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Fishing industry says offshore wind projects could sink its business

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Scallop bags from the Furious are offloaded and weighed at the Gambardella warehouse on the Stonington Town Dock.

Scallop bags from the Furious are offloaded and weighed at the Gambardella warehouse on the Stonington Town Dock. Harriet Jones

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On a clear morning in early June, cotton sacks filled with shucked scallops hit the scale at a dockside warehouse in Stonington, Connecticut. They were offloaded from the Furious, a scallop boat just back from a 12-day trip.

Up in the wheelhouse of the vessel, owner Joe Gilbert indicated on a chart where, in the future, this same trip might be a lot more difficult to navigate.

“This entire area here is slated to be a wind farm,” Gilbert said. “It’s an area larger than the state of Rhode Island.”

In its pursuit of green energy, the Biden administration has given strong backing to the nascent offshore wind industry in the U.S.

While Europe has 20 years of experience developing offshore wind, it’s relatively new in North America. Last month saw the final approval for the very first commercial-scale project, Vineyard Wind, off the coast of Massachusetts.

But these aren’t empty seas. Plenty of other ocean users have concerns about the massive steel turbines being erected offshore, not least commercial fishing, which is a multimillion-dollar industry in New England. 

The Responsible Offshore Development Alliance has taken the lead in advocating for the fishing industry. It says a major concern is that fishing vessels could strike one of the massive wind farm turbines in bad weather. In addition, it says the spinning blades interfere with the radar vessels use to find their catch. And fishermen like Gilbert worry that the structures will alter the ocean ecosystem.

“We’re racing forward without the proper science to evaluate if this is good or if this is bad,” Gilbert said.

But there is research available from Europe, according to Amanda Lefton, director of the federal Bureau of Ocean Energy Management.

“While offshore wind is new to us in the United States, it’s certainly not a new technology in other places,” she said.

The federal agency is in charge of leasing tracts of the ocean for wind projects. Lefton said that, so far, BOEM has received 14 construction and operation plans for offshore wind in the Atlantic.

“As we actually seek to look at what will we actually lease, we’re even further narrowing those areas to try and do our best to avoid conflicts with ocean users,” Lefton said.

Ørsted, a Danish giant in the wind farm business recently signed an agreement with one fishing industry group to help with research as the wind farms are built out. And John O’Keeffe, Ørsted’s head of marine affairs, said the wind industry has made concessions on the siting of turbines.

“The spacing that is agreed to is the largest spacing in the world,” O’Keeffe said. “One nautical mile spacing. It does not exist anywhere else.”

Some Atlantic coast wind farm companies are in talks to establish compensation funds for economic damage to commercial fisheries.

But the coexistence of these two industries is still in doubt. In its part of a recent approval of one project, the federal Army Corps of Engineers said the difficulty of navigation means it is likely commercial fishing will be abandoned within the new wind farms. Back in Stonington, that’s exactly what Gilbert said he fears. 

“We’re afraid we’re going to lose our livelihoods. This is an existential threat to us,” he said.

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