St Andrews research finds seals feeding at offshore wind farms

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Researchers have been shocked to find that offshore wind turbines appear to be creating fertile feeding grounds for seals.

The findings of a study carried out by scientists at the University of St Andrews could have implications for the decommissioning of oil and gas infrastructure.

However, the research work sounds a note of caution by not ruling out the potential for adverse impact from man-made structures on marine wildlife.

The study, published this week, found that some seals appeared to deliberately seek out and forage around the structures.

The research was carried out by Dr Deborah Russell, a post-doctoral research fellow at the Scottish Oceans Institute at St Andrews,

Data was gathered from GPS devices attached to Harbour and Grey seals in the North Sea and tracked their movements around the British and Dutch coasts, looking in particular at their movements around wind farms and underwater pipelines.

Dr Russell said she was shocked when she first saw the grid pattern of a seal tracked around an offshore wind farm off Norfolk.

“You could see that the seal appeared to travel in straight lines between turbines, as if he was checking them out for potential prey and then stopping to forage at certain ones,” she said.

“Although marine mammals have previously been observed in the vicinity of offshore man-made structures such as wind farms, as far as we know this is the first time it has been demonstrated that some individuals have an affinity with the structures themselves.

“From the data we can infer that these individuals are foraging at the structures, likely as a result of a reef effect. The behaviour observed could have implications for both offshore wind farm developments and the decommissioning of oil and gas infrastructure.”

But Dr Russell did not rule out possible adverse impacts, saying the study only considered the effect on marine mammals during the operational stage of wind farms while it was during the construction phase that wind farms were predicted to have the most dramatic negative effect on marine mammals.

She said future developments “could be designed to maximise any potential ecological benefits to marine wildlife”.