From a distance, the Block Island Wind Farm looks innocent. The blades spin in lazy circles, and at night, red lights at the top of each windmill blink peacefully on and off. The white turbine shafts shoot upward, catching the near-constant northeastern winds. The landscape looks like a clear win for clean energy in Rhode Island. But while the turbines on the horizon point toward a renewable future, it’s less clear what’s happening below the surface of the water, where the fish live.
The Block Island Wind Farm, finished in 2016, is the first offshore wind farm in the country, but if the plans of governments and wind developers go well, it won’t be the last. In the next decade, the five turbines off the Block Island coast might be joined by hundreds of others fanning out across the ocean waters south of Rhode Island and down the entire eastern seaboard.
Rhode Island’s clean-energy transition promises economic boosts across the Ocean State. It is also a key part of the fight against climate change in Rhode Island: Wind power plays a major role in Governor Gina Raimondo’s plan to bring lower-emission, renewable sources of energy to the state. But not everyone is happy about the potential future of wind power. Offshore wind farms are planned for fishing grounds that traditional fishermen have harvested for generations, threatening an industry that is already fighting a changing climate, government management, and overfishing. Fishermen are worried that windmill construction will be the final straw, compromising their ability to navigate fishing grounds and possibly scaring away the fish they need to make a livelihood. “I mean, this is our last stand,” Doug Feeney, a fisherman of 25 years working out of Chatham, Massachusetts, told the College Hill Independent. “We’re getting beaten up pretty hard.”
Forget the clean electricity, say these fishermen— what’s going to happen to the fish?
“I told the governor of Rhode Island that I don’t want to be collateral damage,” Fred Mattera, the executive director of the Commercial Fisheries Center of Rhode Island, told the Independent, speaking to burgeoning windmill development in Rhode Island. “We understand that we need to coexist, but, also, the fishing industry has been an integral part of the economy in this state.” Mattera said that Raimondo told him, “I guarantee that you won’t be collateral damage.”
“At the time I thought she was being sincere,” said Mattera. “Well, I realize now that that’s inaccurate. She’s focused on jobs and revenue from the wind farms, and not our industry.” The economic and environmental draws of offshore wind for are huge for state governments, with renewable energy incentives and the growing need for clean energy sources making wind power a near-perfect solution in the eyes of government officials. Chris Kearns, the wind energy liaison for the Office of Energy Resource Management, said that a new offshore wind industry would help meet Governor Raimondo’s goal of 1000 megawatts of clean energy by the end of 2020. This would push Rhode Island closer to the state-mandated law of having 38.5 percent renewable energy capacity by 2035, and would be an economic boon for the state. “We’re trying to strike that balance in terms of new economic sectors, but balancing that with existing sectors,” Kearns told the Independent.
But in the eyes of fishermen, windmills are not a perfect solution. The construction of massive wind farms could have life-changing effects on the ways fishermen practice their trade. Not only are some windmills proposed to be built on top of existing fishing grounds, but to access areas farther offshore, most fisherman will need to power through areas with windmills—a potential danger during stormy weather, where 15 to 20-foot waves could push vessels into the turbines. Cables on the ocean floor could also damage fishing equipment and prevent fishermen from dredging, placing “proverbial fences” around existing fishing grounds. Mattera told the Independent that fishermen are asking for a mile clearance in every direction between windmills and larger transit zones reserved for vessels to pass through while steaming offshore, but whether those demands have been met has depended on individual wind projects.
Fishermen and researchers are also worried about the ways windmills could affect fish populations. Apollonya Porcelli, a PhD student at Brown University studying fisheries, told the Independent that the pile-driving of the turbine shafts during construction creates noise that can disturb and drive away fish, especially those that rely on sonar navigation. Another issue is the sets of cables that run between the turbines and the onshore power grid. These cables emit an electromagnetic field that could disturb fish. Migration patterns of juvenile fish can also be affected by the rise of turbidity in the water that comes with construction. The wind farms might scare away the remaining fish for good, leading to economic disaster for commercial fishing in the state.
While fishermen and researchers have identified the above causes as possible problems with offshore windmill construction, the extent to which these factors will actually affect fish populations is much less clear. There is a major dearth of research that has left all parties scrambling—and fishermen in the dark —about how fisheries are going to be affected once the farms are built. This has led to a drive among fishermen and scientists to work together to gather more information fast, before project plans are finalized. “This is the typical US way to do things,” said Mattera. “We build it and worry about the consequences later. And they do this all the time.”
Even though fishermen and scientists are in agreement that research is necessary, there is little funding allocated for the job.
“We keep going to the wind farm people and telling them they are doing this ass-backwards,” Mattera told the Independent. “We keep saying: give us funding. Let us work through the foundation and get some people out there and begin to study this.”
Currently, the Congressional budget for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA)’s National Marine Fisheries Service allocates no funding for scientific research focused directly on the interactions between wind development and fisheries. Andy Lipsky, the acting chief of staff of NOAA’s North East Fisheries Center, told the Independent, “It would seem that removing uncertainty from this space would be beneficial, especially among those of us trying to maintain coexistence between offshore wind and commercial fishers and protecting endangered species such as the North Atlantic right whale.”
Annie Hawkins, the executive director of the Responsible Offshore Development Alliance (RODA), said that the lack of NOAA funding for the study of windmills and fisheries is not a political calculation, but instead a result of organizations being caught off guard. “They’ve done what they can, trying to put staff on it with their existing team, but because these are brand new scientific questions, it takes a lot of manpower,” said Hawkins, who is working with developers and federal agencies via RODA to coordinate research projects. “I hope in the future we see funding go to this, because it’s an absolutely critical impact of offshore wind leasing... But without any new money going to the agency, they’re doing what they can.”
But, for now, NOAA is constrained by funding, even as offshore wind seems poised to explode in the next decade. While offshore wind has been widespread in Europe for two decades, there are only 13 academic papers ever published on interactions between wind and fisheries, according to Lipsky. “If there is one thing that is in agreement, from fishermen to wind developers to government, it is science,” he told the Independent. “Everyone agrees we need to invest better in understanding what will happen.”
NOAA produces much of the advisory scientific information that’s handed over to the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM), which guides the permitting and planning process for wind farms in federal waters. Without good scientific data and advice from NOAA, BOEM won’t be able to make decisions that take into account the impact wind farms may have on fisheries and fishermen.
NOAA recently signed a Memorandum of Understanding with RODA, the fishermen’s coalition, and BOEM to help facilitate further research ans more fully address the concerns of fishermen on offshore wind development. The Responsible Offshore Science Alliance (ROSA), recently signed into existence as a cooperative research effort between fishermen, wind developers, and federal agencies, aims to coordinate research projects to ensure more comprehensive study of windmills and fisheries. “I wish something like that was set up years ago,” Lipsky said of ROSA. “Still, that is a very positive step in terms of working collaboratively on these issues.”
Some organizations, such as the School for Marine Science and Technology at the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth, are starting projects to help research the impact of wind farms on fisheries, but the existing research infrastructure and funding is inadequate to deliver the information federal permitters need to make informed decisions on the leasing process. “The only way around this is some sort of mutual agreement,” said Doug Feeney. “Then doing a study, whether it be every two years to five years, and mapping out everything that happens in those years: migration patterns, water quality, everything. You monitor everything, so when something does go south fast, you have a road map of what caused it to go down that route and you can make changes.”
As our world warms due to human-induced climate change, taking steps to reduce carbon emissions is key in preventing environmental catastrophe. The question is, how much are we willing to gut existing industries and ecosystems, such as commercial fishing and fisheries, in the service of a clean-energy future? “That’s what’s so hard to bite out of this apple,” said Feeney. “This is the future. It’s almost like this is the way we need to go, that we need to start becoming more dependent on solar, and windmills and stuff like that. But I know that there are better places for windmills.”
The promise of new industry, and the economic ripples that could emanate from hundreds of new turbines and towers, has led Rhode Island to pour resources into attracting developers, aiming to become a hub for wind energy in the United States. The state could find a way to use its underutilized ports and welding and boat building industries, creating new jobs and becoming a model for offshore wind across the country. Because the East Coast is one of the most densely populated areas in the United States, and because its large continental shelf offers ample space for wind farms, the waters of the New England coast provide the perfect combination for renewable energy. But wind developers and governments are starting to realize that what makes New England perfect for windmills also makes it perfect for fishing, setting up a conflict between the two.
After the 2016 installation of the Block Island windmills, fishermen saw rapid change, with new developers moving into the market and proposing huge wind farms on fishing grounds. The pace of the planning and leasing process jolted fisherman into action, said Mattera, as they realized that government agencies that control the permitting process, such as BOEM, were under pressure to approve permits and get projects started. Developers were driven to take advantage of federal government renewable energy incentives and were competing to enter the market with a commercial-scale project after the success of the Block Island project proved that offshore wind could work in the United States.
“That’s when the fishermen started to get really pissed off and really organized,” Porcelli told the Independent. She said the windmills became just another threat to fishermen, who have long dealt with federal regulations, such as mandated cameras on boats and governmental observers. These regulations are intended to protect ecosystems by preventing overfishing, but they also inadvertently interrupt the freedom previously experienced by fishermen.
In response to the windmills, fishermen have organized into coalitions like RODA, which seek to represent fisherman through the state and federal level processes that regulate permits and plans for new wind farms. Through organizations like RODA and ROSA, fishermen have pushed wind farm developers and the government to do more research on how windmills might affect fisheries, in a last ditch effort to try and understand the issue before plans get final approval and the wind farms reach the point of no return.
“The windmill companies hadn’t been too keen and receptive hearing from the fisherman in the beginning,” said Feeney. “Pull the curtain back on this, and it’s a huge tax incentive for these companies to come and build windmills right away, so they were just throwing together these plans. Now we’re here two years later, after battling this, and they’re saying now, okay, it’s not as easy as we thought to just plop windmills here, we’ve got to start listening to these people. So I think we’re finally at a stage, and it’s not just fishermen—it’s whale people, bird people, it’s all types of people—where I think there can be a compromise, a discussion on it how it can behoove everybody.”
It looks like the wind farms are coming. If the forces of wind developers, state and federal governments get their way, hundreds of windmills will take root along the Eastern Seaboard, making the existing Block Island Wind Farm look small by comparison. That’s exciting news for environmental advocates and governments who want to shift our economy away from carbon, but fishermen are being left in the lurch, forced to contend with projects in the middle of their workplaces that are under-researched and potentially harmful to the fisheries these fishermen rely on to make a living.
“If someone were trying to build that in your workplace, I think most people would be a little resistant,” said Porcelli. “I don’t blame them for being upset, but I think they’re going to need to find a way to compromise, because it seems like it’s what’s coming.”
The impact windmills might have on fisheries remains uncertain, but if the wind projects do go through, and if the impacts are as bad as some fishermen fear, it could be the end of an industry that once dominated New England.
“I think we will be displaced, because guys will be very cautious about trying to fish around these hundreds and hundreds of wind turbines,” said Mattera. “And I think there will be impacts. I think the pounding of these pilings will kill juveniles and larvae. It’s like putting a highway right through a nursery. We’re killing the youth and the babies, and if we keep doing that, we’re going to damage certain species.”
Mattera said that Raimondo and the wind companies placed the drive to develop wind above fishermen’s concerns, leading federal agencies to skimp on their responsibility to do intensive research before projects are approved.
“It’s awful that BOEM and the federal government haven't done a better job working with scientists and wind companies to see what the general impacts are,” said Mattera. “We’re not here to stop this completely. We understand we need to reduce the carbon footprint, but why does it need to be done yesterday?”
The windmills off Block Island fill the sky with hope for a cleaner future, but below the surface is inky blackness, an uncertainty for what the future holds, and the fear of fishermen that this could be their final fight.
PEDER SCHAEFER B’22 wanted to climb a windmill for this story but was told his experience on fire escapes wouldn’t suffice.