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More than 80 lobster boats lined up between Monhegan Island and Boothbay Harbor on Sunday to protest a seabed survey for a planned offshore wind turbine near Monhegan.
Lobstermen fear that the ongoing survey project and the test turbine that would follow it will disrupt fisheries and undermine an industry that serves as a vital economic engine for coastal Maine. After years of planning, a collaboration between the University of Maine and New England Aqua Ventus would link a turbine south of Monhegan to the mainland power grid in South Boothbay via a 23-mile underwater cable.
Earlier this month, three vessels began surveying the seabed along that route to study the potential impact of a cable on the ecosystem and area industry. But lobstermen say the survey boats have already begun to disrupt their operations by cutting lines and disturbing buoys.
“The boat hasn’t been staying in the survey route, and there’s been some issues with gear loss,” Dustin Delano, a lobsterman from Friendship who helped organize the protest, said this weekend.
Delano estimated that more than 80 boats joined him around 9 a.m. Sunday south of Monhegan Island, where a 12-megawatt test turbine billed as the first commercial-scale project in the nation would demonstrate the viability of offshore wind as a renewable power source.
The fishermen formed a single-file line that Delano said stretched roughly 2 miles, and then traced the route back to land.
“I’ve never seen anything like this in my life,” Delano said over the phone from his boat.
Delano, 30, is a fourth-generation lobsterman. He also serves as a vice president of the Maine Lobstermen’s Association, whose constituents would prefer not to be used as test subjects for offshore wind power, he said.
“Fishermen feel like their voices aren’t really being heard. We’re not in favor of industrializing the Gulf of Maine with wind turbines,” he said. “I don’t really want to be the guinea pig.”
The protest didn’t disrupt survey boats, which weren’t on the route Sunday, said Dave Wilby, a spokesman for New England Aqua Ventus.
“The bigger issue,” he said in an interview, “is the amount of gear in the path of the survey route.”
Wilby said the company believed that the buoys and lines that Delano mentioned were “deliberate” attempts to block the survey. Before the project began, surveyors counted 221 buoys in the area, and on Saturday the figure was 453, he said.
“The only conclusion is that there’s a deliberate blocking of the survey path going on,” Wilby said.
Delano strongly denied that claim. Tides and the relative calmness or roughness of water can bring buoys in and out of view, he said, and may have skewed those counts.
“It’s a complete lie,” Delano said of the accusation of deliberate buoy blockage. “We ran that same route today and there was practically nothing there.”
Jeff Nichols, a spokesman for the Maine Department of Marine Resources, said the Maine Marine Patrol responded to the protest along with the U.S. Coast Guard. Authorities had a plane fly over the scene, along with a few boats that monitored the event.
Nichols said he was “not aware of any situations” that required the intervention of authorities. He also said that he hadn’t heard of reports of gear deliberately being left in the path of survey vessels.
Officials at the U.S. Coast Guard station in South Portland didn’t respond to an interview request Sunday.
The Aqua Ventus project is the latest in 12 years’ worth of efforts to implement a wind turbine platform technology designed at the University of Maine. Developers plan to begin construction in 2022 and have the turbine on line in 2023. The developers say the turbine will generate $125 million in economic activity and provide hundreds of jobs while the construction takes place.
The project has received $47 million in grants from the U.S. Department of Energy, which was augmented by another $100 million last August when Diamond Offshore Wind, a subsidiary of Mitsubishi Corp., and RWE Renewables, an international wind company, joined.
Wilby, the Aqua Ventus spokesman, noted that the Maine Legislature has already blessed initial plans for a survey. Company officials have reached out numerous times to fishermen and held joint meetings with state agencies to keep locals apprised of what’s planned, he said. After the survey results come in, there will be further opportunity for public review of the potential impact on area fisheries.
“The concern that we need to harmoniously conduct the survey with maritime uses has been known for some time,” he said, “and unfortunately some have chosen not to cooperate.”
Jeffrey Evangelos, a state representative from Friendship, said he is supporting a bill in the Maine Legislature, L.D. 101, that would prohibit state approval of wind projects off the coast.
Pressure is already mounting on lobstermen from pending federal regulations to protect right whales, an endangered species that ecologists fear can get entangled in fishing lines. An influx of wind turbines alongside that could spell trouble for the industry and the regional economy, Evangelos said.
“We’ve got the whales and now we’ve got the wind power,” he said in an interview. “This is the backbone of our local economy. If you continue to break the lobster industry, you’re going to have a depressed economy around here.”
The ongoing project has endured several setbacks and more than one gubernatorial administration to reach this point. Until 2013, an experimental wind farm off Monhegan was slated to be built by Equinor, a Norway-based energy giant formerly known as Statoil. But the company abandoned the project after Gov. Paul LePage pressed to reopen contract terms, which allowed the public-private partnership of UMaine and Aqua Ventus to take over.
In 2014, the partners built a one-eighth-scale model off Castine. Disagreement over higher-than-usual electricity rates from the test project – stemming from its experimental nature – delayed contract approval by the Maine Public Utilities Commission, which the partners eventually received in 2019.
In November 2019, Gov. Janet Mills applauded the PUC’s approval of the pilot project, calling it “a major milestone for our state’s clean energy future.” Last year, Mills announced plans for an even larger cluster of as many as 12 turbines, to be located 20 to 40 miles off the Maine coast. This turbine cluster – separate from the Monhegan project – hasn’t yet been given a specific site.
This past January, Mills called on the Legislature to impose a 10-year moratorium on wind projects closer to the coast as their impact on the environment and fisheries becomes clearer. Her proposed moratorium would not include the already permitted Monhegan project, however, and it wouldn’t cover the large research cluster, which would be farther out in federal waters.
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