U.S. Fishing Communities Fear Effects of Offshore Wind

By 2023 the first commercial-scale wind farm, constructed by Vineyard Wind, is expected to deliver enough energy to Massachusetts to power 400,000 homes and businesses. But fishing communities are pushing back against development, arguing that it will alter natural ecosystems and negatively impact livelihoods.

In 2016, the first wind farm in the United States was established off the coast of Block Island in Rhode Island, with just five wind turbines. Construction is now underway to bring 62 turbines to the region. Known as Vineyard Wind 1, the new wind farm will sit approximately 24 kilometers off the coast of Martha’s Vineyard. The farms are one component of the Biden-Harris Administration’s efforts to expand green energy initiatives.

Local fishers, however, are raising concerns about the offshore wind farm, arguing that the development represents a threat to their livelihoods and the environment. And the Responsible Offshore Development Alliance (RODA) recently filed a legal challenge with the First U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, asking them to review the decision to approve Vineyard Wind 1.

Fiona Hogan, Research Director for RODA, explains that the development will alter ecosystems. Mussels, for example, may find more favorable conditions, and will be drawn to the turbines and structures holding them in place—a trend observed in the United Kingdom where commercial wind farms are already operational.

In other cases, turbines may lead to population decline. Some fisheries “are very concerned over squid because they’re highly sensitive to noise. And turbines are not quiet,” Hogan tells Food Tank. According to research from the Laboratory of Applied Bioacoustics, noise pollution can result in trauma for species, including squid and octopuses. She continues, “If squid are particularly sensitive to noise, that could cause mortality and…have a lasting effect if their population decreases.”

Monique Coombs, Director of Community Programs for the Maine Coast Fishermen’s Association, also worries that effects of offshore wind won’t be limited to the wind farm itself. “Ecosystems in the ocean are not necessarily contained to one area,” Coombs tells Food Tank. “If you do any type of change…on one area of the ocean, it is going to absolutely have an impact on that ecosystem, as well as a ripple effect on other ecosystems.”

Communities also worry that the wind farm presents a safety hazard. Cables running beneath the sea floor will power Vineyard Wind 1, but they don’t always stay buried. Off Block Island, sections of cables have become exposed since the farm’s installation.

This poses risks to fishers who tow gear or operate dredges near the bottom of the ocean, says Hogan. “They’re very concerned about getting electrocuted by their metal gear or hitting a cable.”

Sarah Schumann, who fishes off the coast of Rhode Island, predicts that some fishers may feel the need to move to new waters due to these challenges, potentially encroaching on other fishers’ space. But Hogan also stresses that “it’s a common misperception” that fishers can easily move around. Permit restrictions, regulating where they can fish, and catch limits, regulating how much they can fish, can make it difficult to switch to a new area or species.

Although Vineyard Wind has listened to local communities’ concerns about the wind farms, Schumann argues their efforts came too late. By the time fishers voiced their opinions, there was little time to alter plans.

And while fishing communities say they understand the urgency of climate change, they believe that the issues posed by wind farms are too great. “A really unfortunate part of this is we waited so long to do anything [and] we’re forced to take these drastic emergency measures that really are not optimal at all, not for the environment or for the economy,” Schumann tells Food Tank.

Future wind farms are already in the works, but Schumann and Coombs both say that in an ideal world, offshore wind would be out of the question. Instead, Schumann would like solutions to focus on land that is already in use, instead of expanding into new regions.

“Offshore wind does not belong,” Coombs says. “Any type of development does not belong in the ocean, period.”

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Photo courtesy of Nicholas Doherty, Unsplash

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