It’s a big wide ocean out there, or at least that is a common perspective. The surface of the Gulf of Maine stretches for hundreds of nautical miles, uninterrupted by man-made structures larger than a Coast Guard buoy. Yet the Gulf, like all of the United States offshore ocean regions, is actually crisscrossed by boundaries, some found on federal charts, others only in a fisherman’s brain. There is conflict brewing between that which the nation owns and that which a fisherman knows.
Near-shore wind energy projects have blossomed along the eastern seaboard in the past decade. A quick glance at the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM) web site shows 16 projects currently in the regulatory process, from Massachusetts to Virginia. The Gulf of Maine, however, stands out for the absence of any such developments in its waters.
That status could change and change quickly. Governor Janet Mills has set an ambitious goal for renewable energy production for Maine, much of which will be produced from offshore wind energy developments. Massachusetts has one major development that is slowly closing in on approval from BOEM and two others beginning the permitting process, all of which are located south of Cape Cod. The Gulf of Maine remains conspicuously quiet, for the moment.
“People are doing studies, drawing potential lines on maps now,” said Annie Hawkins, executive director of the Responsible Offshore Development Alliance (RODA). “In the Gulf of Maine, you are now at the point that the Mills administration is saying ‘full steam ahead.’”
On November 20 Governor Janet Mills announced on an ambitious plan to develop an offshore wind research array in waters from 20 to 40 miles offshore that would allow connection to the mainland electric grid in the southern half of the state. The research array would be approximately 16 square miles and is expected to contain up to 12 wind turbines. The administration informed fishing industry leaders of this plan less than two days before the announcement.
In the week prior to the announcement, the Maine Lobstermen’s Association (MLA) wrote to the Governor specifically concerning the possibility that unsolicited offshore wind development proposals might be evolving. The MLA was particularly concerned that the state’s fishing industry had not been informed or consulted. RODA has quickly become the voice of diverse fishing interests since its founding in 2018. The membership organization, comprising fishermen, fishing industry organizations and companies, focuses on science, research and policy work related to offshore energy development. A major portion of its work involves improving the data related to fisheries used by developers and federal regulators, while remaining sensitive to confidentiality and what fishermen are willing to provide.
One effort aims to improve the data contained within the Ocean Data Portal, a digital database unveiled by the Northeast Regional Ocean Council in 2009. The portal has more than 5,000 maps, which show everything from fishing activity and recreational uses to state and federal management boundaries. But the portal has large data gaps related to fisheries. For example, the portal shows fishing effort taking place in closed areas. It also misses fishing activity in places where just a few fishermen fish since information specific to individual fishermen can’t be shared due to confidentiality. In addition, it provides little context for interpreting the data in light of regulatory and business conditions that influence fishing behavior.
Another current project is the Fisheries Knowledge Trust, which currently involves the herring and mackerel and surf clam fisheries off New York. In collaboration with Dr. John Manderson of OpenOcean Research, RODA is developing a way to make fishermen’s proprietary data available to decision makers without compromising the original sources. Fishermen can share their knowledge about the oceans in a standardized, accessible repository which will enable fishermen to provide regulators and others with products that supply the first-hand knowledge they need. “Fishermen have information in their heads that can fill data gaps. This is a way to aggregate that information and bring it forward as peer-reviewed data,” Hawkins explained.
Another project, conducted with the National Renewable Energy Laboratories in Colorado, focuses on fishery access in fixed wind turbine arrays. “This is about how to minimize the loss of access for fishermen. There are operational factors in fishing that must be accounted for,” Hawkins said.
In 2019 RODA signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) with the National Marine Fisheries Service and BOEM to collaborate on the science and process of offshore wind energy development. This year RODA organized a four-day online workshop entitled “Synthesis of the Science: Fisheries and Offshore Wind.” The well-attended workshop addressed the many social, environmental, and economic issues related to offshore wind projects; an accompanying, more comprehensive, synthesis report will be published in the spring.
In terms of policy review, RODA has proved to be an eagle-eyed advocate for fisheries interests on wind power activities at the federal level. This year RODA found that the Massachusetts and Rhode Island Port Access Route Study (MARIPARS), conducted by the Coast Guard, did not fully take into account the full depth of fishing industry use in the region. The study supported the wind developers’ proposal of a uniform grid layout of 1 nautical mile between turbine towers on neighboring federal leases off southern New England. It did not support RODA’s proposal for up to six vessel transit lanes, up to four nautical miles wide.
In a subsequent letter to the Coast Guard, RODA argued that the MARIPARS did not take into account certain information, resulting in “fundamental omissions and calculation errors that compromise the quality, objectivity, and integrity of the information contained therein.” RODA’s 14-page official “request for correction” called for a peer review of the study, citing “serious foundational and analytical errors that merit correction.” One of those errors was the use by the Coast Guard of Automated Identification System (AIS) data to determine where fishing activities took place. Most fishing vessels in Massachusetts and Rhode Island do not use AIS thus any analysis of fishing vessel activity should not rely on AIS data.
“This has been an issue for some time,” Hawkins said. “In Rhode Island the Coast Guard did studies in a vacuum. We saw that they waited to do the study until they had a proposal from a developer and then presented it to the fishermen as a “yes/no.” Hawkins cautioned that although BOEM stated as a policy in 2019 that it will not accept unsolicited bids for offshore wind projects, fishermen must remain vigilant. “BOEM should be able to look at how much you can lease in the aggregate, which is much more efficient than reviewing unsolicited proposals one by one,” she said.
Wind projects are not cheap. From a developer’s point of view, it makes sense to build as many large turbines as possible to get the greatest amount of power possible. The process of gaining a lease and permit to build and operate offshore wind turbines takes years to obtain. During that time elements of the project may change. “None of the projects thus far got through without lots of design changes based on evolving technology,” Hawkins said.
BOEM is now using a Project Design Envelope(PDE) to evaluate wind projects that may evolve during the review period. According to BOEM, “A PDE approach is a permitting approach that allows a project proponent the option to submit a reasonable range of design parameters within its permit application, allows a permitting agency to then analyze the maximum impacts that could occur from the range of design parameters, and may result in the approval of a project that is constructed within that range.”
Using PDEs may be particularly applicable in the Gulf of Maine, where floating wind turbines are considered the likely design for offshore wind projects.
Hawkins, however, is concerned that there isn’t enough data on the impacts such tethered turbines may have. “The scope of the anchoring cables will be quite broad. It’s likely that there will be vastly larger closed areas due to the cables than from fixed turbines,” she said.
From Hawkins’ perspective, fishermen in the Gulf of Maine have a good deal to worry about as the next administration takes office. “We are at a major inflection point,” she said. “There’s going to be a real doubling-down on these things soon. If the new climate bill, 30 by 30, goes through Congress or becomes an Executive Order, that will mean a push to have 30% of our oceans closed to fishing by 2030.”
“It’s really all hands on deck now. RODA will do all we can do to make sure that fishermen can contribute to the process as easily as possible. It’s not just that fishermen have to be in the room, it’s that their being in the room has to mean something.”Annie Hawkins, RODA