At issue is minimizing impacts to fishing grounds for squid, lobster and other species that are critical to Rhode Island fishermen.
NARRAGANSETT — Nearly four months into a review of its proposal by Rhode Island coastal regulators, Vineyard Wind has been unable to allay fears that its proposed offshore wind farm of up to 100 turbines would harm the state’s fishing industry.
With a key approval from the Coastal Resources Management Council at stake, the New Bedford-based company has agreed to a two-month extension in an attempt to bridge the divide with agency staff and Rhode Island fishermen over the $2-billion project that would be built in 250 square miles of ocean south of Martha’s Vineyard.
At a recent meeting with the company and fishermen, Coastal Resources Management Council executive director Grover Fugate announced the stay, which pushes back a decision by the agency until Dec. 6.
The delay comes after Fugate sent a letter to Vineyard Wind signaling that the agency is unlikely to award a “consistency certification” to the 800-megawatt wind farm as it’s currently configured. Fugate recommended an alternate layout of the turbines to minimize impacts to fishing grounds for squid, lobster and other species that are critical to Rhode Island fishermen.
During the meeting last Thursday of the Fishermen’s Advisory Board, which advises the council on fishing issues related to offshore wind, Rhode Island fishermen complained that Vineyard Wind never took their needs into account when designing the wind farm. Over three hours of back and forth that at points grew heated, they repeatedly said that the orientation of the wind farm and the spacing of the turbines would make it nearly impossible for them to fish within its boundaries.
“You’re talking about gutting an entire industry, the Rhode Island industry,” said Lanny Dellinger, a lobsterman who heads the board. “If you do this, we’re all out of business.”
After the meeting, Fugate was asked if the council could approve the current design of the project.
“After what we heard tonight, I don’t think so,” he said.
The questions surrounding Vineyard Wind are reflective of a larger debate about the East Coast’s nascent offshore wind industry and its potential impact on generations-old fishing communities.
Southern New England, home to the historic fishing ports of New Bedford and Point Judith, is ground zero for the issue. The first offshore wind farm in the nation, a 30-megawatt test project completed by Providence-based Deepwater Wind in 2016, is located off Block Island. Another 2,290 megawatts has been proposed so far in a corridor stretching southeast from Rhode Island Sound toward Nantucket.
Reaching that amount of capacity — the total of projects put forward by Vineyard Wind, Deepwater Wind and Bay State Wind, of New Bedford — could mean the installation of more than 200 huge wind turbines in the region’s waters.
Rhode Island Gov. Gina Raimondo, who has led a push for more offshore wind power as part of a larger renewable energy initiative, met on July 17 with Point Judith fishermen to hear their concerns about losing access to fishing grounds. She addressed the industry at a recent environmental forum in Providence.
“We are going to keep you at the table the whole way through to make sure that your industry thrives and can coexist while we keep the pedal to the metal moving towards offshore wind,” she said at the environmental conference hosted by U.S. Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse. “You have my commitment on that. We can achieve both goals and we will achieve both goals.”
A representative of the Rhode Island Office of Energy Resources was at the Fishermen’s Advisory Board meeting on Thursday and said that the governor’s office and the Rhode Island Congressional delegation were watching closely and want to be involved in future talks involving Vineyard Wind.
Much of the debate surrounding Vineyard Wind comes down to differing views on the importance of the project area for fishing, in particular for squid, the top species by value and pounds landed in Rhode Island in recent years.
While the Coastal Resources Management Council and Rhode Island fishermen say it’s an area of high fishing activity, Vineyard Wind counters that the squid caught there accounts for less than 2 percent of the value of the fishery.
The company says the project was configured in response to comments from many different groups, including the New Bedford-based scallop fishery, which at an average annual value of $281 million is 10 times larger than the Rhode Island squid fishery.
But in terms of the project area specifically, it is at least as valuable for Rhode Island boats that catch squid, butterfish and other species as it is for the Massachusetts scallop fleet: $1.7 million in landings from 2011 to 2016 for the former versus $1.5 million for the latter over the same period, according to the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management.
Moreover, scallop landings in the area were going down in those years while squid and other landings were going up.
Coastal Resources Management Council staff and fishermen also say that the DEM analysis underestimates the importance of the area to Rhode Island fishermen because the federal data it was based upon does not include figures for lobstermen, who are not required to report vessel trips, or those for fishermen who catch Jonah crab, a fishery that has grown in recent years but is still unregulated.
At the advisory board meeting, the Rhode Island fishermen said that scallop boats largely transit through the project area to reach grounds that are farther offshore. Rhode Island boats are the ones that actually fish in the area, they said, presenting Vineyard Wind with 18,000 vessel tracks going back to the 1990s to prove it.
“That’s where we live,” said Donald Fox, manager of the Town Dock fishing fleet.
Their concerns about the configuration of the wind farm are critical because of a gentleman’s agreement worked out about two decades ago between fishermen who trawl for squid and other fish using nets towed behind their boats and those who fix gear to the ocean floor like lobster traps or gill nets. Fixed gear is laid out in rows from east to west and spaced about one nautical mile (1.15 miles) apart, creating wide and predictable lanes for mobile gear boats to fish between.
The wind farm, however, was laid out in rows that run from northwest to southeast. Spacing varies from one nautical mile to three-quarters of a nautical mile. Under that design, trawlers would not only snag their nets on traps and other fixed gear but would also run the risk of colliding with a turbine, the fishermen said.
The Coastal Resources Management Council and the East Farm Commercial Fisheries Center, a group that represents Rhode Island fishermen, drew up an alternative layout that they say would allow boats to fish within the confines of the wind farm more easily by orienting the turbines from east to west. The alternative also includes three wide corridors for fishing boats to transit through the wind farm. And it spaces the wind turbines at least one nautical mile apart.
Vineyard Wind has questioned the underlying data that the agency and the fishing group used in support of their contention that the lease area is heavily fished. The company has also said that elements of the alternative layout are confusing. It has so far only committed to considering moving up to 10 turbines.
At the meeting, Fishermen’s Advisory Board members tried to get the company to commit to the alternative layout, or at least a reorientation of the wind farm.
“We have people to answer to beyond this room,” said Erich Stephens, the company’s chief development officer.
The fishermen reacted in frustration. Dellinger called it a deal-breaker. Chris Brown, a Point Judith fisherman who is president of the Seafood Harvesters of America, threatened to actively lobby against the project.
“We need to fish there. We need to fish the way we fish. You’re going to cave on this one,” he said.
Even though the Vineyard Wind project would be located in federal waters far from the Rhode Island coast, the Coastal Resources Management Council has jurisdiction through what’s known as federal consistency.
Under federal law, if a project would impact Rhode Island coastal resources or activities, such as fishing, it must be carried out in a way that’s consistent with state policies. Vineyard Wind is seeking a similar consistency certification from Massachusetts.
One of the issues raised by the council is a lack of specifics about the project, Fugate said. While Deepwater Wind submitted more than 3,000 pages of documentation to the agency while planning the five-turbine Block Island Wind Farm, Vineyard Wind’s application, filed on April 6, was only 37 pages long.
“It doesn’t give us a lot of detail,” said Fugate.
A week after Vineyard Wind filed the application, the council proposed a six-month stay to allow more time to request additional materials. Vineyard Wind declined the proposal.
In a letter, Vineyard Wind said the answers to the council’s questions are contained in a construction and operations plan that it filed with federal regulators. The plan submitted to the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management runs nearly 1,900 pages, but the online link supplied by Vineyard Wind to the Coastal Resources Management Council goes only to a version that heavily redacts key information on environmental conditions and geology.
Vineyard Wind has since agreed to supply the information, according to the council.
Before Thursday’s meeting, the Fishermen’s Advisory Board had already met with Vineyard Wind on three previous occasions. Board members had individually met with the company at least seven other times, including a joint meeting July 9 with Deepwater Wind. But both fishermen and Coastal Resources Management Council staff said Vineyard Wind had only presented general plans and had been unwilling to make changes in response to the concerns raised at those meetings.
Despite the tensions on Thursday, fishermen and Coastal Resources Management Council staff said they were encouraged by the discussions. Vineyard Wind representatives also said they had not closed the door to modifying the project layout.
“There are a lot of issues facing the fishing industry, and we realize that offshore wind is another challenge,” Stephens said. “There is no desire to limit commercial fishing.”
The groups are set to meet again Aug. 14. If the issues can’t be resolved and the council turns down Vineyard Wind’s application, the company would be able to lodge an appeal with the U.S. secretary of commerce.
Fishermen say the concerns go beyond Vineyard Wind. With two other offshore wind developers planning projects in adjacent waters, it’s important that spacing and configuration are consistent from one wind farm to the next, they said.
“Our biggest concern is that our industry survives this,” Dellinger said in an interview. “I’m hopeful that these developers will want to work with us. At this point in time, that’s all we can hope for.”