Capt. Cain Faircloth knows when something is a little fishy.
He’s been an angler all his life, following in the footsteps of five Faircloth generations before him who all captained fishing vessels in the Cape Fear region.
But now charter boat captains and fishermen like Faircloth fear the inevitable influx of offshore wind energy could put them out of business.
“Brunswick County is an amazing place and I just don’t want to see it ruined,” he said. “Tourism is booming, housing is booming, and this can mess it all up.”
Next month, the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management will auction off leases to 110,000 acres just 20 nautical miles off the Brunswick coast to develop offshore wind turbines that are expected to generate enough energy to power nearly 500,000 homes.
The push for offshore renewables intensified last year, as a looming 10-year moratorium on offshore wind leases approached. Gov. Roy Cooper signed an executive order accelerating wind energy production and setting a state goal of producing 2.8 gigawatts of offshore wind energy resources by 2030 and 8 gigawatts by 2040.
The moratorium is set to take effect in July, giving lawmakers and agency officials more impetus to accelerate the process. But for residents like Faircloth, the approach has left too many questions unanswered for them to support it.
According to John Dosher, vice president of the N.C. For-Hire Charter Fishermen Association, concerns about how wind turbines could affect migratory fishing patterns outweigh the potential benefits.
“We’re all for renewable energy,” Dosher said. “The biggest conflict we have is just basically there are no answers. They haven’t shown us a tremendous amount of research or studies, they just figured out an area to lease and expect that to be good enough.”
Dosher said the electromagnetic currents produced by wind turbines have the potential to affect migrating animals like sea turtles, whales and dolphins.
With the offshore wind energy industry still in its infancy, its hard to parse out the affects on wildlife, with recent studies offering conflicting or inconclusive results.
A December 2020 study published by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration calls for further research on the affects on local fishery resources, finding they may have “yet unknown impacts.”
Advocates for wind energy however say early data on offshore turbine impacts to tourism is promising. Two University of Rhode Island studies found tourism – measured by occupancy rates during peak tourism months – increased 19% after the Block Island Wind Farm began operating, with fishermen more accepting of the structures.
While studies suggest wind turbines can have the affect of creating reefs that attract more sea life, Faircloth said the turbine lease area – known to local anglers as Southwest Tower Bottom and The Horseshoe – is already great for fishing.
“The area is a very highly used and sought after location,” he said. “It’s a place where pretty much anybody that does recreational or commercial fishing, that’s kind of where they head to.”
Dosher said the environmental effects need to be studied fully for people to make an informed decision before moving forward.
“You’re putting something that’s (artificial) into a reef system that’s hundreds of millions of years old now and how’s that benefiting something?” he said. “It just seems like there’s everything to lose for us and nothing really to gain.”
Most Brunswick municipalities have come out against the offshore leases, citing affects the visual impacts would have to the tourist-dependent economy. Brunswick County, Sunset Beach, Ocean Isle Beach, Caswell Beach and the Village of Bald Head Island have all passed resolutions opposing their construction.
The Southeast Wind Coalition, an advocacy group for offshore wind power, held a presentation in Southport in January showing people what the turbines would look like and answering questions.
Faircloth, who is also a realtor, said the visual impacts are less of a concern now, with the turbines appearing as now more than a white fleck on the horizon according to wind coalition mockups.
According to BOEM, they’ve responded to local concerns by reducing the wind lease area by 14%, making it less visible from the mainland, and requiring monitoring on migration patterns.
Dosher said the association will continue reaching out to stakeholders to find a way to slow down the process, suggesting the possibility of rescinding the upcoming moratorium and allowing more time to study the potential affects.
“It doesn’t matter what institutions or politicians are for this, if the people of southeastern North Carolina don’t want this to happen, we can stop this,” he said.
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