Studying Wildlife on the Mid-Atlantic Outer Continental Shelf

Researchers are still learning about how offshore wind energy facilities affect marine ecosystems, but it is clear that the potential effects may vary during different development phases, and that species respond in a variety of ways. The scale of development is likely to be important in determining the significance of these effects, and physical and ecological context is essential for understanding and minimizing effects of offshore development on wildlife.

The mid-Atlantic Outer Continental Shelf supports large populations of marine wildlife year round, including marine species that reside in the region during either the summer or winter periods. Many species make annual migrations up and down the eastern seaboard, taking them directly through the mid-Atlantic region in spring and fall. This region is also a likely location for future wind energy development, and includes three federally designated Wind Energy Areas (WEAs) offshore of Delaware, Maryland, and Virginia.

The regional Mid-Atlantic Baseline Studies and Maryland projects ( recently provided comprehensive baseline ecological data to regulators, developers, and other stakeholders that will help inform the siting and permitting of offshore wind facilities on the mid-Atlantic Outer Continental Shelf.  Research collaborators studied the distributions, abundance, and movements of birds, marine mammals, sea turtles, and other wildlife, including:

  1. Two years of high resolution digital video aerial surveys and boat-based surveys to assess wildlife distribution and abundance patterns;
  2. Development of statistical models to identify ecological drivers of these patterns and predict important habitat and aggregation areas;
  3. Use of individual tracking methods to provide complementary information on population connectivity, individual movements, and seasonal site fidelity for several focal bird species;
  4. Identification of species likely to be exposed to offshore wind energy development activities in the mid-Atlantic study area; and
  5. Exploration of technological, methodological, and analytical advancements to improve future environmental risk assessments.

Boat-based and digital video aerial surveys each had specific advantages and disadvantages, but were largely complementary. The study area was important for wintering and breeding animals, and its location also made it a key migratory corridor. There was considerable variation in species composition and spatial patterns by season, largely driven by dynamic environmental conditions, but there were some consistent patterns of wildlife distributions observed during the study. Habitat gradients in nearshore waters were important influences on productivity and patterns of species distributions and abundance. Waters within about 30-40 km of shore, particularly in areas offshore of the mouths of Chesapeake and Delaware Bays, were found to be areas of consistently high abundance and species diversity.

This study provides the first comprehensive view of taxa that are likely to be exposed to offshore wind energy development in the mid-Atlantic region. Seasonal baseline data on wildlife species composition, distributions, and relative abundance are essential for understanding when and where animals may be affected by anthropogenic activities. The results of this study offer insight to help address environmental permitting requirements for current and future projects, and for identifying species or taxa in particular need of additional study.

Summary reports and the full technical reports for the Mid-Atlantic Baseline Studies and Maryland projects are available for download on the projects’ webpage at Reports for the Mid-Atlantic Baseline Studies project are also available on Tethys at….

Survey data are available for download on the project website: Data are also included in the Northwest Atlantic Seabird Catalog, a federal database that is a key repository for wildlife distribution data on the Atlantic Outer Continental Shelf.

The Biodiversity Research Institute will also be holding a webinar on November 17 to provide an overview of the Mid-Atlantic Baseline Studies and discuss its findings. More information on this webinar including its login information can be found on Tethys at


Project Funders and Collaborators

The project was funded by the Department of Energy’s (DOE’s) Wind and Water Power Technologies Office in 2011, with additional support from a wide range of partners, including the Maryland Department of Natural Resources, Maryland Energy Administration, Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Sea Duck Joint Venture, The Bailey Wildlife Foundation, The Nature Conservancy, Ocean View Foundation, The Bluestone Foundation, Maine Outdoor Heritage Fund, and Davis Conservation Foundation.

Project investigators included scientists from Biodiversity Research Institute, North Carolina State University, City University of New York, Duke University, Oregon State University, and the University of Oklahoma. HiDef Aerial Surveying Ltd., Capt. Brian Patteson Inc., and many other collaborators were also involved in the project (mostly associated with several longer-term seabird telemetry studies, which are still ongoing).

Marine Mammals
Sea Turtles