The Bureau of Ocean Energy Management made minor boundary adjustments in its New York Bight wind lease areas to reduce conflicts with the scallop fleet. That’s just a small start toward reducing the impact of wind development on the nation’s seafood industry, New Bedford port officials say.
The 480,000-acre wind lease offering – the first of the Biden administration and biggest to date – has brought on a wave of proposals, from both the fishing and wind power industries, for how they could co-exist.
Six lease areas outlined by BOEM in a final offering notice Jan. 12 include a westward shift of 2.5 miles to the Hudson South wind energy area, and a reduction of the so-called Central Bight area. The modest adjustment responds to requests last year from the scallop industry and the East Coast’s highest-earning fishing port – now also a base for offshore wind developers.
It could be a baby step toward better avoidance of conflicts between the Biden administration’s aggressive push to open more ocean spaces to wind energy development, and urgent warnings from the fishing industry and some ocean environmental advocates that regulators need to build more foresight and safeguards into the permitting process.
Those tweaks in the New York Bight auction plan came as a surprise, said New Bedford Mayor Jon Mitchell.
“We didn’t know that had happened until we actually dug into it,” said Mitchell, who wrote to BOEM during 2021 in support of the Fisheries Survival Fund recommendation to move the southwest boundary of Hudson South by five miles, aimed at giving a buffer zone between turbine arrays and scallop grounds.
“The overarching lesson from yesterday’s announcement is the importance of staying engaged and offering pragmatic solutions that are responsive to the concerns of both wind proponents and fishing interests,” Mitchell said in a Jan. 13 statement. “I appreciate the willingness of Director (Amanda) Lefton and the BOEM team to listen and adjust their approach based on the strength of the case we have made to them.”
“I think that it’s gotten better,” Mitchell said in an interview with National Fisherman. The rapport with Lefton and her agency has slowly improved, he said, and “there are a number of policies that need to be hammered out for mitigation.”
Mitchell’s hopeful response came amid a surge of recommendations for mitigating the effects of building wind turbines around fishing grounds, funding research and monitoring, and compensating fishermen for lost income.
The Fisheries Survival Fund and Responsible Offshore Development Alliance – both well-established coalitions of fishing interests – presented highly detailed recommendations to BOEM for dealing with those issues. The American Clean Power Association, an influential group in the renewable energy sector, likewise came out with its own proposals.
Topping the fishing advocates’ priority lists are how federal regulators must start by avoiding conflicts at the start of planning.
“To be clear, FSF also supports a comprehensive compensation plan that addresses direct and indirect losses to scallop fishermen from offshore wind development interference,” the Fisheries Survival Fund proposal states up front. “But our priority is— and has always been—to avoid and mitigate such losses from the outset.”
The group’s detailed proposal harkens back to the scallop fleet’s historic crisis of the late 1990s, when dwindling scallop stocks and yields threatened its very existence.
Working together back then, fishermen, scientists and government managers regrouped and rebuilt the fishery, instituting a system of rotational fishing area openings and closings that allow shellfish to replenish and assure future potential.
“The Atlantic sea scallop fishery is well-positioned for the future. Beyond its historical successes and the immense collection of data obtained from RSA-funded (research set-aside) research activities over the past two decades, the fishery has a bright outlook,” according to the fund statement. "Many active fishermen come from families who have been a part of the scallop fishery for generations, and each year young captains are entering this lucrative industry.
“Indeed, the scallop fishery generates over $500 million per year in ex vessel value, and the forecasted value of the fishery—barring impacts from climate change and offshore wind development— is on an upward trend. Commitments by all concerned to proactive and adaptive mitigation strategies will help ensure the fishery’s sustainability and the benefits it provides coastal fishing communities and the nation as a whole.”
“We’ve been talking and having meetings on the New York Bight for four or five years,” said Andrew Minkiewicz of Kelley Drye & Warren, a Washington, D.C. law firm that works with the Fisheries Survival Fund and assembled a 15-page presentation to BOEM Jan. 7.
The scallop fleet’s discussions with BOEM have brought “some progress, but not enough,” he said. The request for a five-mile shift on the Hudson South boundary was based on “the best scientific information we had” for buffering scallop beds from turbine areas, said Minkiewicz.
“It was a principled ask, not just a random number,” said Minkiewicz. BOEM’s decision splitting the distance down to half at 2.5 miles seemed petty, he added: “You can’t tell me that out of thousands of acres (offered for auction) that two-and-a-half miles is going to make a difference.”
A top theme in fishing advocates’ proposals is the need for broad, regional measures to mitigate the impacts of wind power developments across long reaches.
The response from BOEM officials has been the agency does not have the authority to require such wide measures. But finding a path for that approach could make wind power planning more consistent and efficient, said Minkiewicz.
On the same day the New York Bight auction plan was announced, BOEM and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration said they had a new agreement to formalize how the agencies will work together on wind power planning. NOAA’s National Marine Fisheries Service and regional fishery management councils have been working to share more data to help BOEM, said Minkiewicz.
But “it’s still opaque and it’s frustrating,” he added. “There has been some incremental improvement.”
BOEM officials have worked on “guidelines” for avoiding conflicts, but “guidelines alone cannot achieve strong oversight,” stressed the Responsible Offshore Development Alliance.
“Strong mitigation requirements must be standardized to protect marine resources and existing uses of the Outer Continental Shelf. The most important step for BOEM to take immediately is to implement effective processes to mitigate fisheries impacts during offshore wind planning and project design,” the group said in its Jan. 7 recommendations to the agency, developed over months of consultations among its members. “These must be supported by regulations and strong federal oversight, rather than deferring to developers’ voluntary measures to accommodate fishing safety and resiliency.”
“BOEM is charged with regulating offshore energy developers, not advising them,” said Patrice McCarron, executive director of the Maine Lobstermen’s Association, in a statement accompanying release of the document.
“The burden of proof must shift to the developers to prove they are not causing unmitigable harm before development is allowed to proceed. We are not the ones applying for permits and leasing offshore areas, as such, the burden of proof should not lie with us," said Leigh Habegger, executive director of the Seafood Harvesters of America. based in Washington D.C.
“Financial compensation is a key part of impact mitigation, but industry members continue to recommend that it should only be the final step of the process after all possible actions have been taken to avoid and minimize risk,” according to RODA. “Fishing organizations are concerned that BOEM’s process to develop guidelines for impact fees can only result in voluntary, developer-administered funding which will not produce fair results, nor be configurable to address cumulative effects.”
BOEM should follow a “mitigation hierarchy” as outlined by the National Environmental Policy Act “to evaluate whether a project has taken effective actions to, in sequential order, avoid, minimize, mitigate, and compensate for impacts,” according to RODA.
“If BOEM were to carry out its process properly and in such a way that it prevented interference with commercial fisheries, there would be no need for ‘mitigation and compensation,’ which is associated with harm and a failure to prevent interference with reasonable uses,” said Meghan Lapp, fisheries liaison of Seafreeze Shoreside and Seafreeze Ltd. in Narragansett, R.I., where fishermen say they would be permanently displaced by current offshore wind development plans.
Much of fishermen’s concerns center on how the Biden administration’s and wind developers’ fast-growing expansion plans will alter ocean conditions over wider areas.
“Cumulative impacts of multiple offshore wind projects across a region will produce more severe impacts to biological resources, fishing, and supporting communities than merely the additive effects of single projects,” according to RODA. “BOEM’s absence of a programmatic approach to offshore wind planning has resulted in excessive demands for meetings and public comments, but little actual understanding of the environmental and socioeconomic effects of large scale offshore wind development. Improving understanding of cumulative effects is prerequisite to their mitigation.”
Mayor Mitchell said New Bedford is trying to push on that relationship between developers, regulators and fishermen. As the biggest U.S. East Coast port, it is also home to the first dedicated offshore wind port for supporting turbine construction off southern New England.
“It’s more a sense of resignation” that needs to be overcome among some fishermen for better relations between them, BOEM and wind developers, said Mitchell. “We’re trying to get to the point where each industry knows it has to give up something to the other.”
“The offshore wind industry had a lot to learn about the commercial fishing industry in the northwest Atlantic,” said Mitchell.
In the wind industry’s original home waters of northern Europe, there have been compensation systems that pay fishermen for loss of access to turbine areas.
That’s not feasible in U.S. waters considering the diversity and economics of this nation’s fishing industry, said Mitchell. To BOEM’s credit, the agency leadership “is trying to understand the economics of every fishery,” he said. Wind developers too are coming around to that understanding, he says.
The American Clean Power association’s recommendations stress establishment of a federal fisheries compensation program.
“We propose general principles that provide clarity, predictability, and optionality for both industries in a federal compensation fund,” the group stated. “To support the fishing industry as it deals with the impacts of climate change and potential changes that may occur from offshore wind development, ACP Fisheries Working Group believes there is a regulatory solution…that can establish the appropriate mechanisms for a federal compensation program.”
The fund could be funded with “a substantial portion of federal lease revenues, acquired through upcoming auctions and/or operating fees, to seed a compensation fund specifically geared towards fishermen,” the group says.
Along with reducing future potential wind energy areas to preserve fishing grounds, the group says, “compensation is an important final step in the effort to avoid, minimize, and mitigate potential adverse effects from offshore wind development and for the fishing and offshore wind industries to successfully coexist.
Such “compensatory mitigation” could cover “costs from adapting to fishing within offshore wind farms, including navigation system upgrades, new vessels, fishing equipment, gear modification or gear upgrades, insurance premiums or training; and loss of fishing revenue to the extent there is documented loss of use of the area.”
“We believe this will help identify and mitigate concerns from fishermen as we foster a working relationship with the commercial and recreational fishing industries operating near these critical clean energy projects,” ACP said in a statement accompanying release of the document. “By seeking to minimize disruption of fishing activities during all phases of development and maximize ease of access and safe navigation for fishing activities during wind farm operations we believe the offshore wind industry and fishing industry can coexist.”