in decline due to anthropogenic influences. It is therefore essential to assess the impacts of proposed new offshore renewable developments (ORDs) upon seabird populations.
The challenge for policy and industry
The statutory nature conservation bodies, the energy industry, NGOs such as RSPB and BTO, and research institutes and universities are all actively involved in undertaking such assessments. There are major scientific challenges involved in undertaking studies because seabirds can travel enormous distances across remote areas of sea, behave in complex ways, and are affected by a range of different anthropogenic influences. Sensor technologies (e.g. GPS tracking, accelerometery, radar, video) are increasingly being used to explore seabird behaviour and seabird interactions with ORDs, but these technologies create large, and often complex, datasets.
The role of BioSS
Stakeholders recognise the importance of quantifying and reducing uncertainty, especially given that policy in this area follows the precautionary principle. Assessments typically utilise data from multiple different sources and can require sophisticated forms of statistical and mathematical modelling. BioSS’ work has focused upon a range of aspects of ORD impact assessment. These include:
- the attribution of birds seen in at-sea surveys to specific breeding colonies;
- the estimation of turnover in seabird foraging areas;
- the use of GPS tracking and accelerometery data to estimate the spatial distribution of birds;
- the long-term population consequences of ORD impacts (population viability analysis).
Prospects for the future
Some key challenges that will require the BioSS skillset in the future are likely to include:
- the increasing availability of post-construction data on operational ORDs. This will permit retrospective, as well as prospective, analysis of impacts;
- a need to provide a more comprehensive evidence base for the consequences of displacement of birds by ORDs: i.e. a need to quantify the impact of displacement upon survival and breeding success
- an increasing interest in the impact of ORDs upon seabirds in the non-breeding season as well as in the breeding season.