Lobstermen protest offshore wind in the Gulf of Maine
Credit: By Austin Taylor | Harvard Political Review | June 5, 2021 | harvardpolitics.com ~~
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I’m from Maine, and I return every time I can. I’m not from the coast, but my cousins are, and boiled lobster is the standard at any summer gathering. I remember my lobsterman cousin pulling up in his pickup with two big Styrofoam coolers packed full of bugs. I would hang out with my uncles as they stood around the steaming pots in the garage, grabbing lobsters with claws waving and gingerly dropping them into the boiling water, pulling them back out bright red and ready to eat. I’d carry the loaded trays to the table, set with dishes of butter and paper plates, and listen to them chatter about the price of lobster as the sun went down over the lake, outlining those classic jagged pines. The air cooled enough for my aunt to fetch me an old sweatshirt from the camp, and mosquitoes thickened around my ankles.
An ambitious wind power project in the Gulf of Maine could, years from now, make these family lobster dinners less frequent. Local lobstermen believe offshore wind will significantly disrupt the ecosystem and displace fishermen. Supporters say a project will provide clean energy for the region.
On March 21, more than 80 boats from the Midcoast of Maine formed a two mile line between Monhegan Island and Boothbay Harbor, tracing the route of the underwater cable that will carry electricity from two offshore wind turbines to shore. The sign on one boat, which also flew a Jolly Roger, read “SAVE THE LOBSTERMEN… STOP THE MILLS.”
The wind turbines, which will be located about two miles south of Monhegan, are a joint project between New England Aqua Ventus and the University of Maine at Orono that is intended to provide proof of concept for offshore wind in the Gulf of Maine. It is supported by Gov. Janet Mills, as well as Sens. Susan Collins and Angus King and Reps. Chellie Pingree and Jared Golden who hailed it, in a joint statement, as “so significant for Maine’s clean energy future.”
But the project has met resistance in the fishing community, particularly the lobstering community. On Monday, March 22, a video of the survey boat was posted to Facebook, with a lobsterman’s voice behind the camera saying “that damages lobster buoys – the Go Liberty is about ready to tow right through them. No need of this… no concern whatsoever for our livelihoods.” Lobster boats reportedly then circled the Go Liberty, forcing it to pause.
Lobstermen’s concerns fall into two main buckets: displacement and destruction. This project, and the larger array which will almost certainly follow it, will force fishermen from their usual grounds. The installation of the turbines, and perhaps their presence, will damage marine life.
The lobster industry is rooted in decades-old tradition. Lobstermen began hauling traps around 1850, and before that, lobsters were gathered by hand along the shore. “When you think of Maine, lobster’s the first thing that comes to mind,” Dustin Delano, a fourth-generation lobsterman and the Vice President of the Maine Lobstermen’s Association, reminded me. The industry is also familial. Rex Benner, who fishes from Friendship (just outside of the Monhegan test site), is another fourth-generation lobsterman. “My family’s always done it,” he told me, and his 19-year-old son plans to lobster for a living, too.
Delano told me a story about fishermen from the United Kingdom coming to Maine a few years ago to discuss the windmill arrays which had been recently installed where they fish. One Mainer asked, “What would you do if you were us right now?” An English fisherman leaned over the table and said, “Fight it with everything you have, because you have everything to lose and absolutely nothing to gain.”
“That really stuck with me,” Delano said. A poster put out by the Maine Coast Fishermen’s Association shows two grinning children in Grundéns leaning on a stack of traps under the words: “Everything to lose. Nothing to Gain.” Beside them is a mock-up of the turbine, captioned “Nothing to lose. Everything to Gain.”
Lobstering is integral to families and to the small coastal communities they make up. This has motivated a strong interest in self-governance both through traditional and non-traditional means. John Drouin, a lobsterman from Cutler who has fished 42 seasons, has been a member of the Lobster Advisory Council for about 20 years. He moved to Maine from Connecticut in the summer of 1979 and, after setting a few traps with his dad, never looked back. He lives on Little Machias Bay, overlooking the water, and his two youngest children (24 and 25 years old) fish commercially together. “I want to make sure that they continue to have the opportunity I have,” he told me.
Organized bodies like the LAC – which works with the Department of Marine Resources – and the MLA – an independent advocacy group – can give fishermen a voice in policy. However, much of the de facto regulation of the industry begins on the ground. For example, lobstermen are intensely territorial, which both ensures the continued success of established families and prevents overfishing in any given area. Fishing territories are legally defined by seven zones stretching along Maine’s coast. A lobsterman must set at least 50% of their traps (600 to 800 total) within his zone. However, in many areas, territorial boundaries more specific than the zones and trap limits lower than the legal limit have been agreed upon and communally enforced.
The survival of island communities in particular depends on their exclusive access to the sea around the island. Although officially the state of Maine doles out licenses, on Matinicus, a two-by-one mile island about 20 miles from the coast with just 20 year-round residents, the men meet each fall to decide who can and cannot lobster. When an outsider encroaches, there is usually a measured sequence of retaliation. First, a note will be left on a buoy. Next, a trap line will be cut and retied. Third, traps will be pulled up and their doors left open. Fourth, traps will be cut loose. Fifth, if the problem persists, lobster boats will be set adrift. In extreme cases, boats are sunk and violence is threatened.
On Matinicus a few years ago, a lobsterman was shot in the neck during one such escalated territorial dispute. The conflict was lawless by the standards of the mainland (although the shooter was acquitted), but lawful according to the Gulf of Maine’s system of “gentlemen’s agreements.” Some gentlemen’s agreements become law: for example, Monhegan Islanders’ de facto fishing territory was written into Maine law in 1996, and is now the Monhegan Lobster Conservation Area.
The rest of many conservation laws came from the ground up in the same way. “We weren’t forcibly regulated by the government. Lobstermen themselves… had these conservation measures put in place,” said Delano. In the early 1870s, canneries lobbied the Maine legislation for laws against taking lobsters under a certain length during the winter months, which both allowed them to overfish small lobsters during the summer and prevented lobstermen who were selling live bugs from fishing during the winter when the canneries were focused on vegetables. The canning industry gained a reputation among Mainers as selfish and wasteful of natural resources, and lobstermen who sold live lobster lobbied for true conservation legislation, passed in 1979, which set a year-round minimum length.
Now, there is a minimum and a maximum lobster size. The young are left to mature and the old to breed, while those in the middle are harvested. Berried females, or females carrying eggs, are always illegal to harvest, and their tails are notched before they are thrown back. Notch-tailed females cannot be harvested either; these proven breeders are left to increase the population. Finally, the Maine lobster industry has an owner-operator requirement, which states that the individual who holds the license must be the one who pulls the traps. Thus the industry, rather than become dominated by conglomerates who own the means of production and employ many fishermen, remains composed of small family businesses each with their own license and boat.
Though sustainability rules are notoriously difficult to enforce on the ocean – fishermen are on “essentially an honor system”—Maine has had few problems in recent years upholding them. Because the fishery effectively belongs to families who pass down the vocation through the generations, lobstermen are uniquely incentivized into sustainable practices and intensely proud of maintaining their ocean. “We’ve been very responsible with this fishery. And the trap fishery is a very clean fishery—it doesn’t disturb the bottom at all,” emphasized Delano. Theirs is a culture of trust and mutual respect: on Monhegan, the general store stays unlocked and unmanned, and a notepad is left out for customers to record their purchases. Even off the islands, communities are so small and tightly knit that rule breakers and outsiders are easily admonished and, if deemed necessary, driven out.
Call it what you will, but this self-policing industry is self-sustaining too. Delano told me that he has spent a lot of time studying other fisheries, and he thinks the Maine lobster fishery is one of the most sustainable in the world. Drouin echoed him: “the fisheries are managed, the fisheries are healthy, the stocks are healthy.” They are right: the lobster population in the Gulf of Maine is above NOAA’s target levels. In fact, stock abundance is at a record high (for contrast, the population in Southern New England is significantly below target levels “due to environmental factors and fishing pressure”). Lobstermen are essentially farming in the most natural sense: they cultivate existing species and harvest each year, ensuring that the population continues to thrive.
“I think you would find that Maine lobstermen are some of the biggest conservationists in New England,” Delano told me. This conservationism includes a keen awareness of climate change. Lobstermen understand the abstract good to come out of offshore wind, but considering how carefully they care for their resource, it is no wonder they see a new industry spawning in their waters as an existential threat. Delano lamented: “I just don’t think that the Gulf of Maine deserves to be the guinea pig … and I don’t think fishermen and those that protect [the Gulf] deserve to be guinea pigs either.”
Wind was the fastest-growing renewable in 2020, and provides 7.4% of electricity in the United States. Wind is also an intermittent energy source, which means its output varies over short time scales. It must be used in combination with other types of energy to maintain power to the grid – both solar and hydro power work well. Onshore wind is inexpensive, but is particularly variable and requires large amounts of space. Offshore wind, on the other hand, is steadier and frequently stronger. And, since 80% of electricity demand in the U.S. comes from coastal states, the locations make logistical sense.
The U.S. trails far behind China and the U.K. in offshore wind capacity. There are many reasons for this, including high costs and clashes between state and federal governments, but lack of potential capacity is not one. The map below from the National Renewable Energy Laboratory shows average wind speeds. High wind speeds and proximity to major urban centers make the east coast of the continental U.S. a desirable starting point for offshore wind. As technology improves and costs come down, East Coast states, including Connecticut and New Jersey, are pushing to break into what could become a massive industry.
Floating offshore wind, as compared to fixed foundation, is particularly appealing because it does not require massive, expensive ships for installation—the turbines can be towed out by existing watercraft. Even more importantly, floating turbines can be moored in deep water, where more than 60% of offshore wind resources are.
The demonstration off Monhegan will use an 11 MW turbine on a floating concrete hull designed by UMaine called the VolturnUS. The design will reduce overhead and maintenance costs and can be manufactured locally. The hull will be held in place by three marine mooring lines, and the electricity generated will travel to the shore by subsea cable.
For the most part, offshore wind is considered nonthreatening to marine life. Most potential problems come from the installation process. For example, cable installation can kill benthic communities – those that live at the bottom of a body of water – disrupting the rest of the food chain. Installation can decrease water quality and increase sedimentation, while the noise caused by construction may alter marine behavior. Following installation, benthic communities could be negatively affected by heat and electromagnetic radiation from the subsea cable. Although NEAV maintains that “independent and detailed studies have concluded that electrical cables do not pose a threat to marine life,” scientists emphasize the gaps in our understanding.
This lack of understanding concerns fishermen in the Gulf. “There just isn’t any data,” Delano said.
Delano explained another concern: the movement of the mooring lines, chains of eight-foot-long links weighing several thousand pounds apiece. A portion of each chain will lay horizontally on the ground. “Giant chains are going to be sweeping across the bottom in the same spots day after day after day for twenty years – nothing is going to live in that spot. It’s not possible.”
Indeed, according to UMaine’s published work, the Volturn US mooring consists of three chain catenaries attached to drag anchors. Each chain in the system looks something like the figure below reproduced from another UMaine offshore wind paper, in which the line is anchored at a and attached to the turbine at location f., depicted in the visual below. The chain length has yet to be finalized officially, but lobstermen have been told it will stretch 2,800 to 3,600 feet. Each windmill will effectively take up one square mile of the bottom.
NEAV released a promotional video claiming windmills increase marine life, showing the Block Island array acting as an artificial reef. “Fish love structure,” one fisherman says in the video – and they do love these fixed-base windmills, which have jacket foundations moored at a depth of 80 feet. (A short aside on the Block Island farm: while it has generally been a success, and locals have enjoyed lower electricity costs, it has faced recent troubles. The cable connecting the farm to the shore was not buried deeply enough in places and became exposed in February, necessitating a shutdown. Drouin expressed concern that when something fails on the windmill off Monhegan as it did there, the environment will be disturbed even more for repairs.)
Catenary moorings provide no such consistent structure. Gerry Cushman, a lobsterman from Port Clyde, brought this point up. “You know what I always say?” He paused. “If you really want to make it feasible, put [the windmills] right along the shoreline. Put them on poles. We’ll be able to fish around them just like we fish around telephone poles.” I asked if he thought that would be preferable because fixed-base installations would not consistently disturb marine life. “Yup,” he replied.
Many lobstermen I spoke with expressed concern for numerous species beyond lobster. For example, the dangers windmills pose to birds are well known. “We have puffins, we have all kinds of migratory birds that go through [the Monhegan area] to get to the Eastern Egg Rock,” (a wildlife sanctuary home to puffins, guillemots, nesting terns, laughing gulls, and eiders managed by the National Audubon Society) “we have bats…” Benner trailed off, frustrated.
Several lobstermen questioned the lack of concern about the danger windmills might pose to whales, too, as restrictions on their gear to limit Right Whale entanglements threaten their ability to turn a profit.
The lobstermen’s second concern is spatial displacement. There have been conflicting messages regarding how close fishermen can get to the turbines and whether or not fishing activities can continue over the cable. Currently, NEAV’s website says that it is unclear whether or not it will be possible to tow over the cable, and that NEAV will work with fishermen to establish zone limitations around the floating turbine. “We’ve been told both that we can fish around the cable and that we can’t,” Delano explained. “If they tell us now that we can, what makes us believe that we really can?”
Fishermen worry that this windmill marks the beginning of the “industrialization of the Gulf.” In the near future, they refer to the proposed 16-square-mile research array which Mills’ press release describes as a “reasonable and measured step forward.” Mills emphasized in a letter to Maine fishermen and fishing organizations that this array will be located in federal waters (greater than three nautical miles from the coastline): “new, commercial-scale offshore wind projects do not belong in state waters that support the majority of the State’s lobster fishing activity, that provide important habitat for coastal marine and wildlife species and that support a tourist industry based on Maine’s iconic coastal views.” She submitted legislation to place a 10-year moratorium on new wind energy development in state waters. This legislation will not include the Monhegan research site, which falls squarely within state waters and within the Monhegan Lobster Conservation Area.
When asked if he thought this compromise was reasonable, since approximately 80% of lobster are caught in state waters, he was skeptical. He explained that over the past twenty years, slightly warmer temperatures have allowed the fishery to expand farther offshore. For this reason, many lobstermen have invested in the larger boats, which cost about half a million dollars, and the more durable gear necessary to fish offshore. Delano is one of those fishermen. He, and others, cannot simply move back into state waters. “The boats are too expensive, they’re too big,” and the resources close to shore would become strained.
Drouin reinforced Delano’s point: “We hear the arguments on the other side – ‘Well, it’s the ocean, just go fish somewhere else.’” First of all, he mentioned, lobstermen fish where the bottom is productive, and right now, that’s deeper water. More importantly, however, displacement will create conflicts between fishermen. He used an analogy: if one man picks apples from an apple tree, he has plenty of apples. If another man joins, they still both have plenty of apples. But if twenty men try to harvest from the same tree, “how many [apples] do we all get? Not very many.”
Delano added that he believes the moratorium is really for the sake of Mills’ final consideration: the tourist industry. Specifically, he argued that more than acting for environmentalism, Mills was bowing to the complaints of wealthy coastal homeowners, including those who halted the installation of windmills in Cape Cod. Maine has no shortage of the rich (Martha Stewart, John Travolta, and the Bushes, famously) who “have a lot more money to put up a fight than Maine fishermen.” Wealthy homeowners are the reason Cushman quickly dismissed his fixed-base near shore installation proposal. “The people that have these million dollar houses would have to look at the view of [the windmills] and deal with that, and then it’d be equally absorbed bullshit among everybody. That’ll never happen, will it?” (As mentioned, windmills near shore are also less desirable because wind strength is greater farther from shore, but both men have a fair point.)
All of that being said, the goals of the NEAV project are admirable. NEAV I hopes to provide proof of concept of clean electricity generation with costs that compare favorably without subsidy to other forms of generation. It hopes to keep energy costs within Maine, including turbine manufacturing costs. And, according to an analysis by UMaine economist Todd Gabe, NEAV I hopes to produce 1,500 Maine-based jobs. Delano countered this last point with frustration creeping into his voice: “They talk about the job growth – well, what about the jobs that will be lost because of the spatial impact that these [turbines] have?” Upon the successful demonstration of NEAV I, UMaine plans on a 500 MW-scale project in federal waters.
Moving forward, offshore wind is expected to produce $70 billion in investment, and Mills wants Maine to benefit from that. NEAV I alone is a $100 million partnership with NEAV (a subsidiary of Mitsubishi) and RWE Renewables (an international wind company), and is receiving another $47 million in grants from the US Department of Energy.
Maine is a fiercely independent state, recently reacting with disgust to outsiders meddling in politics. Mainers refer derisively to outsiders as “out-of-staters” (or, if said outsiders hail from one state in particular, “Massholes”). Lobstering in particular, though it profits enormously from tourism, is an industry built to remain locally owned, operated, and controlled. Lobstermen see the push for offshore wind as an effort to replace a Maine heritage industry with a new, industrial, global industry—for them, the outside investment is an insult, not a cause for celebration. “NEAV is a subsidiary of Mitsubishi, a foreign company,” Delano explained. “It’s kind of a slap in the face.”
Communication and Clashes
Lobstermen do not feel that they have a voice in this project. The biggest communication problem right now, Delano told me, stems from pandemic restrictions. “The average age in the industry is somewhere in the fifties. These guys have spent their lives working on the water – manual labor. Not everyone is up on technology … a lot of lobstermen do not have computers, and many parts of Maine, particularly small fishing communities, do not have access to broadband.” Hearing the voice of the community is impossible without holding in-person fora. Yet meetings with NEAV and UMaine have, of course, taken place over Zoom.
Delano, who has been involved in discussions about this and other offshore wind proposals for ten years, told me it feels as though there’s a sudden push to get this project through now “at a time when everything else is being slowed down.” It feels like “a way to not have to meet with us and not have to take the time to hear our concerns.”
“[Gov. Mills] has not even taken the time— not one second – to sit down with a fisherman herself and listen to the concerns. That’s how much we mean to her. And that’s alarming,” said Cushman.
“We’re being asked to participate in something that’s coming whether you like it or not,” Delano said. (Cushman echoed him: “they tell you this is going to happen no matter what.”) Consulting with fishermen is just “a box that they’re checking off to make everything look good.”
Feeling silenced pushed lobstermen to make a statement with their actions. The protest spread organically, without the involvement of fishing organizations or even Facebook – “it really was grassroots, you know.”
More than 80 boats lined up – socially distanced by nature – to trace the line the cable will occupy. They were mostly lobstermen, but some ground fishermen too. “It was powerful. Being a part of something – having a line of boats stretch from Monhegan almost to Pemaquid point – all of those guys taking a day off from fishing to come out and take a stance that we’re concerned about what this is going to do to the Gulf of Maine and do to the lobster fishery.”
This protest did not seem to worry NEAV much. The increased amount of fishing gear in the survey route for the project did. They counted 453 traps, up from 221 before the surveying began. Lobstermen maintain the impossibility of obtaining an accurate buoy count due to changing tides and rough water, and that they did not intentionally crowd the area. Marine patrol counted half as much gear as NEAV did. Delano called NEAV’s count “a complete lie.” NEAV was “trying to give us a bad name,” he said. NEAV did not reply to a request for comment.
“We are all seeing the results of climate change first hand – warming temperatures, violent weather events, rising and warming ocean waters. Make no mistake about it, [offshore wind] is coming to the Gulf of Maine, even without my support,” wrote Gov. Mills in her most recent statement on the issue. She argues that projects pushed by the State now will offer lobstermen more input than projects pushed by the federal government later, and that knowledge gained here will “ensure we can inform federal decision-making in the future.”
Cushman agreed with Mills on the first point. “I’m not disputing climate change. I see it every day.” He cited declining shrimp hauls and changing lobster behavior. But he maintained that this solution is not the right one, and emphasized that because climate change is such a fraught issue, many refuse to hear the fishermen’s side of the story.
Lobstermen are “on pins and needles” about larger arrays in the Gulf, said Benner (“where the lobsters are in abundance is where Janet Mills wants to put the 12 windmill [16 square mile] farm,” said Cushman). They organized another protest on April 28 in Augusta, “a plea to the governor to understand where we’re coming from,” and there are plans in the works for bigger protests.
NEAV I is a $147 million project facilitated by out-of-state companies. For the sake of comparison, the lobster fishery was worth $484 million in 2018 (it hovered just over $400 million last year, the worst in recent memory). Most, if not all, of those dollars stay in Maine pockets. The value to the tourism industry is even greater. But the economic argument misses the point.
“I want them to take the time to really research what this will do to communities,” Delano told me. (Cushman agreed, stating that “communities mean nothing to these people. Nothing.”) Delano continued: “It’s really offensive to any of us to think about trading an industry that’s been passed down for generations” for a new industry, offshore wind.
“They like to think it’s one person,” said Cushman, “but every zone voted against [the expansion of offshore wind] … Every fishing organization has voted against it.” Benner agreed. “I have not talked to one person in our area that wants this as far as fishing.”
Some fishermen told me that NEAV has combated these sentiments with financial incentives for fishermen to relax their position. Cushman suggested these incentives pushed the Monhegan community to accept the project (“they went back and forth, and it divided them,” agreed Benner). Citing these rumors, the lack of communication with fishermen, and the lack of space for real change based on their opinions, he asked, “isn’t that a form of bullying?” He went on: “one thing they didn’t realize [is that] the heart and soul of Maine is different. We teach our kids that bullying’s not nice, and we don’t take very well to bullying when it happens to us. We’re going to fight it to the very end.”
Cushman has been fishing all his life, and his family has been fishing since they came over on the Mayflower. “If there’s something that can be caught, we’ve done it,” he said, listing some examples: scallops, herring, cod, ground fish, pogy, halibut. “It’s not easy, what we do. It’s not easy on our bodies, but we still do it and we pass it on. And we create a lot of good jobs, a lot of good paying jobs, and the money stays in our communities.”
This is not just NIMBY. This is asking to sacrifice small-scale, sustainable food production and conservation of marine life for a drop in the bucket toward large scale sustainable energy production. Perhaps a fair trade, if there were not so many other great places for windmills (on our handy map, the Midwest is dark blue too).
This is a little bit of NIMBY. I guess I’ve spent 4,600 words telling you why my backyard – and John Drouin’s backyard, and Dustin Delano’s backyard, and Gerry Cushman’s backyard, and Rex Benner’s backyard – is so special. Maine is famously untouched, unspoiled: Maine should not have to atone for the sins of closeby cities. “Everyone wants renewable energy,” Benner said. “But we feel there are better ways to do it than to experiment and take a chance on ruining something that’s good.”
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