Perhaps the most unlikely company hoping to build Rhode Island’s wind farm is Fishermen’s Energy of Rhode Island.
The company, founded in New Jersey, was started by commercial fishermen, who have traditionally fought offshore wind projects.
The fishing industry has been grappling with tightening federal and state regulations that limit where fish can be caught, how many can be taken and how much time boats can spend at sea. On top of that, record fuel prices have made it even more difficult to make a profit.
Fishermen have been wary of the growing interest in offshore wind projects because they fear the construction and operation of the wind turbines will further erode the industry.
Daniel Cohen, president of Fishermen’s Energy, said wind farms will hurt the commercial fishing industry, simply because the turbine towers, placed only about one-half mile apart, will interfere with trawling –– the practice of dragging a huge net behind a boat to catch fish.
“There will be a reduction in mobility, no matter what happens,” he said.
Cohen, a resident of Cape May, N.J., owns Atlantic Capes Fisheries, which has facilities in Rhode Island, Massachusetts and New Jersey. He said the company operates a fleet of about 18 boats that fish for scallops, clams and finfish in areas off Massachusetts to North Carolina. The boats generally operate anywhere from 2 miles to 30 miles offshore, he said. The company employs about 250 people, he said.
In Rhode Island, Cohen said he owns Gallilean Seafoods, a fishing company based in Bristol.
Like all the bidders, Fishermen’s Energy has no experience in building an offshore wind project in the United States.
Fishermen’s Energy of New Jersey has about 10 principals who own some of the largest own commercial fishing companies in the Northeast. Many own companies that have operations in New York, Massachusetts, New Jersey, Maryland, and Virginia.
One of the principal investors is Sea Watch International, an Easton, Md., company that describes itself as the largest harvester and processor of clam products in the world.
Cohen said that if just one offshore wind farm were to be built, it wouldn’t be a big hindrance for fishermen. “We could work around it.”
But the company, he said, is taking a long-term view of what is likely to happen in the United States, given extraordinarily expensive energy, dependence on foreign oil and growing concerns about how the use of fossil fuels may be contributing to global warming and rising seas.
He said he recognizes that renewable energy is likely to be an important way of addressing these issues. “We realized that times are changing.
“We have this option to continue to oppose change,” Cohen said, “but the reality is, we concluded, change was going to happen whether we opposed it or not. Why not develop more of the ocean resources, utilize our vessels, our docks, our crews to the extent we can retrain our employees, our fishermen to be technicians for wind farms?”
The company argues that the fishermen would be the best choice for a wind-farm developer because of their vast experience with the ocean and the sea floor.
If the company were to win the construction bid, local commercial fisherman could benefit in two ways, Cohen said.
First, if the fishermen have the resources, they could invest in the company to take an ownership interest. Doing so would mean sharing in any of the company’s successes and failures.
Second, Fishermen’s Energy could provide employment. Cohen said that the company is not suggesting it will simply send out fishermen to erect wind turbines.
“There’s no question we need to assemble a team that is larger than ourselves, teams of engineers who have had experience building in Europe,” he said. “We have to hire the best in the world.”
Fishermen, he said could provide manpower and supporting roles, such as helping to manufacture and assemble the wind turbine towers, providing marine transport and doing maintenance of the turbines once operations begin, he said.
The company intends to raise money for the project from large commercial banks, one of which has given Fishermen’s Energy a letter of support saying it is interested in lending money for the project, he said.
He declined to name the bank, saying only that is was one of the largest banks in Europe that invests in renewable energy projects.
Fishermen’s Energy has also submitted a proposal to build a wind farm off the coast of New Jersey.
Phil Ruhle, a commercial fisherman from North Kingstown, said he is interested in learning more about Fishermen’s Energy and how it might be able to help the ailing industry.
“The fishing industry is in dire straits,” said Ruhle. “The fuel is killing us. We’re dying real fast.”
He said he thinks that local fishermen’s experience around Rhode Island waters could be very helpful when it comes time to construct the wind farm.
“We know every inch of that bottom,” he said. That experience “would save a lot of time and money.”
Ruhle accompanied Cohen and other company executives to the official opening of the bids for the wind farm project last month.
“I looked at it as a great opportunity, that it might provide us a bridge into the future,” Ruhle said.
By Timothy C. Barmann
Journal Staff Writer
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