Fishermen Want Say on Wind Farm

As a Rhode Island company navigates multiple regulatory agencies in order to construct the first offshore wind farms in the United States in the ocean east of Montauk, commercial fishermen are raising concerns about how such projects will impact their livelihood.

Bonnie Brady, executive director of the Long Island Commercial Fishing Association, believes that construction methodologies, and offshore wind farms themselves, pose a significant threat to fish habitats, spawning, and migratory patterns. Citing studies by the United States Interior Department’s Bureau of Ocean Energy Management and the experiences of the commercial fishing industry in Europe, where more than 2,000 wind turbines are in operation, she is urging a greater role for fishing interests in the decision-making process.

“We’re trying to sustainably grow the fishing economy,” said Ms. Brady, who lives in Montauk. “You don’t destroy something in the name of green energy. To destroy a sustainable industry in the name of sustainability is insane.”

According to the Convention for the Protection of the Marine Environment of the North-East Atlantic, which took effect in 1998 and was ratified by more than a dozen countries in Europe, offshore wind farms carry multiple potential impacts on fish. Construction noise, including pile driving into the ocean floor, could damage fishes’ hearing, affecting their ability to hunt prey and avoid predators. Clouding and sedimentation during construction could damage fish eggs and spawning grounds. Noise and vibrations emanating from wind turbines could result in stress and habitat loss. And, the report stated, electromagnetic fields from cables could disturb migratory species’ orientation  and impede their foraging activity. “For migratory species of fish,” Ms. Brady said, “there are a lot of unknowns. If you’re going to call a project green, you need to have some desire to make it truly green, as in ‘do no harm.’ This should be a huge concern for everyone.”

Jeffrey Grybowski, the chief executive officer of Deepwater Wind, which last year won the exclusive right to develop a 256-square-mile site approximately 30 miles east of Montauk, said that he recognizes the valid concerns of fishermen. The process of building a wind farm at the site off Montauk, he said, will include collaboration with the fishing industry. “We have begun some of those conversations with commercial fishing interests and groups, but at a preliminary stage,” he said. “Over time we will go into a much more robust and collaborative process where we will share a lot of information. We’ll be asking them to give us feedback on some possible plans, locations, the way construction operations might occur, and how they use the area.”

In Europe, Mr. Grybowski said, the impacts of pile driving have proven short in duration and limited in scope. There is temporary displacement of marine life, but normalcy returns as construction ceases, he said. Nonetheless, “the burden will be on us to demonstrate to regulatory agencies that that is the case.”

Mr. Grybowski is confident that offshore wind and commercial fishing can coexist and that wind farms can be designed to minimize impacts on fisheries. “It’s going to take a lot of interaction and back and forth,” he said.

Burial of electrical cables, he said, is a standard practice and in all parties’ interest. Individual turbines can be placed a mile apart if need be, leaving large corridors for vessels and trawl nets.

Mr. Grybowski said that Deepwater Wind will begin a survey of the site next spring that will include a study of marine life and a mapping of the ocean floor and the sediment layers beneath it. “Before we’re allowed to do any construction, we will have to conduct several years of studies. All that information becomes public and is reviewed by a whole host of federal agencies that have jurisdiction in the water,” he said.

John Williamson, a consultant for the environmental advocacy group Ocean Conservancy and formerly a commercial fisherman, is helping the fishing industry in New England become involved in the planning process, particularly in the siting of offshore wind farms. The Magnuson Fisheries Conservation Act of 1976 gave the federal government the authority to manage fisheries and claimed the area between 3 and 200 miles from the shore, “but we haven’t done a lot of planning in how we use the outer continental shelf,” he said. “And we need to.”

“The technology is scaling up in a big way,” Mr. Williamson said. “We’re just at the early stages of what we may see. That is really the issue lurking in the background. Stuff being proposed now is relatively small and manageable, but it becomes the seeds for much bigger growth, and you really want to create a process early in the game that will optimize placement.”

Last year, Mr. Williamson led a delegation of commercial fishing professionals to England, where they met with their counterparts who are now fishing around wind farms and spoke with wind power developers. “The questions in the end are, who is going to make the decisions, what is going to guide policy and design? We learned in the U.K. that a lot of small things can be done to make wind farms more accessible to fisheries.”

Larry Penny, East Hampton Town’s former natural resources director, is opposed to offshore wind farms, though his concern is more for birds than fish. “The turbines are big killers of birds,” he said. “I think it’s a risky situation, frankly. The construction, the pounding of the ocean floor — we know so little. I’m on the fishermen’s side on these things.”

Mr. Penny would prefer a concentration on solar energy to wind farms, be they on or offshore. “Solar is so easy and not out in the water, where you’ve got to tend those things,” he said.