Wind farm developers are being urged to factor local seabird population
trends into plans to avoid contributing to species decline, says new
ZSL-led study.
Offshore windfarm developments could avoid adding to the plight of wild
birds such as the black-legged kittiwake, by ensuring that the most recent
data on local populations is considered when planning, says new study from
ZSL (Zoological Society London).
Research published today in Conservation Science and Practice shows that
although the UK has some of the best seabird monitoring activity anywhere
in the world, key data is being ignored during offshore windfarm planning
assessments.
Around the world, seabirds are experiencing long-term population decline,
with climate change and reduction in food sources as the key drivers. These
threats are compounded for seabirds in the UK, which now face additional
risks from poorly planned offshore wind energy development.
Renewable energy from wind farms is set to quadruple within the next
decade, and although this is good news for reducing carbon emissions,
seabirds are at risk of displacement from feeding sites, and even death due
to collisions with turbine blades.
Developers often rely on a tool called a Population viability analysis
(PVA) to assess potential impacts to vulnerable species, such as seabirds.
These assessments typically use summary data to predict how future seabird
populations might fare. However, many species of seabird such as
cliff-nesting gulls like the Kittiwake (Rissa tridactyla) are experiencing
ongoing population decline due to other pressures. Not taking these
existing drivers of change into consideration when assessing the potential
impacts from windfarms could influence developers’ understanding of how
already struggling species are likely to respond.
ZSL and UCL (University College London) conservation scientist and lead
author of the study, Catharine Horswill said: “If existing drivers of
population change are not considered during assessments, future threats are
likely to be underestimated. We need wind farms to tackle the climate
crisis but protecting biodiversity must also be a priority. We need to
tighten up assessments to make sure that potential impacts to already
struggling wildlife, such as the Kittiwake, are better understood.
“There have been great developments to help protect vulnerable wildlife in
the rise of renewable energy developments, but more still can be done.”
The study focused on a colony of black-legged kittiwakes breeding on Skomer
Island in Wales – within close proximity of an offshore wind energy
development currently under planning assessment. Skomer is home to other
seabirds including the largest Atlantic puffin colony in southern Britain,
and over half of the world’s Manx shearwater population. The population of
kittiwakes at Skomer declined rapidly between 2005 and 2020 and is
experiencing ongoing decline in rates of breeding success (number of chicks
that successfully fledge each year). This is thought to be due in part to
rising sea surface temperatures, and reduced sources of food.
By incorporating the ongoing rate of decline in kittiwake breeding success
into current wind farm planning assessments (PVAs), the team saw the levels
of predicted impact dramatically increase. This showed that current
assessments may underestimate long-term risk.
Lisa Morgan, Head of Islands and Marine at The Wildlife Trust of South and
West Wales (WTSWW) said, “In principle, we support the development of the
marine renewables industry. However, we recognise that uncertainties exist
regarding the levels of impacts of these technologies on Welsh marine life
and therefore a precautionary approach needs to be applied to their
development. This means the location, scale and type of marine renewable
energy schemes should be determined by proper environmental assessment,
using the best available data.
“We don’t know for sure what’s driving the decline of kittiwakes on Skomer,
although we do know that the number of chicks that fledge is low in recent
years. This work by Catharine and the team, illustrates the importance of
our long-term seabird monitoring on Skomer. If used correctly, our data can
help developers and government to determine whether proposed floating
offshore wind projects near Skomer are likely to make matters worse for a
species already struggling.”
Black-legged kittiwakes are listed as Vulnerable on the IUCN Red List.
Overlooking current declines in rates of breeding success when assessing a
colonies’ response to new offshore renewable energy developments could
therefore have drastic long-term consequences for this species.
Catharine added: “Datasets of seabird breeding success and populations
counts are openly available for UK colonies on public databases. Our study
shows that declining breeding success is widespread across the UK and
Ireland, with many colonies showing even faster rates of decline than seen
at Skomer. I hope this study spurs change to the guidance surrounding data
requirements for impact assessments for offshore renewable energy
developments.”

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