In an April opinion piece, Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke wrote that “affordable, reliable, and abundant American energy drives domestic jobs and prosperity.” If by “drives domestic jobs and prosperity” Zinke meant “threatens the very existence of New England fishermen,” then the East Farm Commercial Fisheries Center of Rhode Island (which represents Rhode Island commercial fishermen) would agree.
Right now, Zinke’s Bureau of Ocean Energy Management is reviewing a construction and operation plan submitted by Vineyard Wind. Vineyard Wind is a project company owned by Copenhagen Infrastructure Partners and Avangrid Renewables, a subsidiary of Iberdrola, a company based in the industrial port city of Bilbao, Spain. These companies plan to install a massive offshore wind project in the waters south of Martha’s Vineyard and Nantucket. In the first phase of the project alone, according to the plan, Vineyard Wind will install between 88 and 106 wind turbine generators, up to four electrical service platforms, 156.4 nautical miles of cable, and up to three offshore export cables that are each 122.5 nautical miles long. And this is just the first project.
There are two other project companies also vying for state contracts and state and federal approvals. Deepwater Wind’s Revolution Wind could be built off the Massachusetts’ coast at various sizes up to 400 megawatts in its first phase. Bay State Wind, a 50-50 joint venture between Ørsted (a company based in Denmark) and Eversource Energy, is a proposed offshore wind project located 25 miles off the Massachusetts’ coast and 15 miles off the coast of Martha’s Vineyard with the potential to build up to 2,000 megawatts of wind power in the area. Combined and fully developed, these projects could install more than 500 turbines in the waters off Massachusetts and Rhode Island.
Rhode Island commercial fishermen have supported the idea of renewable energy and its promise to reduce emissions associated with global climate change. That being said, they also bear the brunt of and unfairly shoulder the blame for depleted stocks in fisheries impacted by climate change, and/or by the constant barrage of newly permitted offshore activities. The continued imposition of burdensome regulations and quotas, established by government agencies to compensate for the effects that the many ocean uses and climate change are having on fisheries, make it harder and harder for the fishing industry every day. Every sacrifice and regulatory demand made of the fishing industry is diminished by this comparative rush to construct offshore wind farms with little actual data or science or regard for the effects construction and operation will have on fisheries habitat and stocks.
The inequity in the application of law and consequences is not lost on fishermen. If a fisherman hauls in even 100 pounds too much in bycatch, the federal government can take his permit and shut him down. If the pile driving, the dredging, the laying of cables, the noise, or the displacement of toxic sediments wipes out thousands of pounds of fish, it is an acceptable environmental consequence for this industrial activity.
The rush to approve and build these massive projects is irresponsible. The survival of the fishing industry is now dependent on a review process that has been kicked into high gear and is lacking the research and data necessary to make informed and balanced decisions. For example, in its haste to approve these massive projects, the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management significantly underestimated the intensity of the fishing effort taking place in the Vineyard Wind project area and seriously undervalued the fisheries, especially the squid fishery. As a result, Vineyard Wind plans to construct its project in a prime squid fishing area.
There is simply not enough information to appropriately consider the cumulative effect that multiple projects will have on access to a high-value fishing areas and navigability. There is no pause button built into these projects. Proceeding at such a pace and scale will not allow for proper evaluation of the impacts caused by driving hundreds of monopiles into the seabed; the effect of that noise and pressure on fish stocks, stationary species, larvae, and benthic communities; impacts from electromagnetic fields; impacts from dredging; and the displacement effect that a north-south configuration with turbine spacing of less than 1 nautical mile will have on commercial fishermen.
We cannot “drive domestic jobs” by driving the jobs right out of a domestic industry that has thrived for hundreds of years. We must proceed more deliberately. We should be considering smaller-sized, adequately spaced, thoughtfully configured projects. If we do not take the time to gather baseline data and evaluate the impacts and injuries to the fishing industry, then, in Zinke’s haste to push these large-scale projects through, down the road, when you see the words “Gone Fishing,” it might be more of an epitaph than an out-of-office message.
Rhode Island attorney Tricia K. Jedele represents the East Farm Commercial Fisheries Center of Rhode Island. East Farm Commercial Fisheries Center represents the commercial interests of Rhode Island fishermen who rely on access to and protection of sustainable fisheries.