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Operational offshore wind farms and associated ship traffic cause profound changes in distribution patterns of Loons (Gavia spp.)

Mendel, Bettina, Schwemmer, Philipp, Peschko, Verena, Müller, Sabine, Schwemmer, Henriette, Mercker, Moritz, Garthe, Stefan
Journal of environmental management 2019 v.231 pp. 429-438
Gavia, anthropogenic activities, conservation status, data collection, habitats, planning, seabirds, ships, traffic, wind farms, wind turbines, North Sea
Seabirds select suitable habitats at sea, but these habitats may be strongly impacted by marine spatial planning, including the construction of offshore wind farms (OWFs) and the associated ship traffic. Loons (Gavia spp.) are particularly vulnerable to anthropogenic activities and are also of high conservation status, making them particularly relevant to marine planning processes. We investigated the effects of OWF construction and ship traffic on Loon distributions in the German North Sea on a large spatial scale, using a ‘before–after’ control impact analysis approach and a long-term data set. Many OWFs were built in or close to core areas of Loon distributions. Loons showed significant shifts in their distribution in the ‘after’ period and subsequently aggregated between two OWF clusters, indicating the remaining suitable habitat. The decrease in Loon abundance became significant as far as about 16 km from the closest OWF. Ship traffic also had a significant negative impact on Loons, indicating that OWFs deterred Loons through the combined effect of ship traffic and the wind turbines themselves. This study provides the first analysis of the extensive effects of OWFs and ships on Loons on a large spatial scale. The results provide an essential baseline for future marine spatial planning processes in the German North Sea and elsewhere.