Stonington — In Joe Gilbert’s view, fishermen like him shouldn’t have to compete with wind farms for a piece of the ocean.
“We’re not anti-wind farm,” Gilbert said this past week. “But we don’t want to trade one renewable resource — fish — for another one — wind. They can both exist.”
Gilbert is the owner of Empire Fisheries, which has four scallop and squid fishing boats based at the Town Dock. He's also a member of the board of the Fisheries Survival Fund, one of 12 fishermen groups from New England to New Jersey opposing the federal government’s recent approval of a provisional lease to a Norwegian company that proposes to develop a wind farm on 79,350 acres of ocean bottom about 13 miles south of Jones Beach in Hempstead, Long Island.
“What we’re asking is that it be relocated,” said Meghan Lapp, fisheries liaison with Sea Freeze, a squid wholesaler based in North Kingstown, R.I., that has joined the Fisheries Survival Fund in challenging the wind farm plan.
The site of the proposed wind farm, fishermen say, is one of the most productive squid and scallop fishing areas in the North Atlantic. But the long trawling nets used by these fisheries could not maneuver within a “pinball machine of structures” that would constitute the wind farm, Lapp said. “It would be too dangerous.”
On Dec. 16, Statoil, a multinational oil, gas and renewable energy company, was awarded the winning bid of $42.5 million by the federal Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, the agency that oversees electricity generation projects in federal waters. Once the lease agreement is signed in a month or so, Statoil will be able to erect monitoring buoys and other equipment to study the seabed and wind conditions in that area, as well as the power grid connections at the site, which is within reach of the huge New York City-area markets.
According to a company news release, the area potentially could produce electricity for up to 725,000 homes, although a phased development is expected to power about half that many. One early plan proposed an array of about 200 turbines in the 124-square-mile area.
A year after the lease is signed, the company must provide its assessment of the site to the bureau, which would then review its environmental and technical findings. If approved at that phase, the company would then have 4½ years to submit its plan to build and operate the wind farm, including the proposed layout, turbine size and other details.
At that point, according to BOEM spokeswoman Tracey Moriarty, the bureau would do a comprehensive environmental study of the impact of the wind farm.
If the plan moves forward, the company would then be awarded a 25-year lease to build and operate the wind farm, with fees paid to the federal government based on the amount and price of the power produced, she said.
“Within the lease area, there’s no reason to think that the whole area would be developed,” Moriarty added.
BOEM’s action on the offshore Long Island site comes just a month after the nation’s first offshore wind farm, five turbines located three miles from the south shore of Block Island, R.I., began producing power. It also comes on the heels five other provisional leases awarded by BOEM for offshore wind proposals from Maryland to Massachusetts. With advancements in technology and interest, offshore wind is now poised for rapid growth on both coasts, according to BOEM.
But that growth shouldn’t displace traditional users of the ocean, according to Attorney Drew Minkiewicz, who represents the Fisheries Survival Fund, Sea Freeze and 10 other groups in a lawsuit against BOEM over the awarding of the provisional lease to Statoil.
Filed less than two weeks after BOEM announced its selection of Statoil, the lawsuit in U.S. District Court in Washington, D.C., seeks a temporary restraining order and preliminary injunction that would prevent BOEM from moving forward with the provisional lease. A hearing on the lawsuit is scheduled for Feb. 8. The suit argues that BOEM did not adequately consider the interests of fishermen before offering to lease that site.
“They did not use a collaborative, public process,” Minkiewicz said. “It’s an area of public domain that’s being given for private use. We’re hoping to stop the wind farm in that location.”
Gilbert said BOEM should do a complete environmental study of the area now, before the project advances and has more momentum on its side. He added that the Block Island wind farm, built by Deepwater Wind, was "done properly" by involving fishing interests from the start and not siting the turbines in areas that conflict with commercial fishing grounds.
“They (Statoil) have issued a $42 million check that BOEM is holding in escrow,” he said. “At some point, you’re so pregnant that you’re going to have the baby.”
Citing the lawsuit, the company declined to comment on the fishermen's objections and possible relocation of the wind farm.
About 20 to 25 percent of his squid and scallop catch comes from the area of the proposed wind farm, Gilbert said, and at least four other boats based in Stonington also fish there. He questioned data used by BOEM that estimated that only 1 percent of the total annual revenue from the Atlantic squid and scallop fisheries comes from the wind farm area.
“We don’t use it every year, but when the fish are there, we fish there,” said Gilbert, adding that the area is about an eight-hour trip from Stonington. “It is one of the areas we rely on seasonally.”
Sea Freeze’s Lapp said that during one recent summer, that area generated about $3.5 million worth of squid.
Dan Malone, who fishes for fluke and squid on the Susan C out of Stonington, said his catch comes from nearby offshore areas to the north, but still doesn’t want to see the area proposed for the Long Island wind farm closed off to other trawlers. If that happened, he said, there would be more competition in the remaining areas.
“If that area is closed, all these other areas are going to heat up,” he said.
Edward Mattie, vice president of Gambardella Wholesale Fish in Stonington, said his business is heavily dependent on squid and scallops, including large catches from the area of the proposed wind farm.
“It would affect the boats that come in here,” he said. “It would trickle down to us.”
Another Stonington fisherman, Bob Guzzo, vice president of the Southern New England Fishermen & Lobstermen's Association, said the planned wind farm area supplies about 10 percent of his annual squid catch. But losing access to that area would be compounded by another area newly closed to fishing, the Northeast Canyons and Seamounts Marine National Monument, a 4,913-square mile area about 150 miles from the New England coast.
“They can move the wind farm somewhere else,” he said. “They should sit down and talk to us.”
Scallop fishermen like Michael Bomster, captain of two vessels based in Stonington, said about two-thirds of his total catch come from the proposed wind farm area, "especially in the winter."
"It's really an important piece of bottom," said Bomster, who is also a member of the National Marine Fisheries Service's Scallop Advisory Panel. "And it's prime area for juvenile scallops. They're squeezing us out of areas more and more. Do we really want to eat imported seafood?"
He disagreed with Gilbert over the Block Island wind farm, which he said sits atop areas where scallops have been harvested. Although there are no fishing restrictions around those five turbines, he said, dragging nets along the bottom to collect scallops is impossible in that area now because of underwater cables and structures.
Stonington First Selectman Rob Simmons has joined the fishermen in their objections in a letter to BOEM Director Abigail Ross-Hopper. U.S. Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., and U.S. Rep. Joe Courtney, D-2nd District, joined congressional colleagues from Rhode Island in also calling for a collaborative process that doesn’t fill the need to develop renewable energy at the expense of fishermen.
“We are strong supporters of renewable energy development,” Blumenthal and Courtney wrote in a letter to Ross-Hopper. “We are concerned, however, that the ... (proposed Long Island wind farm) leasing could have a detrimental impact on Connecticut fishing interests. An irresponsible leasing arrangement could be devastating for these interests and add to years of compounding stressors on our fleet.”
Despite the objections being raised, BOEM contends it provided multiple opportunities for fishermen and others to give input, and that there will be more. In 2014, agency spokeswoman Moriarty said, a request for public comment about the proposed lease area was issued, and last August, the agency sought additional comment when it announced plans for the lease auction in December.
“We take comments all the time,” she said. “If Statoil decides to move forward, then we would consider the construction impacts in an Environmental Impact Statement.”
The statement is required by National Environmental Policy Act whenever a proposed federal action has potential effects on natural habitats, wildlife, resource access and historical and cultural assets.
“We did a lot of meetings that were open to the public, where the conflict issues were considered,” Moriarty said.
In one of those meetings on Long Island in April, BOEM officials met with representatives of the Fisheries Survival Fund, Sea Freeze and other commercial fishing representatives.
“During this conversation, industry members were able to express directly to BOEM ... their concerns regarding the future of offshore wind energy development,” Moriarty said. “Fishing concerns will be considered in the review of future plans submitted by the future lessee.”