As offshore wind moves up the coast of New England, efforts are underway to make sure the region’s fishing interests have a seat at the table early in project development.
An alliance of industry and academic stakeholders is promoting the need for research and best practices as offshore wind takes hold in waters where fishing has long been an economic anchor.
Fishing groups have several concerns about the potential for boating obstacles and ecological impacts. A dearth of research makes the industry hesitant as it prepares for a slew of projects that could overwhelm their operations.
Above all, fishing stakeholders want to be included from the start of wind project development.
Wind and fishing advocates say they don’t want another kind of dispute like the one that led federal authorities to delay the permitting process for the Vineyard Wind offshore project in federal waters off Massachusetts. An ongoing environmental review by the U.S. Bureau of Ocean Energy Management has raised uncertainty for 14 other projects in the region.
Those types of disputes are “what we’re trying to avoid happening now,” said Annie Hawkins, executive director of the Responsible Offshore Development Alliance, or RODA. The coalition of fishing stakeholders aims to get the industry on the same page as researchers and wind developers across the region.
“We’re trying to make sure fishermen are much more involved in the process from day one,” Hawkins said. She’d like to see more work across state lines to coordinate policy and research.
Research has been slow, but it’s going to be important with such rapid development planned.
Floating turbines, which will be common in deep waters like the Gulf of Maine, are especially uncertain. “We don’t know a lot about them,” said Andrew Lipsky, fisheries and offshore wind lead at the Northeast Fisheries Science Center, a division of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
One floating turbine pilot is in the works: Researchers at the University of Maine for several years have been planning a project off Monhegan island. It was stalled during the administration of Maine’s previous governor, Paul LePage. But in November, under Gov. Janet Mills’ administration, the state’s public utilities commission approved a power purchase agreement between Maine Aqua Ventus, the small company set up to coordinate the project, and Maine Central Power.
Initial plans involved two 6-megawatt turbines, but technology has changed since the project began in 2014. Bigger turbines are more common now, said Habib Dagher, a professor and the project lead at the University of Maine. The team is now planning for a single 9.5- to 10-megawatt turbine.
Hawkins said the network of cables between floating turbines means fishing vessels have two obstacles to contend with: For one, many boats will be too big to navigate between turbines. Furthermore, the wind farm as a whole could cause a roadblock for fishing operations that can’t work in that area. Without strategic planning, fishermen could lose huge sources of their product.
Beyond that, concerns like electromagnetic fields from cables and habitat alterations caused by the turbines could affect lobster, cod and other wildlife. But little evidence exists to show what the effects from turbines will be.
“We don’t have anything that’s anything like a completed study” about these potential effects, Hawkins said. RODA last year was one of the founding partners of the Responsible Offshore Science Alliance, which aims to coordinate research among states, developers and fishermen.
Dagher, at the University of Maine, said the team there is working with fishing stakeholders to research the potential impacts of floating turbines on the region’s fisheries. This will be helpful, Hawkins said, though she added that it’s “really hard to compare one turbine” – like the one Aqua Ventus has planned – “to potentially a hundred turbines” in a wind farm.
This will be an important issue going forward for organizations like the Massachusetts Lobstermen’s Association. Beth Casoni, the association’s executive director, said far more of her members have operations in the gulf than they do further south.
Offshore wind is currently the organization’s second biggest issue, after right whale protection concerns, Casoni said. But after wind comes online in the Gulf of Maine, she added, that will be the top concern for members.
“All we can do as a fishermen organization is do our best and keep our members informed,” Casoni said. She stressed that communication between the wind and fishing industries needs to be “early and often.”
“Offshore wind developers are actively partnering with the fishing industry,” said Laura Morton, senior director of policy and regulatory affairs for offshore wind at the American Wind Energy Association. “The developers have held hundreds of meetings with the fishermen and fishing groups, and we certainly are looking for ways to expand our engagement.” She acknowledged the fishing industry’s past frustrations over not being able to provide early feedback for projects.
Part of the focus now is making the complicated regulatory process clearer for people who aren’t involved in policy discussions every day. This includes fishermen. One new resource on that end is a public participation guide from the Special Initiative on Offshore Wind, a policy and research group housed at the University of Delaware.
The participation guide, released in January, breaks down the timeline of the federal planning process for offshore wind projects, including public comment periods and meetings. That way, stakeholders can more easily know when they can get involved in discussions, said Nancy Sopko, the initiative’s executive director.
“It’s very important to have that early, often and continuous engagement with the public from the developer’s perspective,” Sopko said. Referring to the delay on the Vineyard Wind project, she said, “We understand that there are existing users of the ocean and federal agencies like NOAA that are, understandably, cognizant that there is a pipeline of offshore wind projects in the queue, and there should be a thorough investigation of how those projects would affect oceans, ocean users and marine life.”
She added that once the current review process is thoroughly completed, her team is hopeful the Vineyard Wind project and others planned for the region will move forward.
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