Feature Stories 2024: Making an impact on global sustainability

Performing research on boat
SMAST students Freddy Phillips and Amy Martins attached cameras and lights to the drop camera pyramid that will be lowered into the water to capture images of the sea floor.
Feature Stories 2024: Making an impact on global sustainability
Making an impact on global sustainability

Scholars and researchers at the School for Marine Science and Technology contribute to creating a sustainable seafood supply while supporting the development of renewable energy.

Groundbreaking research and innovative solutions pioneered by UMass Dartmouth’s School for Marine Science and Technology (SMAST) have played a critical role in advancing the blue economy in the Commonwealth for over 20 years, including the revitalization of New Bedford’s scallop industry. Today, nearly half of SMAST’s graduate students are a vital part of research collaborations with offshore wind developers that position SMAST and the SouthCoast region as leading partners in this emerging industry and creates pathways to careers.

SMAST’s experts lie at the intersection between offshore wind developers and fisheries, bridging the stakeholders with valuable information as windfarms introduce changes to the ecosystem and challenges for fisheries to harvest in areas around the windfarms. “We focus on helping fisheries make decisions that allow them to move forward sustainably,” said Kevin D. E. Stokesbury, dean of the School for Marine Science and Technology. “Fisheries and offshore wind developers rely on the results of our environmental impact studies to establish an understanding of the ecosystem before construction so they can mitigate or respond to alterations that the windfarms may cause.”

SMAST students serve a pivotal role in the development of the nation’s first commercial-scale offshore wind project as they conduct research with faculty in areas of the Atlantic waters leased for development. Vineyard Wind enlisted the expertise of SMAST scientists with $1 million of funding to investigate how their planed offshore windfarm 35 miles off the coast of mainland Massachusetts would impact recreational and commercial fisheries.

Using the drop camera and trawl survey assessment methods developed by SMAST’s student and faculty researchers, their work will identify which species could be affected by wind turbines before and after construction. “We’ve learned that it’s a very dynamic system that requires a robust monitoring plan throughout the process,” said Chris Rillahan, SMAST research associate and Ph.D. student. “Our work has helped define a standard for offshore wind developers based on the best science and research."

“By looking at the whole ecosystem and fish behavior, we get a good indicator of what changes are happening in the waters,” said Amy Martins, an SMAST Ph.D. student. “Offshore wind energy introduces many benefits for our global health. Our work helps to create a synergy between the two industries so they can coexist.”

“SMAST has a positive working relationship with the fishing industry, so partnering with their team was an easy choice,” said Crista Bank, fisheries manager at Vineyard Wind, and SMAST alumna. “Fishermen will be the first to witness any potential changes out there so having them part of the scientist process is important. Vineyard Wind wanted to make sure the fishing industry was included in all stages of the pre- and post-construction monitoring plans, from the development phase to conducting the research on their fishing
vessels, and participating in the review process.”

Research collaborations such as the one with Vineyard Wind allow students to gain experience that will empower them to become leaders in developing solutions for sustainability. SMAST graduate students have worked in marine-related fields or fisheries and developed a network of connections that expands through faculty and corporate partnerships. “SMAST students, faculty, and our relationships with regional partners, fisheries and agencies creates an atmosphere that lends itself to scientific collaboration,” said Stokesbury.

“It’s exciting to see our work getting attention in the science community, and to be involved in the work behind developing more sustainable energy sources,” said Andie Painten, a master’s student in fisheries oceanography who works on the windfarm survey and leads ventless trap and larval surveys in the offshore wind development area.

Research like the partnerships funded by Vineyard Wind create impactful interdisciplinary experiential research opportunities for SMAST master’s and doctoral students. Collaborating with SMAST’s world-class faculty experts, students make significant contributions to the economic development of our communities and develop solutions to marine-related issues.