NYSERDA and Normandeau Announce World’s Largest Offshore Wildlife Aerial Survey Off New York’s Atlantic Coast Reaches Halfway Point

16 May 2018

The New York State Energy Research and Development Authority (NYSERDA) and Normandeau Associates announced that the halfway point has been reached in a comprehensive three-year study of wildlife resources being conducted off the Atlantic Coast. The data is helping promote environmentally responsible development of the state’s offshore wind resource while advancing New York’s development of 2,400 megawatts of offshore wind and establishing the state as a global hub for offshore wind.

Alicia Barton, President and CEO, NYSERDA said, “Collecting this data is crucial in the state’s effort to provide regulators and offshore wind developers with new scientific data they can use to help avoid the areas that support the richest diversity of marine life. The aerial survey is one of the more than 20 robust studies the state has undertaken to demonstrate carrying out Governor Cuomo’s pledge that the offshore wind resource will be developed in an environmentally responsible manner.”

Halfway through this survey, which is the world’s largest and most detailed digital aerial survey of offshore marine and bird life, more than two million ultra-high resolution images of birds, sharks, sea turtles, fish and marine mammals have been captured, including two blue whales and six North Atlantic right whales. Tens of thousands of birds have been identified, including shearwaters, double-crested cormorants, petrels, gulls, terns and bald eagles. Hundreds of sharks and whales have also been recorded, as well as more than five thousand dolphins, by far the most common marine mammal in the project. Interesting spatial patterns are already emerging from the data 

The research covers the New York Offshore Planning Area (OPA) - about 16,000 square miles of the New York Bight – larger than the state of Maryland. The OPA was identified by NYSERDA as an area of interest for potential development of offshore renewable energy projects. Data collected in the first year of the project helped support New York State’s effort to identify the area recommended to the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BEOM) for consideration for siting new wind energy areas. The area recommended presents the greatest opportunity for cost-effective development, while also presenting the least conflict to ocean users, including wildlife. The data from the first two years is now being used by BOEM in their own assessment, enhancing the understanding of seasonal wildlife distribution. 

A total of 12 ultra-high resolution surveys are being conducted off the East Coast by the environmental consultant Normandeau Associates in collaboration with APEM Ltd., a firm that specializes in ultra-high resolution offshore aerial surveys. The firm has now completed analysis of the sixth survey, marking the halfway point of the three-year project.

The survey supports Governor Cuomo’s mandate for half of the state’s electricity to come from renewable resources by 2030 and advances his State of the State commitment that New York to issue two solicitations in 2018 and 2019 to secure a combined total of at least 800 megawatts of offshore wind power.

The work is gathering the highest resolution images ever for a project of this scale, using the Shearwater III, APEM’s unique ultra-high resolution camera system. Each pixel corresponds to 1.5 centimetres on the ocean surface, with the images showing sufficient detail for taxonomists at Normandeau and APEM to identify the species of birds and marine animals captured on the images.

Once downloaded, each of the thousands of survey photographs is digitally processed to allow it to be viewed for the screening process. If an image is found to contain a point of interest, that target is extracted for further analysis, so taxonomists can identify the species before adding that result to the survey totals.

Julia Robinson Willmott, Senior Ornithologist at Normandeau said, “We are able to map each animal very precisely including determining the flight heights of birds. Some of the interesting behaviour we have observed includes predatory sharks controlling the configuration of large fish shoals.”

Robinson Willmott added, “Abundances of some species, especially birds, are massive but we are also finding rarer species such as the blue whale and whale sharks. Now at the halfway point, we’re looking forward to investigating what the remaining surveys reveal.” 

To date, behavioural patterns include sharks circling large shoals of fish, a female dolphin with its calf, dense shoals of rays, sea turtles, and large numbers of individual sharks, including a huge basking shark.

In another world-first in aerial surveys of this nature, findings from the surveys are accessible to the public in near real time, via a website set up by Normandeau. As analysis of the data progresses, results are uploaded to an interactive website daily.

NYSERDA | http://www.nyserda.ny.gov