The research spans an area of about 43,000km2 - twice the size of Wales - known as the New York Offshore Planning Area (OPA).

A total of twelve ultra-high-resolution surveys are taking place off the US east coast. Scientists at offshore aerial survey specialists, APEM, and biological consultancy, Normandeau Associates, have now completed analysis of the sixth survey, marking the halfway point of the three-year project.

The project is on behalf of the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority (NYSERDA), to understand seasonal wildlife distribution, abundance, and movement. This baseline data will support New York’s development of 2,400 megawatts of offshore wind, establishing the state as a global hub for offshore wind. 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 (BOEM) for consideration for siting new wind energy areas.

Aerial survey

The first half of the study captured remarkable images of birds, sharks, sea turtles, fish, and marine mammals. 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, including two blue whales and six North Atlantic right whales, as well as more than five thousand dolphins, by far the most common marine mammal in the project.

As the surveys progress, researchers will look for patterns in the distribution of wildlife. This will aid in identifying areas of lower biological activity where any potential impacts from offshore wind development would be lowest.

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 centimeters 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.

Stephanie McGovern from APEM, said: “Each animal is mapped with very precise location data, including determining the flight heights of birds. We have been able to observe and track some particularly interesting behavioral patterns, such as sharks hunting large shoals of fish.

“Massive numbers are being recorded of some species, especially birds, whilst also identifying rarer species such as the blue whale and whale sharks. Having reached the halfway point of the surveys, we’re looking forward to investigating what the remaining surveys reveal.”

To date, behavioral 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.

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.

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 on a daily basis.

Anyone interested in viewing the live data can visit this website.

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