A recently- published research paper based off of a study conducted by Oregon State University researchers on sediment and animals on the ocean floor in the Pacific Northwest could aid future renewable energy projects off the coast.
The paper, titled: “Small proportions of silt linked to distinct and predictable differences in marine macrofaunal assemblages on the continental shelf of the Pacific Northwest,” found that relationships between the sediment and the animal life was consistent across several sample sites along the coast.
The information helps renewable energy companies considering developing offshore wind and wave energy facilities in the Pacific Northwest, because they need to consider the environmental implications before constructing facilities.
The research was funded by the U.S. Bureau of Ocean Energy Management and the Oregon Wave Energy Trust and led by Sarah Henkel, a marine biologist at the Hatfield Marine Science Center in Newport.
Henkel said the surveys she conducted on the sediment would allow companies to reduce collections of organisms on potential development sites.
“If you went to a site within the region and got detailed sediment information you’d have good way to predict what animals you’d see at that site, even if you didn’t collect the animals,” Henkel said.
Rather than doing broad comprehensive animal collections, she said companies could do more physical surveys and a reduced amount of biological surveys.
The survey collection sites clustered around 8 locations, including Bandon, Siltcoos, Reedsport, Newport, Cape Perpetua and Nehalem. The other locations were Eureka, Calif. and Grays Harbor, Wash..
Henkel said the major finding of the paper was the sensitivity certain marine animals, like clams and worms, have to mud or silt.
The marine biologist said scientists generally consider anything less than 10 percent mud to be pure sand, however once they did high resolution sampling researchers found that samples with less one-percent mud had different animals living there.
“But as soon as there was one percent mud they were gone,” Henkel said, “The surprising thing was how fine that line was.”
That has implications for energy companies that could potentially displace some of the sediment on the ocean floor.
“You could go from a place with some fine sediment to none due to this scouring action, then see a turnover of animals in that area,” Henkel said.
The important thing to note, Henkel said, is the depth of the observations in the current study.
“These observations are really only valid in the depth range that is paper covers,” Henkel said.
So, the research wouldn’t apply to deeper-water projects like the failed wind energy project off of Coos Bay’s shores.
However, the researcher is conducting similar surveys at greater depths in anticipation of future projects.
While researchers can hypothesize the implications of the findings, Henkel said it’s hard to know until a renewable operation is built.
“It’s hard to say until we actually get a project in the water and are able to monitor what’s happening,” Henkel said.
But that’s something that’s in the works. Oregon State University is in the process of getting a test facility off the ground, or into the water so to speak. The facility, called the Pacific Marine Energy Center, is mostly funded through the U.S. Department of Energy.
Henkel said the center will be modeled after the European Marine Energy Center. She said Europe is much further ahead of the United States in terms of ocean renewables.
The center would be a place where commercial developers could bring their devices and test them in the planned two-mile long by one-mile wide site which would be located six to seven miles offshore, Henkel said.
Henkel said she anticipates having devices off of Newport as soon as 2019.