Wind farms – good or bad for seals?

While visiting the UK coast line you may be lucky to spot seals amongst the marine wildlife. However, this may become trickier as researchers have found that some seals prefer to forage for food at offshore wind farms.

Published in Current Biology this is believed to be the first study to show marine mammals feeding at wind farms. Using GPS tags, it was found that a number of harbour seals, Phoca vitulina, were repeatedly visiting wind turbines in the North Sea, with sites including Sheringham Shoal in the UK and Alpha Ventus in Germany. The researchers concluded that the structures may act as artificial reefs, attracting the mammals to hunt for prey.

It was noted that a number of the seals were making ‘grid-like’ patterns suggesting they were foraging between turbines. It was also found that the seals followed the path of man-made pipes along the sea floor, which are also believed to act as artificial reefs. While it is unknown what species they are hunting exactly, they are likely to be attracted by fish which in turn feed on invertebrates living in the reefs.

 

Dr Russell, from the University of St Andrews, states that more research is needed to understand the ecological consequences of the wildlife behaviour around manmade structures such as wind farms. While it may be seen as successful in terms of seals returning to forage for food in the same location, there are also issues concerning the machinery and maintenance vessels in the area. The Marine Conservation Society have stated that they are not surprised by the seals using the wind farms as the structures are often built on sand flats that are important sites for seals. Therefore these results may not necessarily suggest that the structures have made the sites more productive as seals have been seen in the areas studied in the past.

The team behind the study now want to look at whether the turbines have increased the number of prey species, and therefore the number of seals. Dr Russell goes on to explain that if they are in fact increasing the number prey species then this could have a positive impact on seals and other marine mammals, providing more foraging opportunities in the area. However, if the turbines are simply concentrating the number of prey species to a small, single location, rather than it being distributed sparsely throughout the environment, then this can result in the species being ‘hoovered’ up by predators causing a negative effect on the entire ecosystem.

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Abi Gardner

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