The Block Island Wind Farm off the coast of Rhode Island was the first offshore wind farm in the U.S. / PHOTO BY Dennis Schroeder / Flickr / U.S. Department of Energy

In Northeast, more research needed on offshore wind’s impact on fishing

A new alliance seeks to collect and share information on the relationships between fisheries and wind development.

As plans for wind farms across New England’s waters progress, fishermen continue to express concerns about the impact of the burgeoning offshore wind industry on their livelihoods.

And while wind development is moving rapidly, scientific research on the impacts on fisheries has struggled to keep up.

But the tides may soon be turning, thanks to the collaborative efforts of the fishing industry, offshore wind developers, and government agencies.

Last week, the Responsible Offshore Development Alliance announced a new initiative to advance regional research on fisheries and offshore wind called the Responsible Offshore Science Alliance.

According to Annie Hawkins, the development alliance’s executive director, the new group hopes to fill a critical void in the offshore wind discussion. Up until now, comprehensive research has been scant.

“There’s not a lot of studies done,” she said. “They’re partial at best.”

That’s largely the result of the industry being so new to the area. The first offshore wind farm in the United States launched off the coast of Rhode Island’s Block Island in 2016. Since then, there’s been a burst of activity in neighboring states like Connecticut and Massachusetts, and elsewhere along the Eastern Seaboard in New Jersey, New York and Maryland.

As an emerging industry, there are many unknowns about both short-term and long-term effects of developing in coastal waters. For example, how the construction of turbines could disrupt commercial fishing operations from navigating around the massive turbines, or the likelihood in shifting fish migration patterns.

And so the relationship between commercial fishermen and offshore wind developers has been tense. Some fishermen have filed a lawsuit against the federal government in response to a proposed wind farm in Long Island.

If the goal is to coexist, information is the natural first step. Right now, so much is poorly understood. What research does exist is lacking in regional coordination, Hawkins said, and also collaboration.

“There needs to be better understanding of the complexities of fishery science and management in informing wind energy development,” she said. “This means really putting people together and looking at the problem holistically. We need more communication between the two groups.”

Hawkins notes there are a lot of things that people outside the fishing industry may not realize — for instance, that there are limits to the number of days one can fish in a certain area. “If it takes you 6 hours to navigate around development areas, it’s 6 hours you don’t have to fish,” Hawkins explained. “Details like that come out as you have these conversations.”

The goal of the Responsible Offshore Science Alliance is to facilitate these conversations, while also collecting and disseminating credible data on the relationships between fisheries and wind development. Socioeconomic impact will be one area of research, as will pre-facility baseline activity and resource status, ecosystem-based fishery management, and cumulative effects.

“It’s all interrelated,” Hawkins said. “What happens under the water impacts the economics and behavior of fisherman.”

“We’re behind because wind energy development is progressing quickly in the region,” said Jon Hare, science and research director at the Northeast Fisheries Science Center. He said they’ve done some work in terms of mapping the resources in the vicinity of wind farms, as well as the effects of construction noise on whale populations.

He also points to additional studies from the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management which focused on habitat mapping of wind energy areas in the Northeast and socioeconomics of fisheries using data from 2007 to 2012. The bureau also put together best practices for developers to avoid areas with the most impact.

“What could be determined as an area for future research is understanding how fishing behavior might change in the wind energy area,” said Brian Hooker, a marine biologist at the bureau.

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