NEW BEDFORD – “Our people know what they’re doing at sea.”
That’s the common refrain of city and state politicians alike as they try to convince industry leaders and the public that New Bedford should be America’s offshore wind hub.
First we were whalers. Then we were fishermen. Next we will be offshore constructing, repairing and maintaining wind turbines.
The refrain was repeated by a city delegation to an offshore wind energy conference in Providence last fall, it was repeated by state legislators as they tried to fight an energy bill that could hurt offshore wind in the spring, and it was repeated by dignitaries as they welcomed the Charles W. Morgan whaleship into port this summer.
But while landlubbers may see offshore wind as simply a promising new industry that could bring new jobs, the fishermen who will have to work along these turbines often see something else.
They see another layer of federal rules and regulations to navigate. In addition to worrying about how many days they can go out to sea, they say they now have to worry about giant steel structures getting in their way and impeding their catch.
“There is a big feeling that this is just another thing encroaching on us,” said seafood consultant Jim Kendall. “But we know we’ll have to coexist to survive.”
DETERMINING THE AREA
Concerns about offshore wind farms encroaching on prime fishing grounds have not been overlooked by the Bureau of Offshore Energy Management that designates which federal areas are eligible for offshore wind energy development.
Currently there are two federal wind areas offshore Massachusetts: A “Massachusetts wind energy area” that will be put out to competitive bid this fall, and another that is shared with Rhode Island and was leased to Providence-based Deepwater Wind last year.
Prior to being put out to bid, both areas were reviewed by BOEM, the state governments and stakeholder groups that include a fisheries working group that was created in 2011 to comment on the geography of the area.
As a result of concerns about fisheries, the boundaries of both wind areas were changed before being finalized.
The Massachusetts wind energy area was decreased by 60 percent because of fisheries concerns, and a corridor near Cox Ledge was also carved out of the shared area.
“Those changes were all made due to concerns raised by the fishing industry and other stakeholder groups,” explained Brian Hooker of BOEM.
Unlike Europe, where fishermen are sometimes prohibited from fishing in offshore wind energy areas, Hooker said wind developers must allow fishing to take place amid their turbines. Because of this, turbines are required to have special lighting to make them more visible to boats, and spacing to allow vessels to pass. Additionally, BOEM is recommending that transmission cables for the wind turbines are buried at least six feet under the ocean floor whenever possible in order to keep fishing gear from getting tangled on them.
On the state level, Bill White, Massachusetts Clean Energy Center director of offshore wind, said the state used the “input of fishermen,” along with data about fisheries from the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth’s School for Marine Science and Technology to “make sure we would avoid the most productive and important fishing grounds in supporting offshore wind.”
THE SCIENCE OF FISHERIES AND WIND
The effect of placing hundreds of turbines on the Atlantic Continental Shelf on the fish that live there is not entirely known. While fisheries studies have been conducted on offshore wind farms in other parts of the world, like Europe, they cannot necessarily be applied to farms offshore the United States because of differences in fish species, current and topography, said SMAST Professor Kevin Stokesbury.
Stokesbury is part of a team commissioned by the Massachusetts Clean Energy Center that is currently studying fisheries in offshore wind energy areas. That study is meant to provide a “baseline” so scientists will know the status of fish stocks before wind turbines are built offshore and be able to monitor any effects the structures have on fisheries.
“The idea is if they do put in wind farms then you can use it to compare and see how the habitat is,” he said.
Stokesbury said there are some theories that the wind farms could end up creating new habitat for lobster and other mollusks, but there are also worries that the process of drilling the turbines into the ground would scare fish away.
In addition to the direct effect that turbine foundations could have on fish, Stokesbury said he is also concerned about the indirect effect turbines could have on fisheries by changing the current.
“You’re putting a series of structures out there and we don’t know if those are in a grid or another shape of array and how that might affect the way the wind blows and the way the water flows and other things that already impact fisheries,” he said. “It really depends how many you put in, how close they are and if you are breaking up the flow of the current.”
One of the biggest unknowns, Stokesbury said, is how the arrays will impact scallop recruitment, in part because not much is known about where new generations of scallops come from.
Scallop eggs are too light to rest at the bottom of the ocean, and instead are carried throughout the water column by waves and currents until they are large and heavy enough to sink to the ocean floor. Because of this, Stokesbury said, scientists are unsure of whether major populations of scallops in the Mid-Atlantic are self-sustaining, or if they instead only increase when eggs laid by scallops living on Georges Bank are carried south by the current.
If the two areas are self-sustaining, the presence of multiple wind farms in between them would not be a huge concern, Stokesbury said. If, however, the Georges Bank population feeds the Mid-Atlantic stock, the turbines could interfere with that.
“The short answer is we don’t really know what the impact of offshore wind will be,” he said. “In some ways creating structure can enhance habitat, and in other ways it could make things worse.”
Despite having a fisheries working group, fishermen say they do not feel they have been truly involved in the offshore wind siting process.
Rodney Avila, a former groundfisherman who now teaches safety courses, said he thinks “there is a place” offshore for wind energy development, but that the fishing industry has to be more involved.
“They’ve done a better job of explaining it to the public than the fishing industry,” he said, noting that fishermen can be offshore for days at a time, unable to make public meetings on the issue.
“You don’t see fishermen at the public meetings because that way doesn’t work for us,” he said. “You need to approach the industry in a different way.”
Avila said the government and the offshore wind industry should be meeting fishermen where they work, down at the docks, in order to make sure the right information is out there. Or, he suggested, a meeting should be scheduled between Christmas and New Year’s, when most fishermen are in port with their families.
“We don’t have the information so we just have a lot of information and skepticism that it’s going to happen,” he said. “There are all sorts of rumors that it isn’t going to happen or work, that it’s just another way to use up money.”
Carlos Rafael, who owns a number of scallopers, said he did not know too much about the wind industry, but is not too concerned about it. He said he would rather have wind turbines offshore in Massachusetts than oil rigs, noting that it is better for the environment.
“Compared to that, I think the windmills is fine,” he said. “If fishermen in the gulf can get along with oil with the spills, then we should be able to live catching fish, and they will be able to live catching wind and making energy.”
Kendall said he is very worried about how the wind industry will affect fishermen.
“I’m worried we are rushing into this without a good understanding of what is going on out there and how we are going to work together,” he said.
He echoed Avila, noting that fishermen, in particular, are not sure how the industry would affect them. One rumor he had heard was that Homeland Security would be able to arrest fishermen if their gear accidentally got caught on offshore wind infrastructure, like cables.
“We have been totally ignored,” he said.
“There aren’t ongoing discussions with developers for how to work with the industry in New Bedford and how to make this happen the best we can.”
In June 2012, CapeWind settled a federal lawsuit that had been brought against it by the Martha’s Vineyard/Dukes County Fishermen’s Association. In the settlement, the association agreed to support Cape Wind in exchange for Cape Wind helping to establish a “permit bank” to enable the association to purchase commercial fishing permits for its members.
At the time, association President Warren Doty called the settlement newfound “common ground” between the industries.
“The establishment of the Martha’s Vineyard Permit Bank will help protect the livelihood of local fishermen and help ensure this vibrant fishery remains for future generations.”
According to CapeWind Spokesman Mark Rodgers, the settlement shows his company wants to do everything it can to ensure the two industries can coexist.
He said turbines for CapeWind will be wide enough to allow shallow draft boats to continue fishing on Horseshoe Shoals, one of the areas in Nantucket Sound where turbines are planned.
He said the “tension” between the fishing and offshore wind industries “is completely understandable” given the amount of federal regulation that fisheries have been subject to in recent years. Still, he said, he hoped fishermen would realize the contributions offshore wind could make to their industry by producing clean energy.
“In the long run, one of the greatest threats to commercial fishing in New England is going to be climate change, which could change what waters fish like to spend time in,” he said. “The only way to mitigate climate change is to shift away from fossil fuels.”
Rodgers also said that he envisions fishermen playing a role in helping to maintain Cape Wind’s turbines during their 25-year long commercial lives. Maintenance crews will be based in Falmouth Harbor, and though many of the workers needed for that will have technical skills, Rodgers said “there will be positions that former fishermen could take” in piloting boats out to the wind farm.
Jeffrey Grybowski, owner of Deepwater Wind, said his project in the shared Massachusetts and Rhode Island wind area is still in the planning stages. Though he does not know what roles fishermen stakeholder groups would play in that project, he said that Deepwater Wind has made an effort to reach out to fishermen affected by his smaller project off the coast of Block Island.
“We had multiple meetings with structured dialogue, we hired a liaison to act as a go-between between us and area fishermen to make sure that everyone understood each other,” he said. “I do feel you need to have robust dialogue with fishermen in order to understand the needs and concerns of the industry.”
BOEM has also created a list of “best practices” for developers like Deepwater Wind leasing federal wind energy areas. The practices include developers hiring both a liaison between them and the fishing industry, as well as the designation of a fisheries spokesperson to relay fishermen’s concerns to the developer.
Hooker said the bureau would ensure that all developers include use of best practices in their offshore wind plans before the agency approves it.
CapeWind is not subject to those best practice requirements because it already has its federal permit, but Rodgers said the company would consider hiring a liaison in the future.
New Bedford Wind Energy Center Director Matthew Morrissey said he believes there will be ample opportunity for the fishing industry not only to coexist with the offshore wind industry, but also to support it.
He noted that there are more than 250 shore-side businesses in the city that currently work for the fishing industry, but that would also prosper if more maritime industries come to town.
“Any industry that brings more boats, needs more welding, needs more boat repairs, that is going to be very good for our businesses,” he said.
Additionally, Morrissey said, there are many examples of places in Europe where fishermen worked for wind developers while they were not able to fish.
While he said he is not exactly sure what model American wind developers like Cape Wind or Deepwater Wind might use to involve fishermen in the development, he said the community of KilKeel Ireland set a good example.
There, fishermen have banded together to form a non-profit group called Sea Source that connects offshore wind developers in need of boats to fishermen who have used up their quota and can no longer use their boats to fish.
Offshore Services Manager for Sea Source Davey Hill told The Standard-Times this week that his group decided they were more likely to benefit from offshore wind if they worked with developers.
“You can either leave the table or you can be proactive and build relationships,” he said. “These farms are going to happen. The government here has never said no to one of them, so it’s much better for us to interact with the developers. You can’t influence the process if you’re not part of it.”
Hill said members of his organization have been used as “guards” by British companies to keep boats out of wind areas while turbines are being installed. Recently, his organization also signed a 10 million pound agreement with an Italian offshore wind company to help with laying cables.
“What the developers have come to realize is that if these wind farms are going to be built at our doorstep, there has to be a socioeconomic benefit to my community,” he said. “It’s easier for them that way, too.”
To New Bedford Mayor Jon Mitchell, Hill’s message is one of hope that he wants to turn into a reality for the city.
“I am convinced that the offshore wind and fishing industry can succeed side by side,” he said.
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