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New international research paves the way for offshore wind to deliver biodiversity net gain


A new international data collation exercise has brought together disparate seabed biodiversity data from across the North Sea into a central data set, helping to drive forward the sustainable expansion of offshore wind and to identify how biodiversity net gain can be delivered in tandem. 

The North Sea Net Gain study, led by The Crown Estate in partnership with the Dutch-led Rich North Sea programme, aims to ensure that decisions on the next generation of offshore wind farms will be based on the most comprehensive information and will bring biodiversity net gain.

The project is funded by The Crown Estate’s £25 million investment into its Offshore Wind Evidence and Change Programme (OWEC), and by The Rich North Sea programme. It is delivered through international collaboration between the UK government’s Centre for Environment, Fisheries and Aquaculture Science (Cefas) and Flemish marine research organisation The Flanders Marine Institute (VLIZ), and supported by a project advisory group which included members from Natural England and the Joint Nature Conservation Committee.

The study itself responds to an urgent need to improve understanding of the biodiversity of the seabed on a larger scale. Through the adoption of a big data approach, development of big data infrastructure, and expansion of an existing dataset, the findings of the study have significantly enhanced understanding of the seabed. Such approaches are likely to play a significant role in the sustainable development of offshore wind in the North Sea. The findings of this work provide important context for decision makers.

Data collected by industry, government and academic sources across seven countries have been brought together into a central data set containing almost 50,000 seabed samples with over 1.4 million records, and state-of-the-art modelling techniques used to map benthic (seafloor) biodiversity across international boundaries. As part of this, two new online apps have been produced under the name ‘OneBenthic’. The OneBenthic Data Extraction Tool provides developers, regulators and decision makers with access to the enhanced big data collected by the study. In addition, the OneBenthic Layers Tool provides access to benthic biodiversity models developed under this and other research projects, at speed.  Both apps are publicly available here: ; .

The enhanced data are already being used in other OWEC projects which will develop additional biodiversity knowledge, including POSEIDON, a four-year project launched in January 2022 and led by Natural England, which will improve the knowledge of environmental risks across UK waters. The projects will further enhance our understanding of the seabed and will be added to the OneBenthic Layers tool once complete. International collaboration throughout this project has also supported enhanced flow of data between UK and European data repositories, widening the accessibility of seabed biodiversity data.

The North Sea is one of the first regions in the world to develop offshore wind farms at scale, providing opportunities for testing and advancing new approaches. The approach taken by this study could provide useful templates for other regions such as the Celtic Sea, as well as global regions where offshore wind energy is planned.

The North Sea Net Gain report can be read here.

Huub den Rooijen, Managing Director of Marine at The Crown Estate said:

“Offshore wind is set to play a pivotal role in decarbonisation and the UK's transition to net zero – but delivering on that potential in the most sustainable way requires balanced and holistic consideration of the natural environment and other marine activities. This study, delivered through our Offshore Wind Evidence and Change programme, makes an important contribution to strengthening essential biodiversity data.  It will be invaluable not just to the UK but across the world, helping to ensure the successful and sustainable expansion of new offshore wind farms in other locations.”

Erwin Coolen, Director at The Rich North Sea Programme said:

“We need to conserve, enhance and sustainably use our North Sea. The roll-out of offshore wind, which we need urgently to tackle climate change, must be within the ecological boundaries of our North Sea, meaning sustainable development that includes enhanced understanding of the conditions at site. Decision making on future offshore wind farms must be based on the most comprehensive information and deliver biodiversity net gain. Biodiversity is not influenced by borders and neither should we be. It is great to have collaborated and shared knowledge on an international level.”