It’s a busy day at Dockside Packing in Atlantic City. Men banging mallets against steel make repairs to the Mary Vee. A ship’s captain works a crane that offloads cages of Atlantic surf clams, each cage containing 2,000 pounds of them, dredged from the ocean bottom off the coast.
Clammers like Charlie Quintana are back from two days at sea on the Christy. “Oh, it’s just a beautiful peace of mind,” Quintana says. “I just love fishing, period, dredging, looking for clams.”
Quintana worries about climate change: He says he’s noticed a change in the fisheries because of warming oceans. But he also worries that the hundreds of thousands of acres of wind farms planned for the East Coast will limit where he can catch clams – a backbreaking job, but one that he says earns him $120,000 to $150,000 a year.
“It’ll wreck the bottom,” he says.
Captain Tom Dameron spent decades harvesting the clams that end up in cans of clam chowder on grocery store shelves or served in restaurants. Now, he’s the government relations and fishery science liaison for Surfside Foods, which employs about 100 people, including Quintana.
Standing on the dock by the vessel, Dameron explains how seawater is pumped into the ocean bottom to stir up the clam beds and a giant rake, or dredge, scoops up the larger clams.
“You have a knife blade similar to a blade on a plow that actually digs into the bottom,” he says. “And that is the part if there were electric cables down there, we would be afraid of that part coming into contact with the electric cables.”
Those electric cables he’s worried about would act as a giant extension cord, carrying up to 275,000 volts of wind-generated electricity to shore for distribution to homes across New Jersey and beyond. The massive wind farms that are being planned off the Jersey coast are not compatible with fishing, Dameron says.
As part of the Biden administration’s commitment to tackling climate change, it wants to develop 30,000 megawatts of offshore wind power by 2030 – enough to light up 10 million homes. Only two small wind farms now exist in the United States: the five-turbine farm off the coast of Block Island, Rhode Island, operated by a unit of the Danish energy company Orsted, and a small pilot project in Virginia operated by Dominion Energy. The Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, or BOEM, has already awarded 17 lease areas between Massachusetts and North Carolina, and this year it added another eight between Long Island and Cape May.
New Jersey was awarded the largest leasing area yet: Hundreds of turbines will rise more than 80 stories tall, like a forest of steel bolstered by a bed of rocks on the seabed and stretching over hundreds of thousands of acres 10 to 15 miles from shore.
Dameron says clammers will compete for a smaller patch of ocean.
“It’s going to lead to localized overfishing,” he says, “which will lead to the boats targeting smaller and smaller clams, which has the potential to lead to the collapse of this fishery in Atlantic City.”
New Jersey has staked its claim to lead the nation in this push to tackle climate change. But those planned wind farms off the Jersey Shore occupy some of the most fertile fishing grounds in the nation, prompting a growing battle between fisheries and wind power.
Gov. Phil Murphy has committed the state to developing 7,500 megawatts of offshore wind by 2035. It’s part of the state’s overall goal of 100% clean energy by 2050. The federal government auctions off the lease areas, which are in federal waters, more than three miles from shore. The states, which until recently have led the push for offshore wind, oversee the power contracts.
Current plans include three lease areas in New Jersey, stretching over hundreds of thousands of acres and encompassing a grid of several hundred turbines aimed to power millions of homes. But that’s just the beginning, with BOEM’s announcement this year of the eight additional leases farther out to sea between Long Island and Cape May.
“It’s a massive undertaking,” says Val Stori, project director with Clean Energy States Alliance. “We’re talking about five- to seven-year timelines to get a project proposed, contracted, permitted, built, and then have the electrons flowing to shore. So these are huge investments, and they have the potential to decarbonize vast sectors of the economy. And the more that we’re looking to electrify everything, we’re looking to electrify heating, electrify transportation, perhaps one day electrify industrial processes. We will need renewable energy to do so. And that’s where the energy [for] those electrons could come from to really decarbonize economy-wide.”
It also means good jobs, says Stori. “We need lawyers. We need permitting specialists. We need scientists. We need to manufacture the turbines.”
But fishermen like Dameron and Quintana say it would be dangerous to maneuver through the wind farms in bad weather, and they worry how the structures will affect ocean currents, temperatures, and migration patterns.
Surf clams were the first seafood to be regulated by the federal government, leading the way for what has become one of the most regulated industries in the nation. Where, when, how and how much are harvested is strictly monitored and enforced. Dameron says about 20% of the average yearly catch comes from the areas now slated to be wind farms by the federal government. In a 12-year period, he says, that added up to more than $39 million in revenue for the surf clams alone.
“We are literally fighting for the existence of the clam industry to remain in the port of Atlantic City.”
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