Tidal stream energy converters (turbines) are currently being installed in tidally energetic coastal sites. However, there is currently a high level of uncertainty surrounding the potential environmental impacts on marine mammals. This is a key consenting risk to commercial introduction of tidal energy technology. Concerns derive primarily from the potential for injury to marine mammals through collisions with moving components of turbines. To understand the nature of this risk, information on how animals respond to tidal turbines is urgently required.
We measured the behaviour of harbour seals in response to acoustic playbacks of simulated tidal turbine sound within a narrow coastal channel subject to strong, tidally induced currents. This was carried out using data from animal-borne GPS tags and shore-based observations, which were analysed to quantify behavioural responses to the turbine sound.
Results showed that the playback state (silent control or turbine signal) was not a significant predictor of the overall number of seals sighted within the channel.
However, there was a localised impact of the turbine signal; tagged harbour seals exhibited significant spatial avoidance of the sound which resulted in a reduction in the usage by seals of between 11 and 41% at the playback location. The significant decline in usage extended to 500 m from the playback location at which usage decreased by between 1 and 9% during playback.
Synthesis and applications: This study provides important information for policy makers looking to assess the potential impacts of tidal turbines and advise on development of the tidal energy industry. Results showing that seals avoid tidal turbine sound suggest that a proportion of seals encountering tidal turbines will exhibit behavioural responses resulting in avoidance of physical injury; in practice, the empirical changes in usage can be used directly as avoidance rates when using collision risk models to predict the effects of tidal turbines on seals. There is now a clear need to measure how marine mammals behave in response to actual operating tidal turbines in the long term to learn whether marine mammals and tidal turbines can co-exist safely at the scales currently envisaged for the industry.