Construction could begin on East Coast offshore wind energy projects in the next couple of years, but the state of science to monitor their environmental effects is lagging badly, experts said at the annual American Fisheries Society meeting held in Atlantic City, N.J., this week.
“We’re talking about building projects in a few years … yet we lack a built, on-the-ground monitoring program,” said Andrew Lipsky, a planning officer who leads research into offshore wind energy with the National Marine Fisheries Service Northeast Fisheries Science Center.
The Northeast and Mid-Atlantic states are “where all the electrical demands are,” said Brian Hooker, a marine biologist with the federal Bureau of Ocean Energy’s renewable energy program. Those states are driving the demand and developers have a dozen approved federal leases, with BOEM now reviewing two construction and operation plans, Hooker said Tuesday at the AFS meeting.
A daylong session featured presentations by researchers looking at how building arrays of wind turbines on the shallow continental shelf could affect fish populations, and the commercial fishing industry.
Fishermen share some of the same concerns as the maritime transportation sector, including safety of navigation, ensuring turbines are spaced widely enough to allow maneuvering, and the issue of misleading radar echoes that can be generating by turbine rotors.
For all its promotion as a “green” technology, offshore wind power faces its share of environmental hurdles. Wind developers will need to deal with potential conflicts over marine mammals, including the highly endangered northern right whales that migrate near massive wind arrays proposed off Massachusetts.
For mobile gear fishermen, there is fear that large parts of the leases could be effectively off-limits to them because towers are too close together to safely trawl or dredge. Advocates for the scallop and surf clam fleets argue that turbine arrays will effectively create “sanctuaries” for shellfish that are available in abundance thanks to responsible management.
This spring industry advocates organized the Responsible Offshore Development Alliance, to bring together diverse East Coast fishing fleets and operators to more effectively engage the wind industry and federal and state regulators.
Their goal is to “get better outcomes,” said Anne Hawkins of Kelley Drye & Warren LLP, a Washington, D.C., law firm that represents scallop fishermen who have sued in federal court over New York offshore wind proposals.
Maps prepared by BOEM using federal fisheries data shows existing wind leases and potential future lease areas overlapping with the scallop fishery, based out of ports like New Bedford, Mass., and Cape May, N.J.
“You can see how the proposed wind areas cover large parts of the scallop fishery,” Hawkins said at a panel discussion that capped the session. “We need to get back to basics and gather as much of this information as quickly as possible.”
Despite BOEM hosting listening sessions and other public events to get input about potential leasing areas, Hawkins said the fishing industry does not see transparency or consistency in how that information is being used. Fisheries considerations are not at all clear in the regulations governing wind development, she said.
“The problem we’re having with this (wind energy) development is we have this very dynamic fishery” off the East Coast, said Kevin Stokesbury, a professor at the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth School for Marine Science and Technology who has long worked with New England fishermen.
Fishermen expect the wind industry should be held to the same standard of science used for fisheries regulation, said Stokesbury.
“The problem that I see is we really haven’t made that decision,” he added. “In a few years, we’re going to have a lot of construction, and that doesn’t give us a lot of time to get the baseline down.”
Speakers agreed that it is unrealistic to expect new, dedicated government funding, and that existing efforts must be brought to bear on wind power planning. The engagement between developers and the Responsible Offshore Development Alliance is a start, and the Mid-Atlantic and New England Fishery Management councils should play a big role, they said.
“The infrastructure is there … we need to leverage these resources,” said Lipsky of NMFS. “This can’t be a bake sale approach. We have to think really big.”