In the United States 17 offshore wind sites are under development in the Atlantic, from Cape Cod at the north end down to North Carolina’s Outer Banks. Once completed these wind farms will create a network of turbines along the East Coast continental shelf like nothing else on Earth.
While nobody knows what toll the looming structures might take on seabirds, scientists say gannets may be especially vulnerable. North American populations have stopped expanding over the past decade. Scientists pin the leveling off on warming oceans near their breeding grounds that have altered their prey base. Here, on their wintering grounds, climate change is evident, too. A decade ago Patteson and I would never have seen shrimp boats in January: Back then the North Carolina shrimp harvest was negligible in cold winter waters. Now nearly 40 percent of the annual harvest is caught between December and March. 
As population biologists, Kate Williams and Iain Stenhouse of the Center for Research on Offshore Wind and the Environment at the Biodiversity Research Institute in Maine begrudgingly prioritize the health of a species over losses of individual birds. They don’t love the idea that some gannets could die because of wind farms. But their driving concern is saving species—and the entire ecosystem. It’s a matter of scale: Montevecchi reckons the North American gannet population can probably handle 6 or even 60 extra fatalities a year in exchange for preserving their habitat long-term.
That’s a calculus the scientists are prepared to accept. “We have such a hard time grasping how big a problem climate change is that it’s sometimes easier to focus on the immediate risk of a structure in the water,” Felton says. “These birds are going to lose all of their habitat if the planet keeps warming. They need clean energy, but they are going to be threatened by it. The best we can do is minimize that threat.”
Research conducted over the next 5 to 10 years will help developers and authorities adapt wind farms to reduce risks to wildlife. But there will undoubtedly be losses. Montevecchi, a member of BRI’s science council, would like to see wind developers held accountable for any and all bird fatalities that occur. “The reality is that if you put something out there, birds are going to hit it,” he says. “We are responsible whether it’s one bird or a thousand. We have to assume responsibility for those deaths.”
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