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Catching a Wave
Offshore energy farms may support abundant marine life.
Humans have long placed objects into the ocean to attract sea creatures. Ancient Greeks piled coconuts and temple scraps off beaches. More recently, Florida deployed derelict autos and old refrigerators in the Gulf of Mexico, and New York sank retired subway cars in the Atlantic. Now, at a time when reef habitat and fisheries are declining, researchers and offshore renewable energy developers are considering how wave- and wind-power structures might serve as beacons for marine life.
“As offshore energy farms start to develop, I think there can be some really creative things done to design habitat that can be supportive of different species,” says artificial reefs specialist William Seaman, professor emeritus at the University of Florida. With the best science applied, he’s seen artificial reefs become ecological havens where species reproduce, grow, and live.
Hard surfaces—whether natural coral or manmade cinder blocks—appeal to tiny creatures like plankton, which in turn attract species up the food chain. With artificial reefs, says Dan Wilhelmsson, an ecologist at Sweden’s Stockholm University, the more complex constructions may be the way to go. “By increasing the diversity of features,” he says, “you can increase the diversity of animals.” Adding ledges and holes to turbine foundations could suit different species. Edible crabs, for instance, prefer holes about a meter up from the sea floor, says Wilhelmsson. “Very small differences in design can be hugely important.” Around the structures, planting rocks of varying sizes, an erosion-protection technique to prevent scouring, offers appealing nooks and crannies for lobsters. And the greater the structure’s vertical span, he adds, the wider the array of fish and invertebrates. So while building offshore projects can disturb ecosystems, with proper planning they might be a boon for wildlife, fishermen, and even scuba divers.
European developers are watching Wilhelmsson’s work closely. “We deliberately built holes in our foundations,” notes Mats Leijon, a Swedish researcher working with Seabased Ltd. on the world’s largest wave energy park, off the coast of Sweden. Local lobstermen, he adds, are already benefiting from the bounty at Seabased’s test farm.
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