The warming waters south of Cape Cod have decimated the region’s lobster fishery. But it’s an ambitious effort to fight climate change that has lobstermen like Lanny Dillinger concerned for their livelihoods.
Dillinger worries that the nation’s first major offshore wind farm, planned for the waters between Martha’s Vineyard and Block Island – a $2 billion project that will set precedents for the future of wind power in the United States – will transform the area into a maze of turbines and make it too treacherous to fish.
As a result, Dillinger and the rest of the Rhode Island Fishermen’s Advisory Board took a unanimous vote last month that could threaten the project, which was designed to supply electricity to Massachusetts, and the Baker administration’s plans to curb carbon emissions.
“We’re not against wind farms – we just don’t want to be collateral damage and stomped out of existence,” said Dillinger, 55, the advisory board’s chairman, who fishes 800 traps in Rhode Island Sound. “If this goes forward, people will be dying out there. Vessels will be lost. And a lot of fishermen like me would be out of business.”
The board’s vote, which comes as the federal government holds a long-awaited auction on Thursday to lease nearby areas for other offshore wind projects, poses a significant threat to the 800-megawatt wind farm, an echo of the resistance to the failed Cape Wind project in Nantucket Sound.
Vineyard Wind, a New Bedford company, had planned to begin construction next year, but if it fails to do so, it could be forced to forfeit federal tax credits that expire at the end of next year.
In a letter sent to Rhode Island regulators last month, company officials wrote that any delay in the approval process “will have a domino effect and will most likely be fatal to the project.”
Although the wind farm would be built in federal waters and supply power to Massachusetts, Rhode Island has the latitude to effectively veto it. By law, development in federal waters cannot interfere with a state’s coastal activities, such as fishing, and must comply with state regulations.
After the advisory board voted against the project, the Rhode Island Coastal Resources Management Council was slated to decide last month whether to issue a decision that could have effectively killed the project. But at the request of Vineyard Wind, the council delayed its decision until January.
In a telephone interview, Grover Fugate, the council’s executive director, echoed the fishermen’s concerns.
“We know we need to reduce our carbon footprint, and we very much support renewable energy,” he said. “But renewable energy has to be done right. We need to have both the wind and fishing industries to be able to coexist.”
A spokesman for Vineyard Wind said the company is seeking a compromise.
“We remain very hopeful and confident that we’re going to get a good deal done for everybody,” said Scott Farmelant, a spokesman for Vineyard Wind. “There’s too much at stake to consider anything else.”
The company has floated the idea of providing financial compensation to the fishing industry for its potential losses. Farmelant declined to say how much Vineyard Wind was offering, but he cited landings reports that suggested fishermen collectively have been earning on average only a few hundred thousand dollars a year from their catch in the area.
Fishermen say the crux of the problem is how Vineyard Wind has planned its array of turbines. They say the arrangement and spacing of the turbines, which Vineyard Wind has proposed laying out in rows from the northwest to the southeast, could spark a dangerous conflict between fishermen who set traps on the sea floor and those who drag nets along the bottom.
For decades, the lobstermen and draggers have operated under an agreement in which lobster trawls are set in rows from east to west, with lanes about a nautical mile apart for draggers to pass through to catch squid, mackerel, and other fish.
Fishermen say Vineyard Wind’s plans would make it far more likely that draggers would snag their nets on lobster traps and that fishing vessels will collide with turbines, especially in poor visibility.
The company has recently offered to reduce the number of turbines from 108 to 84, reconfigure about a quarter of its 118-square-mile development area to align turbines east to west, and widen so-called transit corridors for fishermen. But the company said it can’t revise its entire plan to accommodate the fishing industry.
Such changes would require too much time, study, and permitting for the company to meet its construction deadlines. The turbines already have been designed to meet specific conditions for where they would be installed on the sea floor.
In Massachusetts, where Governor Charlie Baker has touted his administration’s efforts to promote offshore wind development, especially during his recent reelection campaign, state officials declined to say whether they were concerned about the project’s status.
Vineyard Wind’s project would be the first of six large-scale wind farms planned across some 1,400 square miles of federal waters south of Martha’s Vineyard. The nation’s first offshore wind farm was completed nearby, just off Block Island, in 2016, but it was essentially a test project, with just five turbines producing 30 megawatts of power.
The Baker administration is expecting the state to receive at least 1,600 megawatts of offshore wind power over the next decade. Officials say they have worked with fishing groups to try to resolve their differences with the developers, noting that the state has convened more than 100 public meetings on the issue and recommended that the federal government reduce wind development areas by 60 percent to avoid specific fishing grounds.
“The administration is committed to working with all stakeholders in an effort to expeditiously reduce energy costs and carbon emissions, preserve environmental resources, and support the state and region’s vibrant fishing industries,” said Peter Lorenz, a spokesman for the state’s Executive Office of Energy and Environmental Affairs.
If Rhode Island regulators refuse to certify Vineyard Wind’s plan, the company could appeal to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. But that process could take too long for the company to meet its tight deadlines.
As fishermen await an offer for compensation from Vineyard Wind, they said the company should understand that the project’s impact would be felt throughout the industry.
For many, it would also mean the loss of a way of life.
Ted Platz, who has long fished for skate and monkfish out of Newport, said the wind farms would cause so much damage to the industry that any compensation package should amount to tens of millions of dollars a year.
“The windmills are going to force fishermen into ever-smaller areas, and that’s going to put a big strain on the industry,” said Platz, 57, who worries he won’t be able to remain in business. “A healthy portion of the fleet will disappear if the project is built.”
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