PROVIDENCE, R.I. – Rhode Island fishermen say a patch of the Atlantic Ocean south of Martha’s Vineyard is among the best places around to catch squid.
They are also the same waters in which a developer selected by Massachusetts plans to install up to 100 giant wind turbines that would supply clean, renewable energy to the state.
Now, Rhode Island coastal regulators and the state’s fishing community are raising concerns that the offshore wind farm that Vineyard Wind wants to build in 250 square miles of federally-owned ocean may affect access to the squid grounds that are critical to the Point Judith fleet.
“They cut out scallop fisheries valued by Massachusetts,” said Grover Fugate, executive director of the Rhode Island Coastal Resources Management Council. “But the grounds left are valued by Rhode Island fishermen, particularly for squid.”
Erich Stephens, chief development officer for Vineyard Wind, said the company has worked hard to accommodate the needs of Rhode Island fishermen – such as working to restrict the prospective schedule for laying a transmission cable to avoid the height of the squid fishing season in the summer – but he also acknowledged the dissatisfaction in some quarters with the proposed 800-megawatt wind farm.
“At the end of the day, there are a lot of different interests,” Stephens said. “It’s not possible to come up with a single design that will keep everyone happy.”
To be sure, it’s not just Vineyard Wind that the fishing industry is worried about. Fishermen from Maryland to Massachusetts have complained that the installation of potentially hundreds of wind turbines in the ocean waters along the Outer Continental Shelf could be the latest blow to their long-suffering industry.
In New York last year, a host of fishing groups filed a federal lawsuit to block the development of a wind farm in an area off that state’s coast valued by scallop fishermen. (And used heavily, too, by squid fishermen.) In Massachusetts in April, fishermen urged Gov. Charlie Baker to hold off on choosing a company to develop offshore wind because of their worries about the impacts on fisheries.
The Baker administration went ahead with the decision as planned, announcing a month ago that it had chosen New Bedford-based Vineyard Wind, a partnership between Denmark’s Copenhagen Infrastructure Partners and Avangrid Renewables, a subsidiary of the Spanish conglomerate Iberdrola.
On the same day, Gov. Gina Raimondo announced that Rhode Island will move forward with a competing bid from Providence-based Deepwater Wind, the company that built the first offshore wind farm in the nation, to develop a 400-megawatt project.
Deepwater, owned by the New York investment fund D.E. Shaw, completed the inaugural five-turbine, 30-megawatt Block Island Wind Farm a year and a half ago, and has followed up by securing a contract last year to build a 90-megawatt wind farm that would supply power to Long Island and winning selection earlier this month to develop a 200-megawatt project for Connecticut.
Deepwater’s three new projects would all be built in an area between Block Island and Martha’s Vineyard at the beginning of a wide corridor of federal waters designated for offshore wind that runs southeast and ends at the Vineyard Wind lease. In between the Deepwater and Vineyard Wind project areas is a lease held by a third company, Bay State Wind, which has proposed a project of up to 800 megawatts.
All told, it could mean 250 or so wind turbines in the same broad area of waters off Rhode Island and Massachusetts. The scale of development scares local fishermen. Some blame the federal Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, first under President Barack Obama and now under President Donald Trump, for moving too fast to tap offshore wind and ignoring the fishing industry’s stake in the waters.
“I think there’s this mad rush,” said Chris Brown, a Point Judith fisherman who is president of the Seafood Harvesters of America. “We need to be more cautious.”
Stephen Boutwell, a spokesman for the BOEM, said that the agency had removed areas for development in response to comments from fishermen and that outreach to the industry will continue.
Although Rhode Island fishermen have general concerns about offshore wind, their current focus is Vineyard Wind. That may in part be because it’s the only company that has so far submitted application materials for permits from the BOEM, the CRMC and other agencies.
But the prime reason is the $2-billion project’s potential effect on Rhode Island’s squid fishery. In a state where calamari has been declared the official appetizer by legislative decree, squid is big business.
Rhode Island has landed the majority of squid on the East Coast over the past decade, according to the state Department of Environmental Management. Longfin squid was the top species by value and pounds landed in Rhode Island in 2015 and 2016, and last year, when combined with numbers for the shortfin variety, squid was tops again with a total value of $28.3 million.
“That’s our staple,” said Fred Mattera, executive director of the East Farm Commercial Fisheries Center of Rhode Island. “If we lose squid here in Rhode Island, that’s it for us.”
Of course, the waters targeted for development by Vineyard Wind are far from the only place fishermen go for squid. But they are part of a hugely productive area in the spring and summer when squid move closer to the coast after spawning offshore.
It’s the waters in and around the northern portion of the lease that are the most heavily fished for squid. Julia Livermore, principal marine biologist with the DEM, said that it’s not an exaggeration to describe the area north of the lease as one of the two most important squid fishing grounds for Rhode Island fishermen, along with a section of waters south of Nantucket, based on the amount of time they spend there.
Mattera said that the fisheries center, which represents a number of Rhode Island fishing groups, has asked Vineyard Wind to shift the wind farm southwest but the company responded that it would be too costly.
Stephens said that after meeting with more than 100 fishing representatives Vineyard designed the project to be friendly to the industry. The turbines would be spaced 8/10 of a mile apart to allow boats’ passage between them. They would be arranged in a grid for ease of navigation. And the wind farm would include transit lanes, mainly for scallop boats based in New Bedford, for access to fishing grounds.
The company is also seeking permission for more turbines than are necessary, so that some sites – possibly those in the northern part of the lease in the heart of the squid grounds – can be dropped based on input from fishermen, he said.
“We think we’ve done a really good job of advancing the permitting process in a way that allows flexibility up until the final decision,” he said.
Rhode Island state agencies and fishing groups are working on an alternative layout of the Vineyard Wind proposal to minimize disturbance to squid fishing.
“I think it’s definitely possible to lay it out so that fishermen can fish between the turbines, but it’s unclear if it’s feasible for the developer,” said Livermore, who is involved in the work.
The input of the CRMC, which is leading the state’s effort, is key. Although the latest offshore wind proposals are in federal waters that would not typically be subject to oversight by state authorities, the CRMC has jurisdiction because they would affect Rhode Island’s natural resources and uses of the ocean, specifically the fishing industry.
“We’re hoping to have some productive discussions with Vineyard Wind to get them to open up to more mitigation,” Fugate said.
He cited as a model Deepwater’s decision several years ago to remove from development much of Cox Ledge, an area in its federal lease widely known as an important nursery ground for fish. Brown, who was fishing for squid when he spoke by phone, said the move was appreciated by fishermen.
Jeffrey Grybowski, CEO of Deepwater, said that fishing is “clearly the most important stakeholder issue for offshore wind in the U.S.”
“It is a conflict that we must work to resolve,” he said.
“The process of getting input from fishermen is ongoing,” he said.
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