Feature Stories 2023: Collaborative science, offshore wind, and the future of fisheries

Scientists fishing near a wind turbine near Block Island
Feature Stories 2023: Collaborative science, offshore wind, and the future of fisheries
Collaborative science, offshore wind, and the future of fisheries

SMAST scientists examine the effects of offshore wind development on fish species and the local fishing industry

New Bedford, Massachusetts has long been the nation's most valuable fishing port and is positioned to become a national leader in offshore wind as well. However, questions remain as to how the two industries will coexist.  A study led by researchers at the UMass Dartmouth School for Marine Science and Technology (SMAST) aims to produce data that will shed light on this issue and offer scientific evidence to guide decision-making.  

Block Island Wind Farm, the first offshore wind farm in the U.S., is the site of an ongoing fish tagging and underwater observation project led by Professor Pingguo He, Professor Steve Cadrin, and a team of SMAST graduate students and staff. Researchers are collecting data to understand how fish behavior and population dynamics may be affected by wind turbines. Funded by the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM), the project titled "Exploring the Connectivity Among Offshore Wind Turbines" began in spring 2023 and will continue throughout 2024. 

“This is a pioneering project that combines acoustic tagging and optical and acoustic imaging to understand fish movement, spatial distribution, and residency in a U.S. offshore wind farm in different seasons and over multiple years. The results may have a profound influence on our understanding of interactions between the region’s fish and wind turbines,” said Professor Pingguo He.  

"Offshore wind is transforming the field of fisheries science," said Professor Steve Cadrin.  "Ten years ago, this was not a concern or research topic. Now, half of our Fisheries Oceanography graduates are getting jobs somehow related to offshore wind. The wind industry is growing rapidly in our region, particularly in New Bedford, so there's an urgent need for this kind of data. If we can contribute good science, we can help to manage the coexistence of wind and fisheries."   

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A look inside a fish's world: using technology to observe fish behavior 

"The goal of our project is to see how fish are behaving around the wind turbines," Cadrin said. "To accomplish this, we're using acoustic telemetry and 3D video cameras to collect snapshots of what kinds of fish are gathered near the turbines, how many there are, and what kinds of individual and collective behavioral patterns we can detect." Specifically, the team is monitoring the movements of black sea bass, striped bass, and fluke.  

"We catch fish and tag them with an acoustic transmitter that has a unique ping code, then place acoustic receivers at various locations surrounding the turbines," SMAST graduate student Ali Frey explained. "When a tagged fish swims within range of the receiver, the receiver will log the transmitter code and the timestamp.  We can then retrieve the receivers and download their data to see how fish are moving around turbines. It's an underwater listening device." 

"Other organizations use similar technology, so there is potential for coordination and collaboration with other institutions in order to expand the study," said SMAST postdoctoral fellow Lauran Brewster.  

Acoustic receivers on a fishing boat prior to deployment
Acoustic receivers ready to be deployed

While the acoustic tagging tracks the movements of individual fish, video footage sheds light on their population density and community structure. "The acoustic tagging only reveals part of the picture, so we use video cameras to reveal additional information," said SMAST technical associate Chris Rillahan. "We deploy a 3D camera that can capture more accurate data on the size of individual fish and the quantity of fish present at a given time. We place the cameras at the foot of the turbine and at various distances away from it so we can observe what influence proximity to the turbine has on fish populations and behavior," added Rillahan.  

Some of the variables the researchers are looking at include the effect of one turbine vs. many, whether fish move between multiple structures and nearby natural habitats, the proximity of turbines to one another, and if there is a seasonality to the effects between summer and fall.  

Gone fishing 

To complete this project, the researchers work closely with local fishermen. Throughout the summer, members of the SMAST team joined fishing captains out on the water to catch, tag, and release the fish they intended to track for research purposes.  

"The fishing captains we work with, Captain Rick Bellavance and Captain Greg Mataronas, have been critical in this project." Frey said.  

"Working with local fishermen is so valuable. They are extremely knowledgeable," said graduate student Keith Hankowsky. "We tell them what species of fish we're looking for, and they know exactly where to take us." 

Students from New Bedford High School got in on the action as part of their summer internship with SMAST, a paid internship opportunity designed to introduce students underrepresented in marine science to the field of ocean research. "It was a great experience taking the students out on the water with Captain Rick," Frey said. "For some of the students, it was their first time fishing, and they caught a big black sea bass."   

SMAST intern Kenry with first mate Eric holding a blue fish
Priority Charters first mate Erik Ekroth and New Bedford High School intern Kenry Myrthil

Better science through collaboration

Captain Rick Bellavance emphasized the value of scientists collaborating with industry. He said, "I really enjoy working with the SMAST team. The scientists are clearly committed to the best science and collecting the best data possible. They value my experience and I value theirs. I believe scientists collaborating with industry is so important. We observe our environment through different lenses, so working together helps paint a more complete picture that produces better science overall."

"Many universities don't do this," Cadrin explained. "They use their own research vessels and don't go out on fishing boats. But fishermen are out on the water all the time. They have a perspective we don't have. They can alert us about the conditions on the water and find the fish we're looking for quickly. In that sense, this approach is cost effective because they know when and when not to go out, which helps us use resources more efficiently. But it's also valuable to build those relationships with the fishing community.   

"It’s mutually beneficial when our data validates what fishermen have observed from experience. It helps to build trust between fishermen and the scientific community and perpetuates understanding. The consensus between fisheries and scientists can also be valuable for regulators," Cadrin added. 

Block Island wing turbine at sunset from fishing boat

Implications of this research 

Understanding the effects of offshore wind development on marine ecosystems is necessary not only for the health of those ecosystems but also for the fishing communities that rely on them.  

SMAST is uniquely positioned to take on this work because of the school's well-established history of collaboration with the fishing industry and with offshore wind developers. "We have built a strong reputation and the trust necessary for handling these complex and often controversial issues," Cadrin said. 

"Our results will help inform construction and operation plans to benefit fish species and minimize impact," said Rillahan. "It may have implications for designing the layout of wind farms or the distance between turbines, for example. Or, for evaluating the loss of productivity of fishermen affected by the presence of wind farms. Our role is not to create policy but to provide science and data that managers, developers, and fishers can use to develop mitigation measures and other protocols." 

"On one end of the spectrum there are those who believe the wind farms will be detrimental to marine life and to fisheries, and on the other end there are those who say the turbines will create artificial reefs and cause fish populations to thrive," Cadrin said. "Either of those scenarios is possible, but the issue is not so black and white. The reality is probably somewhere between those two extremes. We want to collect data to determine what it will really look like so that we can make better decisions about how low-impact wind farms and productive fisheries can coexist."