Energy and Wildlife: Research


Wind-generated electricity in the marine environment promises to be an important source of renewable energy, but poses a potential risk to seabirds that share the airspace with wind turbines. USGS research assists regulatory agencies such as the U.S. Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM) and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) evaluate the potential for adverse effects of wind facilities and other offshore activities on seabirds. To this end, scientist study seabird occurrence and behavior to identify potential areas of high activity and possible conflict between offshore activities and seabird populations.

Offshore Wind Energy and Seabird Distributions along the Atlantic Coast

USGS scientists has been tracking northern gannets, red-throated loons, and surf scoters along the Atlantic coast for the last four years to evaluate potential use of proposed wind energy areas. This is a collaborative project among BOEM, USFWS, BRI, USGS, and Memorial University of Newfoundland.

Main Hawaiian Islands Seabird Tracking

The Main Hawaiian Islands (MHI) and associated offshore islets provide substantial breeding habitat for more than 19 seabird species. BOEM and the State of Hawai’i have received proposals to develop offshore renewable energy projects within waters surrounding the MHI. Seabirds have been documented to interact with wind-turbine structures, lighted facilities, elevated power lines on land, and lighted ships off Hawai’i. USGS, in collaboration with other entities, is continuing at-sea tracking studies of MHI seabirds to provide information to assess potential risks posed by proposed offshore energy developments. Information collected include intra-seasonal and inter-colony differences in foraging behaviors and variability in sea habitat use and ranging behaviors among MHI seabird species, including two (Hawaiian Petrel and Newell’s Shearwater) listed under the U.S. Endangered Species Act.

Pacific Continental Shelf Environmental Assessment (PaCSEA)

Understanding critical marine habitats, including seabird and marine mammal hotspots at sea, will help inform offshore energy siting along the U.S. Pacific Coast. USGS recently completed seabird and marine mammal surveys for the BOEM Pacific Outer Continental Shelf (OCS) Region to inform future alternative energy plans. Marine spatial planning, including potential site selection for offshore energy development, requires updated information on species-specific community patterns and distributions. PaCSEA surveyed areas extending from Fort Bragg, California to Grays Harbor, Washington. USGS uses aircraft surveys to conduct seabird and marine mammal counts concurrently with oceanographic remote-sensing equipment to record habitat features throughout this span of the Pacific OCS region, and is compiling regional at-sea tracking data from marine birds to create an Atlas illustrating habitat use patterns for multiple species. This work will inform a better understanding of overall species distribution patterns throughout the California Current System.

Related Publication: Aerial Seabird and Marine Mammal Surveys of Northern California, Oregon, and Washington, 2011-2012

Seabird Vulnerability Assessment for Renewable Energy Projects

The eastern Pacific, near the coast of the western United States, supports abundant breeding seabirds and a variety of shorebird and waterbird species that migrate to or through this region. These species are protected under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, and some are highlighted of conservation concern, including several species listed as Threatened or Endangered under the U.S. Endangered Species Act. The installation of offshore wind turbines may affect birds in several ways, including increasing the risk of collision above the sea-surface, increasing risk of underwater collision among diving species, and disturbance and/or displacement of individuals from otherwise suitable habitat at sea used for foraging, resting, and commuting. Whereas data on distribution and abundance of seabirds can inform decisions confronting the selection of locations for renewable energy projects, more comprehensive site evaluations require understanding species-specific variability in habitat uses, ranging behaviors, and cumulative threats at sea. The primary goals of this study are to increase the understanding of the flight/diving behavior of seabirds and to combine this with knowledge of the seasonal distribution and abundance among birds at sea, to rank and assess the vulnerability of specific seabird species that inhabit the Pacific OCS. This information is needed to evaluate site selection for renewable energy projects, and can be used to minimize adverse effects to seabirds.

40 Years of North Pacific Seabird Survey Data Now Online

The U.S. Geological Survey has released the North Pacific Pelagic Seabird Database — a massive online resource compiling the results of 40 years of surveys by biologists from the United States, Canada, Japan and Russia. The database documents the abundance and distribution of 160 seabird and 41 marine mammal species over a 10 million-square-mile region of the North Pacific.

“The database offers a powerful tool for analysis of climate change effects on marine ecosystems of the Arctic and North Pacific, and for monitoring the impact of fisheries, vessel traffic and oil development on marine bird communities over a vast region,” said Dr. John Piatt, head of the Seabird and Forage Fish Ecology Research Program at the USGS Alaska Science Center. “It also creates an unprecedented opportunity to study the biogeography and marine ecology of dozens of species of seabirds and marine mammals throughout their range in continental shelf waters of the United States.”

Related Products:
North Pacific Pelagic Seabird Database (NPPSD)

Key seabird areas in southern New England identified using a community occupancy model

Statistical guidelines for assessing marine avian hotspots and coldspots: A case study on wind energy development in the U.S. Atlantic Ocean

Lead Scientists

Josh Adams
Seabird Ecologist
Western Ecological Research Center
p: (831) 460-7566

Allan O'Connell
Patuxent Wildlife Research Center
p: (301) 497-5525

Alicia Berlin
Wildlife Biologist
Patuxent Wildlife Research Center
p: (301) 497-5730


Top Photo: Masked boobies on Baker Island National Wildlife Refuge. Photo courtesy of U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.