The UK is committed to delivering net zero through significant expansion of offshore wind and to achieving Good Environmental Status (GES) for UK seas by 2021, a target likely to be missed.
We need to understand ecosystem responses to the cumulative pressures of a large increase in deployment of offshore wind, in combination with other anthropogenic stressors, and how this will influence progress towards GES. This requires new scientific approaches that advance our understanding of the dynamics of marine ecosystems.
The Ecological Consequences of Offshore Wind (ECOwind) research programme aims to address a critical gap in understanding how marine ecosystems will respond to the planned large-scale expansion of UK offshore wind infrastructure.
The critical gap in understanding was identified in the findings of the House of Lords Committee’s ‘North Sea energy and ecology’ review, communicated in a letter to the Secretary of State BEIS on 23rd March 2021.
The programme will provide evidence to inform marine policy and management of increasing pressures on UK marine ecosystems from a combination of:
- offshore wind
- other anthropogenic stressors (for example oil and gas, aquaculture, and fishing)
- the environmental response to climate change (for example deoxygenation and rising sea temperatures) and ocean acidification.
The programme’s two priority research challenges are:
- how will the expansion of offshore wind, combined with other anthropogenic pressures (including the environmental response to climate change and ocean acidification) affect species interactions and the functioning of UK marine ecosystems?
- how can understanding these ecological consequences inform the development of robust approaches to marine environmental recovery and net environmental gain?
Incorporating both observational and predictive approaches will be required to develop our capacity to predict ecosystem change and to refine policy responses over time. Expertise needs to be combined across marine science disciplines to develop new ways of understanding effects at spatial and temporal scales that are relevant for populations of key species.
Three research areas
Proposals must respond to these challenges by addressing all three of the programme’s research areas:
- observing inter-species interactions, population dynamics and viability
- enhancing marine observations
- informing marine policy and management solutions.
These areas are described in detail below.
In addressing these three areas, the greater proportion of funding within each project will go towards areas one and two, which involve developing predictive and observational techniques.
Area three is focused on informing decision-making and the implementation of emerging policy concepts.
Different observational and predictive approaches will be suited to different species, scales and geographical areas, and for different outputs.
In addressing all three of the programme’s research areas, proposals will need to make significant contributions towards delivering the expected outcomes of this research programme, which are to:
- enhance understanding of ecosystem responses to the cumulative pressures of large-scale deployment of offshore wind, in combination with other stressors
- provide a sound evidence base to inform decision-making for managing human activity and policy prioritisation associated with the delivery of an expansion of offshore wind
- demonstrate research advances in using the latest innovative technologies for integrated marine observing approaches to inform and support better understanding of delivering net environmental gain
- provide a sound evidence base to inform policy and marine management responses for delivering net environmental gain whilst deploying fixed or floating offshore wind
- develop long-term relationships between UKRI researchers, government and industry, built around:
- rigorous applied research
- long-term data management and archiving.
Area one: understanding species interactions, population dynamics and viability
How are inter-species interactions affected by offshore wind and what are the potential consequences for key species population dynamics and viability?
Research in this area is focused on investigating and modelling the effects of offshore wind and other pressures on ecosystems, including the interactions:
- between species
- across trophic levels.
This considers the effects on marine food webs arising from the construction, operation, maintenance and decommissioning of offshore wind farm infrastructure, including:
- inter-species interactions
- predator-prey dynamics.
Effects on prey species and supporting habitats have the potential to significantly change predator behaviour and possibly influence competition between key species. These interactions and effects need to be understood, including both positive and negative effects, and their relative importance.
The long-term resilience of populations to pressures from offshore wind deployment, such as mortality from wind turbine collision or the creation of new habitats that may influence biodiversity and ecosystem functioning, is currently uncertain.
This is due to a lack of knowledge of effects at the temporal and spatial scales of populations, particularly of mobile species of birds, marine mammals and fish. This is compounded by uncertainty around the effects of climate change and ocean acidification, which is also driving population changes, and which also needs to be considered.
Understanding the potential for offshore wind to alter predator-prey dynamics and the implications for ecosystem functioning requires predictive approaches. Data collection and modelling on the distribution, behavioural ecology and population dynamics of key species will be required.
The aim is to determine how the long-term (approximately 30 year) viability or proliferation of populations may be affected by offshore wind infrastructure. Combining innovative modelling approaches and empirical data collection will enhance our understanding of ecosystem processes and the effectiveness of measures to protect, restore and enhance populations.
The key species addressed in each project should consider those most at risk, including those in decline, as well as species that are critical for ecosystem function at different trophic levels (for example prey species and the mechanisms that drive their spatial and temporal population dynamics). Where possible, work should be underpinned by close working with offshore wind operators.
The key species are listed in the OWEC review of priority evidence needs around the impact of offshore wind development on key receptors and research underway.
Area two: enhancing marine observations
How can marine observations be enhanced through innovative technologies to inform our understanding of the ecological consequences of offshore wind infrastructure on UK marine ecosystems?
Research in this area is focused on using and developing innovative technologies to observe processes and detect change in ecosystem functioning across relevant spatial and temporal scales.
This makes it possible to assess actual effects of offshore wind deployment on the populations of key species in the context of other stressors. In support of area one, the innovative technologies include:
- innovative data collection technologies (for example, robotics, autonomous systems and artificial intelligence)
- robust data sharing platforms to enable access and collaboration.
Research must focus on how to use these innovative technologies to:
- collect data more effectively
- test predictions and modelling in area one
- measure ecosystem change and refine approaches over time
- ensure relevance and accessibility for wider use.
Consideration should be given to scales of collection for ease of collaboration. For example, the simultaneous sampling of other parameters at the same spatial and temporal scales rather than focusing solely on a species or a trophic level.
The design of observation techniques must include:
- robust feedback loops and iteration between data collection
- increased understanding of ecosystem functioning and modelling approaches
- the refinement of observational programmes.
Area three: informing marine policy and management solutions
How can an improved understanding of potential changes in marine ecosystems developed through areas one and two be used to inform marine policy and management solutions, including implementing net environmental gain and marine environmental recovery?
Research may include interdisciplinary approaches where appropriate, to understand benefits and disbenefits, and to inform policy and management.
Research in this area is focused on incorporating the evidence developed through areas one and two into the development and implementation of current, and emerging, policy and management. This includes:
- addressing net environmental gain
- promoting marine environmental recovery.
This will require integrated and cross-cutting approaches to measuring and understanding relative benefits and disbenefits of marine activities, across a range of metrics. This will allow us to:
- coherently make progress in understanding implications for biodiversity in the context of climate change
- inform management.
An assessment framework would benefit from the ability to derive and translate population changes into comparative values that can represent biodiversity impacts (habitats and species) across a range of metrics. This can include:
- natural (for example, the Biodiversity Metric 3.0 and blue carbon)
- economic (for example, levelised cost of energy, gross value added)
- societal (ecosystems services).
Bioeconomic modelling is required to understand how change in species populations might affect other economic activity. The natural metrics developed should be relevant across trophic levels to inform:
- understanding of ecosystem resilience
- a balanced approach to the sustainable management of human activity.
Addressing net environmental gain and restoration requires understanding of the balance between positive and negative changes for both habitats and species caused by offshore windfarm development with other anthropogenic pressures. This includes integrating understanding of effects at the scale of individual wind farms into strategic approaches which:
- consider the larger spatial distribution (and temporal pattern) of populations
- inform actions to ensure biodiversity net gain, including:
UK national marine waters
Proposals should primarily focus on UK national marine waters so that findings are most relevant for UK policy development and marine spatial planning, as well as building on existing UK-wide government and industry-funded activities and partnerships.
‘UK marine waters’ is defined as the broad marine habitat that covers all UK areas that are either permanently immersed in seawater or are inundated with saline water at some stage in the tidal cycle.
- all subtidal habitats out to the 200 nautical mile limit of the UK’s marine area (within the UK’s Exclusive Economic Zone).
However, we recognise the need to understand consequences at a population-level and the dynamic nature of marine ecosystems. Therefore, applicants are encouraged to include international collaborations where these can be demonstrated to add value to the outcomes of the ECOWind research programme.
Applicants should ensure that they are aware of all relevant previous and current research to avoid duplication and ensure that their proposal is focused on delivering leading edge research.
Proposed research should take advantage of innovative observational and predictive approaches to better understand the functioning of the UK marine ecosystems within which large-scale offshore wind deployment is situated. The Offshore Wind Environmental Evidence Register on The Crown Estate’s Marine Data Exchange provides information on recently identified key evidence gaps concerning offshore wind environmental impacts on:
- marine mammals
- the benthic environment.
Read about the current projects in the Offshore Wind Evidence and Change programme (PDF, 666KB)
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Other relevant research projects and mapping activity (for example, ScotMer Evidence Maps) is referenced in the supplementary information section.
Check existing and proposed research on the Offshore Wind Environmental Evidence Register.
Proposals are required to include a section that clearly outlines the intended outcomes of the project. This should include how the proposal will:
- make significant contributions towards delivering the expected outcomes of this research programme (outlined in ‘three research areas’ above)
- benefit stakeholders (including policy, regulatory, industry).
NERC services and facilities
Proposals should include formal requests (and access costs) for NERC services and facilities (for example, HPC or isotope analyses) where relevant.
No additional funding is available to cover NERC services and facilities costs. Therefore all costs associated with the use of NERC services and facilities (including any costs of the National Marine Facilities (NMF)) must be included within:
- the funding limit of proposals
- the directly incurred other costs of proposals.
The NERC funding contribution for proposed projects will be at 80% of FEC with the exception of NMF support costs which will be paid at 100% and must be included within the £2 million funding limit. For example, if the NMF costs for supporting proposed ECOWind research are £400,000, then only £1.6 million will be available to cover the 80% FEC costs of the proposed project.
Prior to submitting a proposal, applicants wishing to use a NERC service or facility must contact the facility to seek agreement that they could provide the service required.
Applicants wishing to use most NERC facilities will need to submit a mandatory ‘technical assessment’ with their proposal. This technical assessment is required for aircraft but not for NERC marine facilities and high-performance computing (HPC). For NERC, this means a quote for the work which the facility will provide.
A full list of the facilities requiring this quote can be found on the NERC website. Further information on NERC services and facilities can be found on the NERC website.
For NERC-relevant data the NERC data policy must be adhered to, and proposals must develop an outline data management plan. NERC will pay the data centre directly on behalf of the programme for archival and curation services. However, applicants should ensure they request sufficient resource to cover preparation of data for archiving by the research team.
Read NERC’s data policy.
In addition to adhering to the NERC data policy, data submitted to the relevant NERC Environmental Data Exchange will be made available to The Crown Estate’s Marine Data Service after the embargo period.
As the expansion of offshore wind is taking place on a quick timescale, the embargo period for the ECOWind programme will be one year, to ensure that new data is available as soon as possible.
The ECOWind programme will be supported by a data initiative that will provide researchers with free access to data that will significantly enhance the outcomes of funded research projects. This initiative will leverage ongoing activities, such as Defra’s Offshore Wind Enabling Actions (OWEA) big data project, The Crown Estate-funded Marine Data Exchange and the NERC INSITE data initiative, to meet its two objectives for this research programme:
- secure access to relevant OWEC and other government funded data, and industry-owned data, which will add significant value to research projects
- provide additional fieldwork opportunities for research projects to collect new data through access to:
- industry sampling or survey equipment (for example, remotely operated vehicles)
- offshore installations.
In addition, the data initiative will develop long-term data products that will be useful to both industry and the UKRI science community beyond the end of the research programme.
More information on the opportunities arising from the data initiative will be provided during the delivery of the programme and it is anticipated that some initial information will be made available in early 2022 to applicants who have been invited to submit full proposals.
Proposals can bid for up to £2.5 million at full economic cost for a duration of up to 48 months. NERC will provide funding at 80% of full economic cost to awarded ECOWind projects (in other words, NERC will award grants with a budget of up to £2 million). Grants must start no later than 9 August 2022.
In exception, NMF support costs will be paid at 100% and must be included within the £2 million funding limit. For example, if the NMF costs for supporting proposed ECOWind research are £400,000, then only £1.6 million will be available to cover the 80% of full economic cost of the proposed project.
Proposals are required to address all three of the ECOWind programme’s research areas, with the greater proportion of the requested funding going towards research in areas one and two.
The ECOWind programme will fund three proposals that provide a balanced portfolio of projects addressing different key species. Funded proposals will have a distinct focus on the interactions around different populations of:
- key species, such as:
- sea birds
- marine mammals
- benthic communities
- species that are critical for ecosystem function at different trophic levels, for example prey species, such as:
Attendance at Programme Advisory Group (PAG) meetings to assess progress will be a requirement for project teams twice a year. At least one of these meetings will be held virtually.
The travel and subsistence costs for up to three members of each project team to attend any in person meetings with the PAG will be funded by NERC and so these costs should not be included in the costs of ECOWind proposals.