Stonington – For the past three decades, Town Dock fishermen and their counterparts across the Northeast have struggled to stay afloat in the face of strict regulations designed to rebuild depleted stocks of cod, flounder and other species.
Some diversified, turning to so-called underutilized species such as squid and whiting to supplement their declining income, while others retired or left for jobs on land.
But now that many of the species have rebounded and government regulators are increasing the amounts of fish they can land, the fishermen face a new threat: offshore wind power projects.
Fishermen such as Joe Gilbert, who owns four scallop and fishing boats based at the Town Dock, say their concerns are being ignored by federal officials who are in the process of leasing massive tracts of ocean bottom off the Northeast coast to wind power companies. Some of those tracts of bottom also happen to be areas where fishing boats land their catches and transit.
“A lot of people sacrificed a lot to rebuild a sustainable fishery and keep Stonington a vibrant fishing community,” Gilbert said one recent day while sitting at the Town Dock.
And he stressed that he and other fishermen are not opposed to green energy projects.
“Just don’t put it on prime fishing grounds, he said. “We’re racing forward with all these projects, with no science. This has never been done on this scale any place on earth.”
The turbines are planned for relatively shallow areas, which are placed to maximize the full potential of wind energy. Some of these areas also happen to attract fish.
Gilbert added that it makes no sense to replace one renewable sustainable industry, such as fishing, with another one.
Longtime Town Dock fisherman Bob Guzzo said the federal government is giving away land that fishermen have used to feed people for more than 300 years.
“I’d like to pass this on to someone else who wants to go fishing,” he said.
Gilbert said that instead of federal regulators incorporating the fishermen’s concerns into the lease agreements for the various wind power projects, fishermen are being told to negotiate with each company individually. That makes it easy for the companies to ignore the fishermen, he said, and it’s also time-consuming for fishermen who need to work.
“It’s just a process of checking all the boxes,” he said about the companies talking with fishermen. “We become collateral damage.”
Coalition speaks up
Last month members of Responsible Offshore Development Alliance, or RODA, a national coalition of fishing industry members, boycotted a meeting with a federal Bureau of Ocean Energy Management task force, which is considering auctioning of 800,000 acres of New York Bight – shallow waters south of Long Island and east of New Jersey – to potential wind farm operators. RODA said its members feel they are not being listened to.
On April 6, RODA said 1,665 members of fishing communities in every U.S. coastal state submitted a letter to the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, or BOEM, and National Marine Fisheries Service requesting a transparent and balanced national planning process for offshore wind development.
RODA said “offshore wind development poses direct conflicts with fishing and the current permitting process provides no meaningful opportunity to include the needs of sustainable seafood harvesting and production in strategies to mitigate climate change.”
Just before the federal government last week approved the Vineyard Wind I project – the first large-scale offshore wind farm in the country – RODA members requested that BOEM adopt reasonable and consistently requested fisheries mitigation measures for the project. That project calls for erecting 62 turbines off Martha’s Vineyard, which will generate power for 400,000 homes.
After the approval, RODA said “BOEM did not even consider any mitigation measures recommended by RODA or any fisheries professionals, scientists, or natural resource managers, despite having clearly defined requests available to them.”
“For the past decade, fishermen have participated in offshore wind meetings whenever they were asked and produced reasonable requests only to be met with silence,” RODA Executive Director Anne Hawkins said. “From this silence now emerges unilateral action and a clear indication that those in authority care more about multinational businesses and energy politics than our environment, domestic food sources, or U.S. citizens.”
The Vineyard Wind I turbines were spaced 1 nautical mile apart after commercial fishermen and environmentalists expressed concerns. Vineyard Wind developers also agreed to pay $37.7 million to commercial fishermen as compensation for future losses.
Guzzo, though, said some fishermen feel it is more important that they are able to continue landing fish and feeding people, than collecting money from developers or the government.
In addition to the leases under consideration for the New York Bight, seven leases also have been granted for waters south of Martha’s Vineyard and southeast of Block Island, which has it own small offshore wind farm to help power the island. Four of the leases are for the Ørsted/Eversource cooperative, which is developing State Pier in New London into a staging area for their projects.
BOEM says it listens to fishermen
In an email to The Day, BOEM spokesman Stephen Boutwell said the agency “works with all ocean users and stakeholders, including state and local governments, coastal communities, the U.S. military, fishing and maritime communities, and Tribal governments throughout the offshore wind development process to avoid or reduce potential impacts from offshore wind energy development.”
As for the complaints from fishermen that they have to discuss their concerns with the individual wind companies, Boutwell said that while fishermen are encouraged to discuss their concerns directly with the lessees prior to the lessee’s submission of a plan to BOEM, it is not a requirement to do so. He said that, throughout BOEM’s environmental review process, the fishing community has the opportunity to comment directly on the impacts the project may have to their business. He added BOEM requires lessees to develop fisheries communication plans and hire liaisons to have discussions with fishermen.
“The goal of BOEM’s Area Identification process is to identify the offshore locations that appear most suitable for wind energy development taking into consideration coexistence with ocean users. As part of this process, BOEM removed areas of highest conflict from consideration,” the agency said last month.
The agency also plans to begin an environmental review, with public input, on these areas in federal waters for potential offshore wind leasing.
What are the concerns?
Fishermen have a long list of safety and environmental concerns in addition to the turbines being located in some of their prime fishing grounds.
Chief among them is that some of the projects call for the turbines to be spaced 0.67 mile to 1 mile apart, far less than the 2-mile spacing and 4-mile-wide transit lanes the fishermen say are needed. Gilbert explained that it is extremely difficult for boats to stay apart from one another within the 0.67-mile spacing while towing their gear, especially in rough weather.
“We’re willing to share the ocean,” he said, “We just want them to intelligently place (the turbines) within the needs of a historic and proud industry.”
Gilbert said in bad weather, when fishermen are trying to get home, the corridors are not wide enough to safely transit. Additionally, he said the spinning blades create “radar scatter” that can hide the presence of nearby vessels.
Guzzo agreed with the potential radar problems and said the transit lanes through the bight are busy with ships going in and out of New York City.
Boutwell said the turbine spacing and layout is considered on a project-by-project basis and each project must submit a navigational safety risk assessment, which is developed based on the Coast Guard’s guidance. The Coast Guard additionally is involved in the review of the project plans.
Asked if efforts are being made to move turbines out of fishing and transit areas, Boutwell said BOEM works with the Coast Guard and other maritime stakeholders to considers impacts to navigation and fishing in all stages of the leasing and development of projects. Prior to leasing, he said BOEM removes areas overlapping charted shipping and vessel transit lanes and avoids areas with higher volumes of vessel traffic. After the leases are issues, he said BOEM encourages developers to work with the Coast Guard and other stakeholders to develop their navigation safety risk assessment as early as possible. For example, he said BOEM removed more than 900,000 acres of ocean bottom from consideration for leasing in the New York Bight.
Gilbert said National Marine Fisheries Service scientists also have expressed concern that the turbines will disrupt the stratification of the water column, which is essential to the ecosystem of fishing grounds. He said the turbines also generate fog as they mix cold and warm air, creating another safety issue.
The hundreds of turbines planned by Ørsted/Eversource for their four projects south of Martha’s Vineyard are 873 feet tall, just 190 feet shorter than the Eiffel Tower, with blades that have a diameter of 722 feet.
Guzzo said he is worried the turbines will make fish such as flounder disappear from traditional fishing grounds.
Gilbert said the rockpiles around the turbines also create an attractive habitat for black sea bass, a voracious predator that feasts on juvenile lobsters, crabs, clams and shrimp. Lobster catches already have plummeted across southern New England over the past few decades due to warming waters, decreasing oxygen levels and polluted runoff. So while recreational anglers and charter boat captains are big fans of the tasty seas bass, commercial lobstermen and shellfishermen are not.
Guzzo said he is also worried about oil leaking out of the turbines, something he said he has seen with the turbines off Block Island.
Gilbert also criticized state and federal legislators for not “coming out strong for us” on the issue. He said the fisherman face a tough road because environmentalists and lawmakers want to see more renewable energy projects.