Few assurances for fishermen in federal offshore wind approval

Source: By Alex Kuffner, The Providence Journal • Posted: Monday, May 17, 2021

PROVIDENCE — Offshore wind developers have assured the commercial fishing industry all along that the thousands of massive turbines that they want to install in the ocean up and down the East Coast won’t block fishermen from waters where they make their living.

But the final approval issued this week for Vineyard Wind 1, the nation’s first major offshore wind farm, offers few guarantees to commercial fishermen.

Take for instance this passage from the Army Corps of Engineers in the Record of Decision for the 62-turbine project that would be built off the coast of Rhode Island and Massachusetts:

“While Vineyard Wind is not authorized to prevent free access to the entire wind development area, due to the placement of the turbines it is likely that the entire 75,614 acre area will be abandoned by commercial fisheries due to difficulties with navigation.”

The statement represents the worst-case scenario for fishermen and contradicts what Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo and Bureau of Ocean Energy Management director Amanda Lefton said last Tuesday in a press call on the approval about their hopes of having the two industries coexist.

It also runs counter to other parts of the written decision that say that spacing between the turbines and their uniform layout in a grid pattern will allow for safe passage of vessels within the 800-megawatt wind farm.

Instead of answers, more questions

“We were hoping for some answers in this ROD, but only got more questions,” said Annie Hawkins, executive director of the Responsible Offshore Development Alliance, a group representing fishing interests on offshore wind issues.

The Record of Decision was issued by BOEM, the lead permitting agency for offshore energy projects in federal waters, and was also signed by the Army Corps and the National Marine Fisheries Service, which is part of the Department of Commerce.

In response to questions about the Army Corps statement, BOEM said that it has been working with offshore wind developers and the fishing industry to reduce impacts and pointed out that its own analysis and a Coast Guard study concluded that fishing vessels would be able to navigate through the Vineyard Wind project.

“It is important to note that the approval of the Vineyard Wind 1 offshore wind project does not limit the right to navigate or fish within the project area,” an agency spokesperson said.

Vineyard Wind did not respond to a request for comment.

The Army Corps statement is not the first time a federal agency has raised concerns about the impacts on commercial fisheries. In 2019, an administrator with the National Marine Fisheries Service questioned whether BOEM was considering the full effects on fishermen from Vineyard Wind and the half-dozen other offshore wind leases on either side of it.

Hawkins and her organization say that the Record of Decision reflects inconsistencies in how federal officials have treated the fishing industry in connection to offshore wind development. In its written response to the Record of Decision, RODA criticized the government’s approach as “scattershot, partisan and opaque.”

Placement of turbines raises concerns

One of the biggest areas of concern for fishermen has been how developers lay out their turbines. In response to complaints from the fishing industry, Vineyard Wind and other developers agreed to orient its turbines in east-west rows and space them one nautical mile apart to try to address the concerns about navigation.

But fishermen also want developers to set aside space for wider transit lanes to allow vessels to easily get through wind farms to fishing grounds farther offshore. Vineyard Wind and the other developers have balked at agreeing to lanes that RODA and other fishing groups have called for being four nautical miles wide.

The Record of Decision cites Vineyard Wind’s concerns that the creation of transit lanes would lead to project delays. The decision also notes that such delays would be inconsistent with an executive order signed by President Joe Biden to double offshore wind by 2030.

“Primary concerns with the inclusion of a transit lane focused on the precedent that may be set with the addition of transit lanes that would limit the potential of offshore wind leases to meet state demand and reduce economic benefits from offshore wind development,” the decision says.

Adequate compensation for fishing industry?

Of course, if fishermen completely abandon areas because of the navigation challenges posed by the construction of offshore wind farms, it would raise uncomfortable questions for regulators and developers about the adequacy of compensation packages offered to the fishing industry.

For example, the terms of the agreement that Vineyard Wind made with the Fishermen’s Advisory Board in Rhode Island to create two compensation funds totaling $16.7 million does not specifically contemplate fishermen leaving the project area altogether.

In talks over compensation for the South Fork Wind Farm, the second project in the federal permitting queue, the Rhode Island fishermen’s board hit an impasse with developers Orsted and Eversource this past winter because the two sides couldn’t agree on the extent of impacts to fisheries.

Staff at the Rhode Island Coastal Resources Management Council are preparing a recommendation on whether to approve certification for the 132-megawatt project, in time for a vote that is set to take place May 25, and are taking into account fisheries impacts.

The Army Corps statement would seem to bolster the fishermen’s argument that the effects will be far-reaching. Orsted did not respond to requests for comment.

Hawkins said that it should be up to the federal government to come up with a consistent approach on fishing issues, including in regard to compensation.

“There needs to be a federal, regional approach to determining impact fees based on the full value of losses,” she said. “So far we have not seen BOEM do a single thing to support fair compensation, although we’ve asked for it for years and years.”