Offshore Wind Farms Worry Fishermen from Point Judith to New Bedford

Spring/Summer 2019

THE MOTTO FOR THE CITY OF NEW BEDFORD, “Lucem Diffundo,” translates from Latin to “I Diffuse Light.” While this may have referred to the light of Christ, it was light from lamps fueled by whale oil that helped establish the city’s vast wealth in the middle of the 19th century.

The advent of kerosene and petroleum quashed that source of revenue for the city’s founding Quakers, but money never ceased to flow from the Port of New Bedford. Today, and for the past 18 years, the port has consistently ranked as the nation’s most valuable, with a catch worth $389 million landed in 2017 and over $11 billion in annual economic activity taking place at the port between 2015 and 2018.

Along the salt-battered cobblestones that rise from the city’s waterfront, faded brick buildings host cafes offering cold pressed juice, authentic Neapolitan pizza, and a store hawking ritual and occult items for practicing witches. If these trendy businesses signal a rejuvenation of the city’s downtown, the outlying areas, littered with potholes and derelict triple-deckers, hint of an unemployment rate that has stalled behind the rest of the state.

New Bedford Harbor is America’s #1 fishing port and is also known as the the “Whaling City” because it was one of the most important whaling ports in the world during the 19th century.

With a $15.4 million federal development grant, and another $19 million anticipated in state funds, the city hopes expansions at the port will place it at the center of a burgeoning industry in offshore wind. If that makes for an interesting twist in the city’s legacy, it also sets the stage for a historic showdown between commercial fishing and renewable energy.

“They’ve had the ocean to themselves for 400 years, they’re not used to having to share,” said Jim Kendall of the city’s fishermen. Kendall has worked among New Bedford’s commercial fishermen for 50 years, with three decades on the water before an injury landed him onshore. He’s the executive director of New Bedford Seafood Consulting and has done research for a variety of industry groups. For the past four years he’s also held the title of Fisheries Representative for Vineyard Wind, the company that is looking to begin construction on the country’s first large-scale offshore wind development.

Vineyard Wind won the rights to develop Lease Area OCS-A 501 in 2015, an area roughly 14 miles southwest of Martha’s Vineyard. The $166,000 bid, with access to some 250 square miles (an area just bigger than Chicago), was a bargain next to the $135 million the company bid for a second lease in 2018. There are six other lease designations, all of comparable size, in the federally designated Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM) Wind Energy Zone. Advances in technology have improved the efficiency of turbines and lowered construction costs, pulling in bigger companies and bigger bids. Thirty-two rounds of bidding over two days saw a combined total of $405.1 million offered for three leases in the last BOEM auction in December, which included Vineyard Wind.

Those waters have grown ever more crowded with developers, at least on the map. There is Equinor, with plans for a $3 billion project south of Long Island, and Mayflower, a venture between Royal Dutch Shell and Spanish company EDP Renewables. Orsted, the Danish firm that has recently acquired Deepwater Wind and its leases for large-scale projects off the coast of Rhode Island, currently runs the only U.S offshore wind farm in operation, a mere five turbines off the coast of Block Island.

Plans call for hundreds of turbines, and promises of thousands of jobs, in the very near future; so far, the companies appear to be waiting for Vineyard Wind to light the way forward.

Vineyard Wind must begin onshore construction of its turbines before the close of 2019 in order to qualify for federal investment tax credits. Those credits would shave 12% of investment costs from the company’s tax bill. Analysts put that as a prime reason the company was able to settle on a price of 6.5 cents per-kilowatt-hour with Massachusetts’s power suppliers, a record low within the industry.

The Cost to Fishermen

Before construction can begin, Vineyard Wind must first determine what the cost will be to Massachusetts’s commercial fishermen through federally mandated fisheries studies. How that cost is determined, and who gets to determine it, and what exactly should be studied, has proven no small source of contention between the wind industry and commercial fishing.

Kendall has taken a pragmatic approach to the divide between fishing and wind energy. He sees wind farms as an inevitable outgrowth of Massachusetts’s push for renewable energy, now required by state law to demonstrate a 2% annual growth. If he can advocate for the fishing industry in the interim, he hopes he can help cut fishermen a square deal. Though he’s paid by Vineyard Wind, Kendall stresses that he works for the fishermen; he is not an advocate for the company. His job is to collect the concerns of the 20 or so people he represents and ensure Vineyard Wind is responding to them. He knows that a number of his friends and business partners may disagree, but so far, he’s found the company to be sincere in attempting to work a compromise with commercial fishing.

In a sleek meeting room at the University of Massachusetts School for Marine Science and Technology, Kendall has taken his seat in between the wind executives in suits, and fishermen in faded flannel and Carhartts. The Fisheries Working Group on Offshore Wind has come together on this finger of land between Clarks Cove and the Atlantic Ocean, on a gray Friday at the end of March, to attempt to set a course for the future of wind in New England.

Assembled by two Massachusetts’ state boards—the Executive Office of Energy and Environmental Affairs and the Massachusetts Clean Energy Center, the group gathers a broad range of interested parties. Along with fishermen and their wives are members of the Coast Guard and scientists representing an alphabet soup of state agencies. People have traveled from as far away as Gloucester, Chatham, and New York State.

As presentations cycle from representatives of the wind companies to policy groups like the Responsible Offshore Development Alliance, to scientists from the Massachusetts Division of Marine Fisheries, a pattern develops. The companies pledge a commitment to working with fishermen, the scientists outline broad plans for research, and the fishermen groan and wonder where the funding is going to come from.

“The agreement with BOEM requires a contribution and we will make that contribution,” said Stephen Drew, Equinor’s Fisheries Liaison Officer.

There is a burst of laughter from the fishermen. Voices ring out from across the room.

“How much?”

“To who?”

“For what?”

The lease agreements between BOEM and developers require the industry to conduct fisheries studies, “but does not specify what studies or methods should be done or used in a given area,” according to a paper presented by Dr. Kathryn Ford of the Massachusetts Division of Marine Fisheries. Ford and her colleagues compiled a lengthy list of potential areas for study in 2018, which it shared with state and federal agencies and commercial fishing interest groups for feedback, before narrowing the focus areas to those in the paper she presented in New Bedford.

The paper acknowledges that several of the higher priority studies were not selected due to the need for “further discussion with additional stakeholders, the developer, and the funding agencies” to determine who bears responsibility for the costs. What was left was arranged in order of what the department considered highest to lowest priority, while also considering whether there was a clear question to be answered and a feasible means to answer it. Some of these high priority questions, such as whether the cables to onshore power receptors will stay buried, or what effect large scale wind will have on ocean currents or the spawning of lobster and cod, have limited data to currently draw from; others will need to be studied after larger-scale wind farms are already in place.

Some of the proposed data “is expected to be collected directly by wind companies but there is concern that the data will not be collected at the correct time steps, at a high enough resolution, or with the appropriate methods,” the paper states.

“We began by asking the question, ‘If you had $400,000, what would you study?’” said Ford, before correcting herself. “I’m sorry, $600,000.”

Several fishermen scoff, and a few scientists shake their heads. As the paper itself acknowledges, studying the ocean and what moves within it is an expensive and time-consuming business.

Fred Mattera, a commercial fishing advocate from Rhode Island, points squarely at Vineyard Wind. “We need to look at the back of that room and say, ‘Step up,’” said Mattera, executive director of the Commercial Fisheries Center of Rhode Island and board president of the Commercial Fisheries Research Center. “You have the finances.”

Mattera, who sees the wind industry as a disruption to Rhode Island’s commercial fishing heritage, had been a vocal critic of Vineyard Wind since negotiations with Rhode Island’s fishermen began.

“We’re not going to stop this, but we certainly should slow it down,” he told a Providence Journal reporter, after the state’s commercial and recreational fishing interest group, the Fishermen’s Advisory Board (FAB), voted in favor of a deal with the company, in which Vineyard Wind agreed to provide $4.2 million to cover direct impacts and establish a trust with $12.5 million paid out over five years to mitigate long-term effects.


“As far as looking at $12.5 million for Rhode Island, that was something we were able to do because of our Ocean SAMP,” says Mattera to the crowd in New Bedford. “I don’t know if you’ve created something similar in Massachusetts, but I would certainly suggest that you do, because that was our protection there.”

Rhode Island’s Ocean Special Area Management Plan, administered by the state’s Coastal Resources Management Council, is state policy that was drafted by scientists, with input from fishermen, and enacted in 2010 to guide offshore wind development. It purposefully included language that required mitigation from wind developers for any disruption to commercial fishing activities.




Vineyard Wind settles with Rhode Island fishermen.

Vineyard Wind’s agreement with Rhode Island fishermen to ensure safe and effective fishing near the leased site, as well as cover any direct damages, was based on research that showed an annual catch value of just over $1 million taken from the lease area by Rhode Island’s fishermen. 

This research was part of Rhode Island’s Special Area Management Plan (Ocean SAMP) that was created to ensure the fair use of ocean waters for all Rhode Island stakeholders and to ensure the application of the best available science for future development.


The sum that Vineyard Wind agreed to pay was reached from studies based on figures of landings by Rhode Island fishermen analyzed by Julia Livermore, the head biologist with the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management. Documents that Vineyard Wind provided the DEM show an annual catch value of just over $1 million taken from the lease area by Rhode Island’s fishermen. The lease area is adjacent to some of the prime fishing grounds for squid, a major piece of Rhode Island’s catch. The state’s fishermen brought in 22.5 million pounds of squid in 2016, accounting for 16% of the national landings, according to a NOAA report.

Livermore’s data was then analyzed by Dennis King, a scientist hired by Vineyard Wind to determine an amount based on the dockside value of the catch. Rhode Island’s FAB in turn hired their own economist, Thomas Sproul, an associate professor at the University of Rhode Island, who put forth a different amount. Sproul’s figure took into account “multipliers,” the idea that fish and shellfish create additional value as they’re processed and find their way to the retail market and restaurant tables, according to Mattera. Sproul later confirmed in an email that his study was made confidential under the terms of the financial agreement between Vineyard Wind and Rhode Island’s Coastal Resources Management Council.

The working group meeting is already over schedule, and the questions from fishermen have multiplied themselves over the last three hours when Erich Stephens, chief development officer for Vineyard Wind, makes his pitch. Stephens studied marine ecology at Brown University and has worked as a field ecologist for oyster farms and a variety of other companies. He presents the company’s findings in a wearied tone, perhaps anticipating the pushback he’ll receive.

“What we did throughout the wind industry, we settled on the concept that’s been out there in fisheries economics for a while, the particular notion of economic exposure, that is taken from the total landing value of a particular geographic area,” said Stephens. “It’s not the same as expected impact, or likely impact … it doesn’t include things like the cost of catching that landing, or the idea that you could fish elsewhere.”

“The finding was that the average annual Massachusetts landings for all seasons in the turbine area was about $190,000.” said Stephens. “And we looked at 2018 NOAA data, which had a similar number: $207,000.”

“Really?” someone calls out.

A fair amount of muttering ensues. Several fishermen raise their concern that dockside value is a poor marker of the financial strain wind development poses. It ignores the impact construction could have on the migration of target species, and how increased traffic will affect outlying areas. Users of mobile gear, like trawlers and scallopers, are concerned that no matter the distance between turbines, the lease area will be off limits to their boats.

It might be difficult to draw direct comparisons between the Block Island site and the massive developments planned for the Vineyard Wind site, but a study conducted by doctoral candidate Talya ten Brink and students at the University of Rhode Island could offer some clues. The survey consisted of interviews with 25 fishermen, representing both commercial and recreational fishery.

The study noted this was a small sampling of the state’s commercial interest, and acknowledged a difficulty in finding participants. Still, the study indicated an increased use of the area by recreational fishermen. Some survey participants reported the presence of groundfish, such as cod, that had not been found in the area prior to construction of the turbines. Others weren’t certain if the wind farm attracted anglers because of an increased presence of fish, or simply because it provided a landmark for charter and recreational boats.

Though not an area heavily fished for commercial purposes, commercial respondents felt further inclined to avoid the area due to the surge of recreational traffic. Lost recreational gear created particular hazards for gillnets. One respondent was compensated for damage to a net suffered during construction. Noise had been cited as a factor for a poor catch during construction, but one individual surveyed claimed the fish returned following construction.

Concerns of effects on fish stock during construction are valid, ten Brink agreed, but, she observed, “The reality is that global warming is killing fish stocks as well.”

The temperature of the earth’s oceans is rising much faster than previously thought, according to a study published in January in the journal Science. Current trends would see ocean temperatures rise six times faster than they have in the previous 60 years by the close of the century. The best-case scenario of 100% adherence to the Paris Climate Accord would slow that by half.

The effects on southern New England’s fisheries have already been observed. Declining lobster, winter flounder, and cod populations have given way to traditionally mid-Atlantic species like black sea bass. Wind power alone will not stop the warming of southern New England’s coastal waters; at best it may help to slow the process. For the area’s fishermen, the fight for concessions from the wind industry is an immediate and pressing issue, but the long-term consequences to the commercial fisheries from the impacts of climate change may prove the more challenging adversary in the end. How the industry and its regulators respond as these forces converge may help determine the future of fisheries in the years to come.

by Jason Lawrence 

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