Offshore wind is finally taking off in the United States. But fishing interests around the country are throwing one last obstacle in the industry’s way.
The Biden administration has ambitious plans to open up vast swaths of coastline in order to generate 30 gigawatts of offshore wind energy by 2030. Energy companies are stepping up: Six leases off the New Jersey and New York coasts sold for $4.3 billion last month, the most lucrative wind lease sale in U.S. history.
But the wind industry and federal and state agencies still haven’t managed to placate the fishing industry, which is lobbying against offshore wind proposals around the country over concerns the turbines could interfere with fishing routes.
The resistance could complicate President Joe Biden’s timeline. The Bureau of Ocean Energy Management wants to review at least 16 offshore wind plans for potential approval in the next three years, up from two total approvals since the agency was created in 2011.
Oregon officials are asking BOEM to delay a planned lease sale next year over concerns about its potential impacts on commercial fishing.
“I think that timeline is just completely unrealistic,” Kaety Jacobson, a county commissioner in Oregon, said at a BOEM hearing last month. “I think you could extend out your timeline a year from that and still be able to make your 2030 timeline goal. Meeting that goal can’t just be at the backs of the community and the environment.”
And a group of Northeast governors wrote to Biden last spring to request greater attention be paid to the cumulative effects of offshore wind energy on the ocean’s other “legitimate interests” like fishing.
The Biden administration has made concessions such as shrinking the size of lease areas and proposing payments to compensate fishers for reduced activity. BOEM is planning to release draft guidance on payments as soon as this month, which could include estimates of how much money the agency wants wind companies to pay.
Fishing groups are hesitant and view the payments as akin to giving up on their industry.
“You have individually operated fishing businesses going up against multinational energy companies,” said Patrice McCarron, executive director of the Maine Lobstermen’s Association. “It is truly a David and Goliath issue. Here we are for centuries keeping the coastal communities alive, and you just feel like you are going to be stamped out. We are scared.”
Seafood suppliers are concerned, too. Wholesalers and fishing groups joined forces in a lawsuit filed by a right-wing law firm last year against Vineyard Wind, arguing they would be “economically ruined” by the project.
A host of concerns
Industry advocates are worried about losing access to fishing territory and being squeezed into smaller areas, which would lead to “localized overfishing,” said Tom Dameron, a former commercial fisherman who is now the government relations and fishery liaison for Surfside Foods, a New Jersey clam company. Fisheries from scallops to squid, fluke and clams could be affected.
BOEM acknowledged as much in its approval of the country’s first large-scale offshore project, 62 wind turbines off Martha’s Vineyard. All fishing and transit would need to avoid certain zones during construction of Vineyard Wind 1, said Tracey Moriarty, a BOEM spokesperson, and certain vessels towing fishing gear may need to avoid certain areas entirely during operation.
While the fishing industry claims that all 75,000 acres of the project area could be abandoned by commercial fisheries due to difficulties with navigation, BOEM said the project would likely only reduce the area’s revenue by $14 million, out of $479 million annually on average.
BOEM said that it expected “major” adverse impacts to fishers from the much-smaller South Fork wind project located off Rhode Island, the second to receive federal approval. Analysis published by Rhode Island’s Coastal Resources Management Council put the losses between $11 million and $18 million.
“BOEM carefully considers multiple ocean uses as part of its decision-making processes and works with lessees and fishermen to not only avoid or reduce potential impacts to the fishing industry from offshore wind energy development, but to ensure that both industries can co-exist and even thrive,” Moriarty said in a statement. “BOEM strives to avoid the siting of offshore wind facilities in areas that are high-value fishing areas.”
The projected losses are prompting broad recognition of the need for some kind of a federal fishery compensation plan as a final backstop for when impacts can’t be avoided. Clean power groups, utilities, fishery management councils and state agencies are all on board to varying degrees.
But while the fishing industry wants the federal government to require impact fees if fishing areas are disturbed, it’s still holding out for limiting the turbines in the most productive fishing grounds, said Annie Hawkins, the executive director of the Responsible Offshore Development Alliance, a group of fishing interests that sued the Interior Department in January over its approval of Vineyard Wind.
In lieu of a standardized compensation formula to pay fishermen for losses, states and the fishing industry thus far have largely had to work directly with the relevant wind company. Both the Vineyard Wind and South Fork projects include compensation plans, but RODA has called them “insufficient.”
“Fisheries have slowed some things down and they have had an impact and there have been changes made, but I think most fishermen would argue it’s nowhere near close enough to what they would want to see to not be worried about the impacts,” said Julia Beaty, a fishery management specialist at the Mid-Atlantic Fishery Management Council.
The frustration goes both ways, with fishing interests getting concessions of their own. Andrew Doba, a spokesperson for Vineyard Wind, pointed to the fact that five different New England offshore wind leaseholders agreed to adopt a uniform turbine layout to address fishing and transit concerns – a decision that cut the area’s potential energy production by 30 percent.
The New York Bight wind area was cut 72 percent from the initial area outlined in 2018 to the sites actually leased last month, and BOEM reduced the number of leases in the area from eight to six. The agency also cut more than 1 million acres for wind areas off Massachusetts. A law passed in Maine last year bans offshore development in state waters in order to protect commercial lobster harvesting.
Wind companies point to other obstacles that the fishing industry has had to contend with, including labor and workforce challenges and existing fishing regulations. They also point out that new turbines are taller and more efficient than before, meaning fewer will be needed to generate the same amount of electricity.
“Will offshore wind be another thing that fishing needs to coexist with? Yes. But so is climate change,” said Claire Richer, the federal affairs director at the American Clean Power Association. “We need to do something about climate change. And offshore wind is a really important piece to decarbonize and meet state clean energy goals.”
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