FISH FACTS: Offshore wind power – the next marine parks debate?

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Offshore wind turbines make great artificial reefs!

IT'S no secret I am a fan of renewable energy, because it has to be part of our future. By definition, non-renewable forms of energy are not sustainable and will eventually run out. And what will be left after that? Sure, nuclear fission is effective and low Co2 , but entails certain risks and disposal of radioactive byproducts remains problematic. Nuclear fusion has been a mirage for some time, always on the horizon, and maybe the many technical problems will be solved soon. In contrast renewables are actually here and now.

Sure, business as usual by burning more of the available coal and gas is the path of least resistance. But the downside is the environmental damage of their extraction (remember the Gulf of Mexico oil spill disaster?) as well as pollution by burning them. The latter is not only the methylmercury etc. released into the atmosphere and our food chains, but also Co2 , which has important negative effects including acidification of the oceans and climate warming. While some uncertainty remains regarding the extent of effects of increasing Co2 on climate, there is no uncertainty about ocean acidification. It will happen on a significant scale if large amounts of fossil fuels continue to be burnt in the next 100 years. So in effect, the transition to renewable energy is simply planning ahead. Delaying the transition out of convenience or inertia will cause more damage that future generations will have to fix.

In Australia, while successive federal governments have generally been laggards on the subject of renewable energy, average mum and dad households have lead the way. As of late 2021, over 3 million Australian households (around 30 per cent of all homes) had rooftop solar electricity installed, which is thought to be the world’s highest per-capita uptake of solar energy. This is clearly a nod to our sunny climate, which makes sense when you consider that the next highest ranked countries on a per capita basis include Germany, Japan and Belgium, none of which strike me as hot sunny destinations. However, one area of renewable energy where Australia has been left behind in world terms is in the field of offshore renewable energy production.

Offshore energy is the production of renewable electricity from ocean-based resources such as wind, wave and tidal power. This has become big business in places like Europe and North America, where large arrays of offshore wind turbines in particular have proven to provide reliable and cost effective power. Now from a fishing perspective, some of the designs of these offshore wind turbines, especially the multi-pylon designs, look just like artificial reefs. This is most exciting, as who has ever heard of a multi-billion dollar artificial reef project? They don’t exist on that scale. However, because they offset their capital costs by generating electricity, billions of dollars are now being spent on large scale offshore renewable energy arrays. In effect, they also become multi-billion dollar artificial reef projects.

In Australia some of the delay stopping investment in offshore energy infrastructure has been due to the absence of a regulatory process to control development in Commonwealth waters. This has now changed with the recent passing of the Offshore Electricity Infrastructure Bill 2021 by the federal government. The upside of the passing of this bill is that projects such as “The Star of the South” (Australia’s first offshore wind project) can now move ahead.

The Star of the South project is proposed for the south coast of Gippsland in Victoria. The project involves installation of up to 200 offshore wind turbine generators, making it one of the largest offshore wind farms in the world, producing up to 2.2 gigawatts of power. This is enough electricity to power up to 1.2 million homes and provide around 20 percent of Victoria’s electricity needs. It is estimated that, if approved, it would take between 6 and 10 years to build such a huge offshore wind farm, clearly dwarfing any known artificial reef project.

Construction of such a large scale artificial reef-like habitat clearly has potential to provide significant “bonus” contributions to fisheries production and substantial new recreational fishing opportunities for Victorian fishers. However, as it seems to be with many Federal Government initiatives of late, there appears to be a major problem that will threaten the potential for a “win – win” situation for offshore renewable energy infrastructure. That problem is access.

The Offshore Electricity Infrastructure Bill 2021 has sections dedicated to Declared Areas, Safety Zones and Protection Zones . The upshot is the legislation, as currently drafted, prohibits movements of vessels within 500 metres of any part of these arrays, with huge fines for any vessel that strays within that distance. Depending on the design of the arrays, this would be the equivalent of a marine park “green zone style” lockout from quite large areas of ocean. Indeed, based on community feedback from consultation for the Star of the South wind project, 50 per cent of respondents were recreational anglers, and their main concern was regarding exclusion zones.

Clearly, more lockouts are unacceptable to local communities which benefit from fishing tourism. Lockouts are also incompatible with generating “win win” economic opportunities to benefit from increased fisheries production around these artificial reef-like structures. Without extensive use of large numbers of marker buoys, it will also be impossible for the average person to accurately determine what constitutes a 500 metre exclusion distance, which will greatly increase their risk of prosecution for inadvertently straying within the exclusion zone.

On the other hand, all of these community polarising outcomes could be avoided if a smaller safety zone exclusion distance (within the quantum of around 100 meters) was proposed. Exclusion distances of this size would be much easier to judge and police, easier to enforce and allow physical marking on the water using marker buoys which would be able to be lined up visually by people in small boats. All of these would greatly increase community acceptance and compliance, whilst allowing fishers closer access to within “casting distance” of the fish resources which tend to reside within the immediate vicinity of these artificial structures.

Besides the unnecessarily large size of the lockout zones, The Offshore Electricity Infrastructure Bill 2021 kicks a few other unnecessary “own goals”. Firstly, there is a lost opportunity to encourage designs which incorporate multiple pylons, horizontal bracing and large internal void areas, which have significantly higher marine habitat value for fisheries production (all of these features are characteristics of purpose-built artificial reefs). Secondly, the legislation proposes removal of these structures at the end of their 30 year working lives. Clearly it makes no sense spending extra money to completely remove the underwater structures at the end of their working life. All this will do is kill enormous numbers of marine animals and destroy the ecological function of the infrastructure as artificial reefs. They would be actively reducing fisheries productivity, at a time when fisheries authorities and communities around Australia are working very hard and spending large amounts of money as they desperately try to increase fisheries productivity in various jurisdictions.

So unless some commonsense prevails, this potential for enormous “win-win” social and economic opportunities from offshore energy infrastructure will be lost.

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