Expansion of offshore energy production will lead to considerable spatial conflicts in European seas

Press Release

Thünen Institute proposes concepts for joint land use by wind farm operators and fisheries

Wind park in the North Sea (© Thünen-Institut/Nicole Stollberg)

The massive expansion of renewable offshore energies will require large areas in all European seas. Integrated maritime spatial planning and use can mitigate emerging conflicts with traditional marine users such as fisheries. A recent study led by Dr. Vanessa Stelzenmüller from the Thünen Institute of Sea Fisheries in Bremerhaven quantifies future spatial losses and presents synergy opportunities.

Heading for a CO2-neutral energy supply, offshore plants such as wind turbines or wave and tidal power plants play a central role. The planning, construction and commissioning of new plants to meet the growing demand for energy from renewable sources affects large areas of the sea in the exclusive economic zones of European states, i.e. the sea areas within the 200-mile zone where a state holds exclusive rights of use. Not only in the North Sea and the Baltic Sea will it therefore become tight in the near future, but in all European seas. The intensifying spatial conflicts have far-reaching effects on fishing and the availability of fishing grounds.

In a recent study, a group of researchers led by Dr. Vanessa Stelzenmüller from the Thünen Institute of Sea Fisheries in Bremerhaven has now for the first time determined the overlaps of existing and planned offshore energy sites with fishing grounds and thus developed a basis for assessing spatial conflicts and their possible economic consequences.

Large areas are already developed with offshore installations, especially in the North Sea and Baltic Sea. The United Kingdom has dedicated the largest share of its exclusive economic zone to energy production from renewables, at around 1480 km2, followed by Germany and Denmark. In doing so, the three countries focus primarily on the use of wind power. In the long term, the further expansion of this sector should involve a total of about 60,000 km2 in the North Sea (about 10 % of the total area) and 20,000 km2 in the Baltic Sea. Compared to the area currently used for wind power of about 5,000 km2 in the North Sea and hardly any significant areas in the Baltic Sea, this represents a considerable increase in spatial demand. In the other European seas, the Celtic Sea, the Atlantic region and the Mediterranean Sea, the plans also envisage significant increases in spatial use for energy generation, especially after 2025.

Since fishing is not allowed in most of those areas, or is only allowed to a very limited extent, the loss of fishing areas for fisheries is dramatic in some cases. The scientists were able to show this by overlaying data on existing installations or those under construction or in planning with information on the distribution and intensity of fishing effort in the areas concerned and thus quantifying the possible loss of fishing opportunities for fisheries. Trawling for bottom-dwelling species and species in the open water body is particularly affected. The consequences are complex and go far beyond the mere loss of fishing grounds and the associated income for fishers. They also affect the economic situation in downstream sectors such as fish processing, tourism and thus the socio-cultural fabric in coastal communities as a whole.

Overlay of mean annual international effort of bottom-touching fisheries in the North Sea (2009-2017) and Baltic Sea (2009-2016) with current and future offshore wind energy development. Fishing effort: the stronger the gray colour, the more intensive the fishing. (© Thünen Institute)

Balancing interests through co-use

In order to minimise conflicts between the different forms of use as well as between uses and nature conservation, the scientists of the Thünen Institute see maritime spatial planning that involves the affected interest groups as an effective instrument. So far, however, many spatial planning processes often do not take fisheries properly into account. There are several reasons for this. On the one hand, their activities depend on the location and mobility of their target species and are thus difficult to pin down to specific marine areas. Secondly, political priorities in maritime space use are often set to the disadvantage of fishers. "If we want to give fisheries a chance in the conflict over scarce marine space and thus enable sustainable use of fish stocks in the future, we must take their interests into account in maritime spatial planning," says Thünen researcher Vanessa Stelzenmüller. "A promising approach could be a co-use of offshore wind farms. Specially designed foundation constructions could allow stationary aquaculture, or fishers could use pots and creels to carry out so-called passive fisheries that pose no risks to the turbines, after weighing up protection and use."

For the researchers, the study results are an important step towards better understanding the potential economic and social impacts of growing offshore energy production for European fisheries. Integrated maritime spatial planning needs to include an overall consideration of future spatial requirements, especially due to the expansion of wind energy production and increasing nature conservation demands. A sustainable solution to the emerging spatial conflicts can only be found if different interests are considered, and if ways are found for fisheries to adapt to changing conditions. The scientists are certain that the co-use of offshore energy production areas will play a central role in the future. This is also addressed in the coalition agreement of the new German government. They want to conduct further research to find out which concrete activities and forms of use are the most promising and best to implement.


V. Stelzenmüller, J. Letschert, A. Gimpel, C. Kraan, W.N. Probst, S. Degraer, R. Döring (2022) From plate to plug: The impact of offshore renewables on European fisheries and the role of marine spatial planning. Renewable and Sustainable Energy Reviews, 158.


  • Dr. Vanessa Stelzenmüller