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Will offshore wind hurt the Morro Bay fishing industry? ‘We’re basically screwed’

Bill Blue has been commercially fishing Dungeness crab and black cod near the shores of Morro Bay for 47 years.

It’s a business that he got into when he was 19 years old.

“That’s all I know. That’s what I do,” he said.

Blue’s business has survived in an industry that has faced growing regulations and shrinking territory during the nearly five decades he’s operated off the Central Coast.

Now, proposals to develop a massive floating offshore wind farm in the Pacific Ocean near Cambria may diminish Blue’s fishing grounds by 399 square miles – an area more than twice the size of Lake Tahoe.

The proposed offshore wind farm got a green light from Biden administration officials with support from California Gov. Gavin Newsom on May 25, after years of negotiations between federal, state and local governments.

Along with Newsom, U.S. Interior Secretary Deb Haaland, National Climate Advisor Gina McCarthy and Under Secretary of Defense for Policy Dr. Colin Kahl announced the advancement of the proposed offshore wind farm in a call with reporters, touting the economic benefits of the project and clean energy it will generate.

The wind farm would be located northwest of Morro Bay, about 17 to 40 miles offshore.

The Morro Bay call area – the area in which a wind farm may be built – could hold enough wind turbines to generate up to 3 gigawatts of energy at max production. That’s enough to power about a million homes with non-emissions producing electricity.

A lease sale auction for the Morro Bay call area may happen as soon as mid-2022.

But local fishermen are raising alarm bells, saying they worry the proposed wind farm will seriously hurt the fishing industry.

About 50% of Blue’s annual income comes from the black cod he catches in the Morro Bay call area.

Erecting wind turbines in the ocean there would likely force him and others who fish rock cod, albacore tuna, salmon, prawns, swordfish and black cod, also known as sablefish, to completely abandon the area.

“What we’re seeing is the government going ‘Drop everything. We have to do this right now: clear all the obstacles, push the fishermen off the map,’ ” said Alan Alward, secretary of the Morro Bay Commercial Fishermen’s Organization, a nonprofit organization that advocates for the local fishing industry.

Alward, together with Tom Hafer, president of the Morro Bay Commercial Fishermen’s Organization, and Steve Scheiblauer, a federal appointee to the Pacific Fishery Management Council’s Habitat Committee, says that the voices of local fishermen have seemingly gone unheard by the federal and state government agencies that are tasked with collaborating on the proposal to build the offshore wind farm.

“At one time the call area was 120 square miles and so that’s what we decided on and that’s what the fishermen and the city thought was going to happen – and it didn’t,” Hafer said. “Then it grew immensely after that … Now they want to take away almost 400 square miles. And so we’re basically screwed.”

“I’m quite concerned that this feels like a gold rush – that the nation and offshore wind developers are just rushing for this as a solution that will help with climate change without really thinking about the consequences,” Scheiblauer said.

Government agencies recognize impact on fishing industry

Federal, state and local politicians and agencies all say they have been in contact with fishermen regarding the proposed offshore wind turbines and that they aim to mitigate and reduce any impacts to the fishing industry wherever possible.

Several ongoing studies funded by BOEM aim to find out what those impacts are exactly. Any conclusions drawn now about what may happen to the local fishing industry are based solely on estimations by wind turbine companies, government agencies and studies conducted on the few existing wind energy farms in Europe and the eastern United States – most of which have fixed-bottom ocean wind turbines, not floating wind turbines.

Central Coast Congressman Salud Carbajal, a member of the Offshore Wind Working Group that’s worked to develop wind turbines off the Central Coast, said he has held “several meetings with local fishermen and consistently worked to make sure their voices are heard throughout this process.”

However, Carbajal added that “we haven’t seen a wind project of this scale on the West Coast before, so we shouldn’t have preconceived ideas until we gather more information and learn about the benefits it brings and any potential impacts.”

John Romero is a spokesman for the U.S. Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM), the lead agency on any offshore wind energy developments in federal waters – including the proposed Morro Bay call area.

Romero told The Tribune that the agency is “committed to continuing to work with all users of the ocean, including the fishing community.”

“Their input will be carefully considered throughout our planning and leasing decisions,” Romero wrote in an email. “Our goal is to avoid or reduce potential impacts to fisheries from offshore wind energy development.”

The California Coastal Commission has federal Coastal Zone Management Act authority over any offshore wind development because of the potential impacts to the coastal zone, which extends three miles offshore.

The state agency will have two opportunities to review the offshore wind farm proposals: first during BOEM’s call for leases and then again once a construction plan is submitted by the company or companies that may build the offshore wind turbines.

During both of those reviews, Kate Huckelbridge, the Coastal Commission’s deputy director of energy, ocean resources and federal consistency, said the agency will be looking to see whether the proposed developments are consistent with the California Coastal Act, which mandates the protection of coastal resources and “the economic, commercial and recreational importance of fishing activities.”

Huckelbridge acknowledged that offshore wind development will impact fishing.

“There really is no way to completely avoid any impact to fishing if you’re going to pursue offshore wind,” she said. “It’s a large-scale development that takes up a lot of ocean space and is based where fishermen are. That’s how they make their livelihood.”

What impacts will floating offshore wind turbines have on fishing?

Alla Weinstein, CEO and founder of Castle Wind LLC, said the proposal she submitted to BOEM to build offshore wind turbines in the Morro Bay call area will probably cause fishermen to completely avoid the area. (Castle Wind is a joint venture between Trident Winds Inc., a Seattle-based company, and EnBW North American Inc.)

This will likely be due to the navigational hazard poised by the turbines.

Data gathered from 1931 to 2005 by researchers with the National Marine Fisheries Service roughly show that the broad economic impact of blocking off the entire Morro Bay call area would be less significant than if the wind turbines were located closer to shore or in other areas along California’s coast because the fisheries located in the Morro Bay call area bring in less money than those in other areas.

Fishing out of Morro Bay generated nearly $15 million in 2015 and 2016, according to a 2017 economic impact report prepared by Lisa Wise Consulting and produced by the Morro Bay Commercial Fishermen’s Organization with a grant from the Central California Joint Cable/Fisheries Liaison Committee and the city of Morro Bay.

That’s up 400% from 2007, according to the report.

“If I look at the revenue side of the equation, no, you’re not going to lose any revenue because you can still fish up to the quota you’re allocated,” Weinstein said. “But it may cost you more because you may need to travel further away to catch that same amount of fish.”

That increase in distance may be significant to fishermen, however, given the number of restrictions already placed on the areas in which they can fish due to federal and state regulations, conservation and protected areas.

It may come down to whichever industry is deemed more profitable and more vital.

A Cal Poly study commissioned by the Central Coast economic impact group REACH showed that the proposed Morro Bay wind farm could generate at least 650 jobs and $262 million in annual economic impacts to San Luis Obispo and Santa Barbara counties.

“I recognize and appreciate how our local fishing industry strengthens our local economy,” Carbajal said. “I also believe an offshore wind project on the Central Coast would greatly benefit our community by creating good-paying jobs and cementing our leadership in the renewable energy economy. I am confident we can work together to ensure both of these sustainable industries are successful.”

Weinstein said that her company is prepared to help compensate the fishermen and has already established a written agreement with the Morro Bay Commercial Fishermen’s Organization and Port San Luis Commercial Fishermen’s Association to ensure indemnities are in place should Castle Wind win the bid for an offshore wind farm lease from BOEM.

Castle Wind is the only company that has made such an agreement with the fishermen, however, according to Tom Hafer of the Morro Bay Commercial Fishermen’s Organization.

Ten other companies have expressed interest in developing offshore wind turbines in the Morro Bay call area, according to BOEM.

Huckelbridge said that the Coastal Commission will likely want to implement a collaborative model between whichever company builds wind turbines in the call area and the local fishing organizations. This has been implemented in the past when fiberoptic telecommunication cables were installed along the coast, and it ensures the fishermen and local community are compensated for any impacts to their business.

Huckelbridge noted that it could be a few years before any similar approach is established, but that “there is agreement amongst agency staff that this is a critical issue that we need to be working out.”

She added that fishermen aren’t the only ones with concerns about the proposed wind farm, citing the potential environmental impacts of offshore wind turbines on the ocean. However, the move to clean energy sources is key to California reaching its renewable energy goals in the fight against climate change, she said.

“We’re keenly aware at our agency of the effects of climate change and sea-level rise. We deal with it every day,” she said. “So we feel both the urgency of moving to renewable (sources of energy), but also the need to do it in a smart and deliberate manner so that we are understanding the full range of impacts that this technology and industry could result in and then planning for that.”

Proposed wind farm could impact seafood consumers

No matter what kind of compensation the fishing industry may receive after the wind turbines are constructed, fishermen say their livelihoods will likely be disrupted.

“We have provided hundreds of thousands of pounds (of fish) over a period of time to California and to people all throughout this country,” said Roger Cullen, a longtime commercial fisherman who fishes out of the Morro Bay call area. “It’s a clean, sustainable resource.”

In addition to affecting the lives of local fishermen, Cullen said the loss of fishing in the Morro Bay call area would have an impact on the lives of everyone who consumes the seafood gathered there.

“Yeah, I’m concerned about losing a significant part of my livelihood,” Cullen said. “They’ve talked about compensation to fishermen to maybe mitigate some of that loss – that would be at the very least expected. But, you know, you have to look at the other end of that, the loss of product, of seafood to California and elsewhere in the United States, and how that’s going to impact everyone else.”

Local fishermen also said they’re worried that the decrease in the territory they can fish in – on top of all the other regulations and restrictions they already face – may cause the fishing industry to lose its appeal for future generations of fishers.

Blue said the proposed wind farm will take “away what was my retirement” and may cause some in the deepwater fishing industry to “jump ship from Morro Bay.”

“(With) my boat, my permits five or six years ago were worth a lot of money,” he said. “Today, with the uncertainty of what’s going to be left to do in the business with all the sharing of what’s left in the ocean, I don’t think I can sell my boat. No young guys want to jump into this business anymore because of the uncertainty with all these things happening in the area.”

What’s next for proposed Morro Bay offshore wind farm

The next steps in the process before BOEM begins a lease sale auction expected to happen next year will be outlined in a California Energy Commission and BOEM workshop on Monday.

You can attend the workshop, which will be held virtually from 2 p.m. to 5 p.m., by visiting bit.ly/CECworkshop2021.

There will also be a virtual Renewable Energy Task Force meeting with several California agencies and BOEM on July 13.