By Madeline Chambers
BERLIN (Reuters) - New wind farms off Germany's North Sea coast will provide an ideal habitat that could help restore the lobster population near Heligoland after British bombing during and after World War II drove them away.
Biologists at the Alfred-Wegener Institute for Polar and Marine Research are breeding 3,000 lobsters to be released next year into the Borkum Riffgat offshore wind farm near the island 70 km off the German-Dutch coast.
The 1.5 square km island had a thriving fishing industry before it became a Nazi fortress in the war, pounded by Allied bombs, and then later used for target practice. It is now a tourist resort.
Billions of euros of investment in wind turbines as part of Germany's ambitious transition to renewable energy has given the scheme impetus. Lobsters, whose local population is 90 percent smaller than it was 70 years ago, need a firm seabed to thrive.
"The new wind parks mean lobsters may settle in a new habitat, because the stony foundations offer a favorable environment," project leader Heinz-Dieter Franke said.
The 700,000 euro ($923,500) scheme is funded by compensation paid to the state of Lower Saxony by utility EWE for any potential ecological damage caused by the construction of its wind park. The money will fund breeding, reintroduction and monitoring of the lobsters for roughly two years.
"With Germany's shift to renewables, we could have 5,000 wind farms by 2030, so if it works, this kind of project could have a huge effect on the lobster population," Franke said.
He estimated that wind farms could help increase the lobster population to as many as 300,000 lobsters in the area around Heligoland in the long run from 50,000 to 100,000 now.
Scandinavian and Mediterranean lobster stocks have collapsed in the past few decades from a combination of environmental factors.
But some scientists cite British explosives as one reason for the decimation of the lobster population around Heligoland.
In one of the biggest bombing runs on Heligoland during the war, the Allied air force destroyed almost every building on the island, raining down 7,000 bombs in a two-hour raid on April 18, 1945.
For five years after the war, Britain used Heligoland for target practice, and in 1947 it set off some 7,000 metric tons worth of explosives to blow up U-boat pens in one of the biggest non-nuclear detonations on record.
Britain released the crater-scarred island for resettlement in 1952, but scientists say that was too late for the lobsters.
The toxins from the bombs may have hurt the crustaceans' sense of smell, which is essential in finding a sexual partner and so damaged their ability to reproduce, Franke said.
Lobster expert Dominic Boothroyd, general manager of Britain's National Lobster Hatchery, said the idea of using the hard foundations of a wind park made sense and that projects to reintroduce young lobsters had taken place in Britain and Norway, though not on wind farms.
"(From these projects), we know the animals survive and that they contribute to fishery and reproduce. We have also got a lot of interesting biological information," Boothroyd said.
($1 = 0.7580 euros)
(Reporting by Madeline Chambers; editing by Gareth Jones and Jane Baird)