Marine Geospatial Ecology Lab

Meet Debbie Brill: Marine Mammal Subcommittee Coordinator for the Regional Wildlife Science Collaborative for Offshore Wind

Debbie Brill is the marine mammal subcommittee coordinator for the Regional Wildlife Science Collaborative for Offshore Wind (RWSC), which works to coordinate and direct efficient research efforts to support environmentally friendly offshore wind energy development in the U.S. Atlantic. She is a relatively new recruit to MGEL, starting work with the lab in 2021. As a member of the research staff, Debbie works on a variety of projects, although coordinating the RWSC marine mammal subcommittee is currently her main focus. This article takes a deeper dive into Debbie’s work, both with RWSC and related MGEL projects.  

RWSC is structured into sector caucuses and subcommittees, which advise the RWSC staff and the steering committee. The six subcommittees are as follows: marine mammals, birds & bats, sea turtles, habitat & ecosystem, protected fish species, and technology. The marine mammal subcommittee in particular includes representatives from federal agencies, state departments and programs, the offshore wind industry, consultancies, environmental non-governmental organizations, and academic research. Federal agencies represented include the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM) and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), while members of state wildlife department, coastal programs, and energy departments are also present.  

As coordinator, Debbie supports the marine mammal subcommittee by planning for the monthly meetings and sending out the meeting summary to the participants. Brill states “the taxa subcommittees are really the bread and butter of the work that’s being done because they bring together so many different parties with varying expertise and concerns. The way the RWSC is set up it allows for us to get in the weeds with the subcommittee participants but also step back to look at the big picture and have a more integrative view.” 

Debbie Brill at the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority (NYSERDA) State of Science Conference in Tarrytown, New York. Each RWSC subcommittee coordinator, including Debbie, gave an update on the organization’s first year.  

RWSC is in the process of developing an “Integrated Science Plan for Wildlife, Habitat, and Offshore Wind Energy in the U.S. Atlantic”, commonly referred to as “the Science Plan”. This body of work will identify gaps in current knowledge and direct future data collection and analysis efforts. Subcommittees work towards the writing of the science plan, and Debbie directly contributes to the plan by maintaining a list of current and pending studies relating to offshore wind and data collection. “I’m really looking forward to watching the science plan progress. We’ve been collecting the detailed information for a while now, so seeing it all come together as one singular plan will be really exciting,” says Debbie.  

Most recently, Debbie led an effort with the marine mammal subcommittee to complete a “best practices” document for passive acoustic monitoring (PAM) studies. A sub-subcommittee of PAM experts met to combine several other sources into one comprehensive report. Organizations planning to deploy PAM devices in the Atlantic Ocean with the intent of detecting cetaceans or analyzing ocean noise are encouraged to attend a RWSC marine mammal subcommittee meeting to introduce and discuss the project. Debbie keeps track of all such  deployments and organizations in a database, which is then used to inform maps of current PAM deployments on the Northeast Ocean Data Portal and Mid-Atlantic Ocean Data Portal.   

MGEL has a variety of other projects that overlap with the scope of RWSC, allowing for abundant collaboration. Project Wildlife and Offshore Wind (WOW), a multi-institution initiative led by the Nowacek Lab at Duke along with MGEL and the Nicholas Institute of Energy, Environment and Sustainability actively engages with RWSC. Project WOW directs research about the potential impacts of offshore wind development on marine mammals, birds, and bats and collaborates with RWSC via the various subcommittees, as well as facilitating the Project WOW External Advisory Board.  

Funded by the US Navy and NOAA, MGEL has also developed the only suite of marine mammal density models that span the full US Atlantic Coast. In collaboration with the Northeast Regional Ocean Council (NROC) and the Mid-Atlantic Regional Council on the Ocean (MARCO), MGEL developed and now hosts relevant datasets on abundance, biodiversity, and species richness for multiple taxa through the Marine-life Data Analysis Team (MDAT). Debbie actively supports MDAT by creating exploratory whale/ship spatial and temporal co-occurrence maps, drafting documentation, and coordinating with both regional Ocean Data Portals for their public hosting of relevant species data. this mapping supports RWSC and their mission to understand species distribution in the face of offshore wind development. 

RWSC is hosted by the NROC and MARCO, with support from the Coastal States Stewardship Foundation (CSSF). To learn more about the RWSC, view the recording of the public webinar “What is RWSC? Getting to Know Us Better.” You can also subscribe to automatically receive calendar updates to subcommittee meetings of your choosing.    

RWSC’s work has been well received, and the team gets lots of suggestions on other ways to leverage the capabilities of the effort. Debbie envisions the organization continuing to grow and adapt to the needs of the region.