One of the Atlantic Ocean’s most endangered species will be protected under an ‘unprecedented’ agreement between three environmental groups and a leading offshore wind developer
Offshore wind developer Vineyard Wind, which is planning to build a large offshore wind project 23 km south of Martha’s Vineyard on the east coast of the US, has agreed to protect the highly endangered North Atlantic right whale while constructing and operating the project.
Responding to the agreement, the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) said it advocates for all forms of clean renewable energy projects, including the offshore wind industry, and said the agreement “deepens its conviction that the US can move forward with both goals – developing clean energy in the form of offshore wind power while protecting wildlife such as the endangered right whale.
“The standards agreed to by Vineyard Wind set the bar by which other offshore wind developers will be measured,” said NRDC project scientist, marine mammals, ocean division, Francine Kershaw.
North Atlantic right whale numbers are in decline and concern has been raised about the small number of breeding females. The NRDC and other environmental organisations believe that without protection from all additional stressors, such as offshore activity in connection with constructing windfarms, the species may not recover.
Ms Kershaw explained that, as part of the agreement, Vineyard Wind’s project plan adopts restrictions that exceed those required by law on vessel speed and limits noise from pile driving and geophysical survey activity to times when North Atlantic right whales are unlikely to be in the area.
The NRDC explained that the mitigation measures that will be adopted during the project include a seasonal prohibition on pile driving activity from 1 January through 30 April, when North Atlantic right whales are most likely to be present in the project area.
The agreement also includes enhanced mitigation protocols for pile driving from 1 November through 30 December and from 1 May through 14 May, and for geophysical survey activities from 1 January through 14 May to reflect times of likely presence of North Atlantic right whales. Enhanced mitigation protocols include restrictions on initiating pile driving at night or during periods of poor visibility and establishing a large, protective monitoring zone.
Also part of the agreement are comprehensive monitoring protocols during construction, including minimum clearance zones that will be monitored for whale sound by real-time, passive acoustics and whale sightings by visual observers.
A vessel speed restriction of 10 knots for all project-associated vessels from 1 November through 14 May, with the exception of crew transfer vessels required to undertake additional monitoring measures, will also be enforced. The developers and their contractors will be required to provide timely reporting of North Atlantic right whale sightings to the National Marine Fisheries Service or the Coast Guard. Underwater noise reduction measures will be used to limit potentially disruptive sound emitted during construction.
Ms Kershaw said Vineyard Wind will also invest US$3M to develop and deploy innovative technology and undertake scientific research to further safeguard marine mammals from a range of ocean impacts, such as incidental entanglement in fishing gear.
The agreement was co-signed by NRDC, the National Wildlife Federation, and the Conservation Law Foundation, and was sent to the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management.
“As we transition to green energy, we need to ensure that offshore wind projects avoid potential conflict with endangered species that could slow their recovery. This agreement serves as a model to ensure that offshore wind projects don’t adversely affect wildlife or cause delays for the offshore wind industry,” she concluded.