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Turbine plans worry fishermen

NEW BEDFORD – Wind turbines could one day straddle thousands of miles of rich fishing grounds in the waters south of Martha’s Vineyard and Nantucket if federal plans to accelerate growth in the offshore wind industry are realized.

But the sheer size of the area that is open to wind projects has many in the fishing industry worried about their future.

An open meeting at the whaling museum this afternoon will offer both fishermen and the general public a closer look at the proposal.

“Looking at the gridded map, it seems like they are going to take the whole Nantucket Lightship area away from us and about 80 percent of the Great South Channel area,” said Paul Wessecker, the owner of three local scallop vessels. “These are some of the most lucrative fishing grounds that we have.”

Wessecker worries that in addition to areas potentially being closed, catch limits could be reduced.

“They might deduct the scallops that are in there from the overall biomass,” he said. “That could cut our days in half.”

According to the state Executive Office of Energy and Environmental Affairs, turbines in these waters have the potential to generate up to 4,000 megawatts of wind energy. That is an amount equivalent to all of the electricity now generated by coal-fired plants currently operating in Massachusetts, officials say.

Today’s meeting, from 2-4 p.m., is sponsored by a company called Fishermen’s Energy, made up of principals in several New Jersey-based fishing companies.

“I don’t think that the fishing industry is fully aware of the scale of development planned for offshore wind. Our goal for the meeting is to widen the dialogue within the fishing community,” said Rhonda Jackson, director of communications for Fishermen’s Energy. It is not yet clear whether fishing vessels will be allowed to work inside the development areas, she said.

Fishermen’s Energy was established to enable those in the fishing industry to have a stake in offshore wind energy, she said.

Her company already has an undertaking to erect several turbines near Atlantic City, N.J., and that project is in the permitting stages.

In December the Obama administration announced its intention to encourage the development of wind energy in federal waters off the Massachusetts coast and elsewhere by offering leases to interested parties.

The U.S. Department of Interior’s Bureau of Offshore Energy Management, Regulation and Enforcement, formerly the Minerals Management Service, then sent out a Request for Interest to measure the wind industry’s interest in developing projects across this 3,000-square-mile expanse of federal waters. Massachusetts waters extend only 3 miles from the coast, while the federal government has jurisdiction from there out 200 miles. The boundaries for the proposed area were drawn up by the Massachusetts Renewable Energy Task Force in partnership with the offshore energy office.

The state will conduct its own hearings on the proposal, beginning later this winter, according to Lisa Capone, press secretary for the Executive Office of Energy and Environmental Affairs.

On Feb. 28, the United Fishermen’s Club, on Orchard Street will be the venue for a similar meeting, planned by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Sea Grant program, to gather input from industry stakeholders. That meeting is one of six planned for the East and West coasts of the United States.

Eric Hansen, who owns the scalloper Endeavor, says he will attend today’s meeting to learn more about the potential impact of this project on the fishing industry. “I need to learn more about it before I can express an opinion,” he said. “But that is an area where we do fish.”