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Fishing or Farming: Can Fisheries and Offshore Wind Farms Coexist?

Stelzenmüller, Vanessa, et al. “Sustainable co-location solutions for offshore wind farms and fisheries need to account for socio-ecological trade-offs.” Science of The Total Environment 776 (2021): 145918.

Last month, President Biden announced that the US will be turning to offshore wind farms (OWFs) to meet the growing need for clean energy. While some have concerns about the safety of birds and OWFs, others are concerned about how OWFs might affect and restrict fishing activities in certain areas. This new study carried out in the North Sea explores what trade-offs might exist when new OWFs are constructed in areas that have previously been used as fisheries.  

What are Offshore Wind Farms (OWFs)?

Offshore wind farms are a collection of wind turbines that are located somewhat away from the coast, but are still easily accessible. Since winds tend to blow harder at sea than on land, it makes sense to station turbines at strategic locations where the wind will be sufficient for producing energy. In the US, OWFs were approved for use in 2009, but only two are currently operating. However, that will likely change in the future, as 12 new projects are currently underway. Based on the recent announcement from the Biden Administration, many are optimistic that wind energy will become a national priority in the future. Other countries have already constructed OWFs, but the increased commitment to clean energy has raised concerns about the trade-offs that may occur as the infrastructure is implemented. In this study, Stelzenmüller and her team of researchers look at the socio-ecological trade-offs that occur between OWFs and fisheries in the North Sea.

October 1, 2016- Heavy seas engulf the Block Island Wind Farm- the first US offshore wind farm. The five Halide 6MW turbines were recently installed by Deepwater Wind, and are currently under commissioning. (Photo by Dennis Schroeder / NREL)

Fishing vs. Farming:

OWFs involve complicated marine spatial planning and the implementation of economic exclusion zones. As a result, other marine activities, such as fishing or shipping, are usually not allowed in the area surrounding the OWF. In Germany, fishing is prohibited in the area surrounding the Meerwind Süd/Ost wind farm, essentially functioning as a marine protected area. The researchers wanted to see how the wind farm affected the population of the brown crab, an economically important species for North Sea fisheries. In order to do this, they constructed 41 pot fisheries to monitor the number, size and sex of the the crabs with in the OWF area.  In addition they also performed several economic analyses to determine the supply and demand of brown crabs throughout Europe, as well as the economic viability of having a fishery located near, or even inside of, the OWF area.

This map shows  Germany’s of economic exclusion zones in the North and Baltic Sea. Different patterns denote different types of exclusion zones. From

No need to be crabby:

Based on the experiment and the analysis, the researchers came up with several promising results:

  • The infrastructure of OWFs can provide suitable habitat for brown crabs and, with the right marine strategic plan, have the potential to become bountiful fisheries. 

  • Demand for brown crab depends on the country, and recently, demand from China has grown tremendously.

  • Other fisheries focus on harvesting brown shrimp, but when harvesting becomes difficult or when the maximum sustainable yield is met, choosing to harvest brown crab instead could be a lucrative alternative.

These results point to an exciting opportunity for OWFs and fisheries to coexist. The potential for OWFs to provide habitat for brown crabs could help meet the growing demand in Europe and beyond.

This graphic shows the production, consumption and export of brown crab by several European countries and others around the world. From Stelzenmüller et al. 2021.

Next Steps:

While the potential is exciting, the researchers also give a few caveats. First, they urge policymakers and fishery managers to create adaptive marine spatial plans for each of the OWFs they plan to develop. Much like other aspects of natural resource management, integrating OWFs and fisheries requires a regional specific, rather than a one-size-fits-all, approach. They also recommend that OWF workers and managers take measures to protect the benthic communities within the OWF area, since the disruption of the benthos could negatively affect the viability of the fishery. The team ultimately concluded that more research is needed to create a holistic, integrated approach, but the opportunity for the coexistence of OWFs and fisheries is an idea that should garner much more attention in the future.  

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