Barnegat Light — Barnegat Light Mayor Kirk Larson is part of a fishing dynasty going back to his grandfather, who owned one of the town’s first commercial fishing boats, the Mary Ann. With business partner James Gutowski, they collectively represent 12 commercial vessels at the Viking Village docks. Larson has 50-plus years in the fishing industry and has weathered many changes such as the proliferation of federal and state regulations and changes in the types of fish to target for the increasing demand for seafood. Today, Larson and Gutowski’s largest investment is in the ocean or sea scallop fishery, and they are not alone in targeting the succulent bivalve.
According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, sea scallops support one of the most valuable commercial fisheries off the northeastern U.S., second only to American lobster. In 2016, the date of the last available study, sea scallops accounted for about $431 million in landings revenue, around 27 percent of the nearly billion in total commercial fishery landing revenue for that year.
The Barnegat Light fleet has faced many threats to its livelihood, but today a new threat has arisen – the impending proliferation of offshore wind farms along the entire Eastern Seaboard that could restrict the fleet’s ability to get to where the scallops are on the Outer Continental Shelf. In some proposed places, the wind farms and their giant turbines would be built right on top of the best fishing grounds, according to commercial fishermen.
The Bureau of Ocean Energy Management is an agency within the U.S. Department of the Interior that has sweeping control over what is extracted or built on the Outer Continental Shelf, a huge area of relatively shallow water off the coast in the Atlantic Ocean. BOEM has the power to lease areas of the OCS for uses by wind farms and oil and gas companies. It has recently leased two areas off the Jersey Shore: 160,480 acres to Ørsted, a Danish-owned company proposing to build between 85 and 100 wind turbines 15 miles off the Atlantic City coastline by 2024, and 183,353 acres north of AC to US Wind, still in the site application phase.
There are 15 leases along the East Coast in various states of development by wind farm companies.
Larson said the leases proposed off Long Island, New York and off Cape Cod and Martha’s Vineyard in Massachusetts are the most worrisome because that is where the best scalloping grounds are located.
“We’re scared to death that what they are doing will drive us out of business, the whole scallop industry,” said Larson during a recent telephone interview. “They should have allowed Fishermen’s Energy to do what they intended to do – a small pilot program to see what kind of damage to the ocean these turbines would do – instead of going ahead and building a giant wind farm.”
Larson was part of a consortium called Fishermen’s Energy that had worked for years to develop its own pilot wind farm off Atlantic City. But the consortium was blocked by the New Jersey Bureau of Public Utilities. Public support for a pilot program flagged when Gov. Phil Murphy pushed for a quicker implementation of offshore wind projects, calling for 3,500 megawatts of offshore wind energy by 2030.
Some of the concerns of fishermen like Larson are the closing of the scallop beds during construction and the possible impacts that electromagnetic fields from energy transfer cables lying under the sea floor might have on the bottom-dwelling species such as flounder, monkfish, skate and lobster. Plus, there are concerns about the impacts to migrating fish, birds and mammals. “There is no study yet on how it will affect right whales, the most endangered whale,” Larson said.
Economic impacts to the fishery could also come from a potential rising cost of insurance when fishing vessels must navigate within wind farms.
Foreign industry, too, would benefit most from offshore wind energy, said Larson, as there are no companies in the U.S. that can build wind turbines or the specialized boats that will be needed to install them.
“That violates the Jones Act,” said Larson. The Jones Act is a 1920 law that protects American shipping interests.
In a separate interview with Larson and Gutowski at Viking Village on Nov. 15, the men went over these various points and more.
Gutowski is chairman of the Atlantic Sea Scallop Council, an advisory board to the New England Fisheries Management Council, one of eight fishery management councils responsible for the management of marine fisheries in the U.S. Exclusive Economic Zone. Both men are members of the Fisheries Survival Fund: Gutowski is currently the chairman of the board and Larson has served previously as chairman. The Fisheries Survival Fund is made up of 200 full-time scallopers.
“We have a set-aside fund where every year we carve out 2 percent of our allowed quota so scientists can come in and do studies and surveys of the scallop beds,” said Gutowski. “We partner with academia on what they harvest so we know where the scallops are. And BOEM wants to put wind farms on some of these areas, especially on three new leases off New England called Fairway North and South and Hudson Canyon – all prime scallop areas, all in shallow water where it’s easy for them to put the wind farms.”
“How are they going to be able to fish with these wind farm leases being built?” asked Larson. “There are millions and millions of scallops out there.”
“The scallop industry has a great story to tell, one that has to be heard because these wind farms are going to hurt us,” Gutowski continued. “The scallop industry over the years has really stepped up to the plate, spending their own money and time mitigating the issues, by-catch issues, managing the resource, rebuilding stocks and now again through the Sea Scallop Research Set-Aside program to do our own science to try and figure out how the wind farms are gong to impact us, because no one else is going to do it for us.”
The Sea Scallop Research Set-Aside program is unique in the fishery industry. Each year NOAA administers the program that is funded through the Fisheries Survival Fund. The New England Fisheries Management Council chooses the types of research that is needed for any particular year. This year the research grants are to focus on the effects of offshore energy development on the stock of scallops. The University of Massachusetts and the Virginia Institute of Marine Sciences will be providing needed research on the health and abundance of scallops in the wind farm lease areas, said Gutowski.
“BOEM’s not going to do it for us,” he added. “Any meeting I’ve been a part of, it seems like it’s all lip service. Things are moving ahead, full speed ahead,” said Gutowski. “And there’s not a single American company building wind farms.”
Larson and Gutowski said the foreign wind farm industry is in the process of getting an exemption to the Jones Act.
Another group, the Responsible Offshore Development Alliance, has drafted a letter to send to the U.S. Customs and Border Protection as its members are concerned that the proposed modifications to the Jones Act would not hold offshore wind energy developers to the same standards as other industries. “The widely promised economic benefits of offshore wind must accrue to the citizens who are displaced, and to U.S. coastal communities at large. For offshore wind energy-related operations that can be executed with existing American vessels and crew, this means delivering on promises to fully utilize those resources. For larger construction tasks for which there may not currently be qualified vessels, foreign-owned wind energy companies should contract with U.S. shipyards to build the necessary Jones Act-qualified boats,” the letter said.
“Carving out a broad exemption for an entire new industry does nothing to aid the development of U.S. marine commerce.” Monitoring and enforcement of U.S. environmental and security laws on foreign vessels also poses extra challenges due to additional permissions needed by the Coast Guard to board non-U.S. flag vessels, stated the letter.
Challenges of Fishing Within a Wind Farm
Although Ørsted has promised to situate its wind turbine array to allow safe passage for fishing boats and suggests the platforms may draw fish to them like underwater reefs do, Larson’s bigger boats with scallop drags cannot maneuver as quickly as a recreational boat can. “What happens if I’m fishing within the wind farms, my engine dies and we have no way to stop the boat so we drift into a wind farm in the middle of the night?” he wondered.
Gutowski is more afraid of having the fishing area put off bounds. “The only (wind turbine) array in the world that you are allowed to fish in is in the UK. Every other wind farm in the world is closed to commercial traffic. That’s the reality we’re up against – most of these areas will be closed to fishing, one way or the other.”
The rush to offshore wind farms is the problem, the fishermen say.
“Offshore wind is going to be a good thing, we’re all for reducing our carbon footprint and having better green energy, but what’s the hurry?” asked Gutowski. “Now we have to have a ‘bajillion’ gigawatts by next year and it’s all foreign. Why don’t we take a step back, really look at it, hear from the people who are going to be affected by it, maybe get the United States companies involved in it and drive our own commodity. Why are we giving it away?”
“We’re not against them,” agreed Larson. “But let’s hold off before we wreck something, before they put $20 billion worth of wind farms out there and then people say, uh-oh, we made a mistake.”
Ørsted’s Kris Ohleth, senior stakeholder relations manager, was contacted for comment on this story and replied, “One person should not be speaking for the entire fishery. We recognize his (Larson’s) concern, but he does not represent the entire fishing industry on offshore wind power.”
Ørsted has recently completed its construction and operational plan and submitted it to the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management for review. It will be BOEM’s task to develop the environmental impact statement. The Outer Continental Shelf Lands Act requires examination of environmental sensitivity and marine productivity in potential lease areas.
BOEM must comply with numerous environmental statutes, regulation and executive orders to carry out its renewable energy plan including the National Environmental Policy Act, Clean Air Act, Coastal Zone Management Act, Endangered Speicies Act, Clean Water Act, the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act, Marine Mammal Protection Act, Migratory Bird Treaty Act, National Historic Preservation Act, and executive orders that concern environmental effects abroad, environmental justice, Indian sacred sites, and coral reef protection.
So far, BOEM has completed archeology studies.
For the past two years, Ørsted has been doing seismic studies, but it’s not the same kind of seismic studies the oil and gas industry does; it’s much less intense, said Ohleth. “Oil and gas exploration needs to go deeper into the substrate of the ocean floor What Ørsted is doing is mapping the floor composition for the design of our platforms. They are also looking for any magnetic anomalies such as shipwrecks that are not on the charts.”
She continued, “The EIS (environmental impact study) will also take into account the electromagnetic effects (of transmission cables) on the movement of sea organisms.”
In August, the Interior Department withheld approval for an 84-turbine array off Martha’s Vineyard called Vineyard Wind and directed the Danish-Spanish firm building it to research the overall impact of wind farms on the entire East Coast.
Larson and Gutowski are pleased with the Trump administration’s action through its Interior Department. “Trump is holding off on letting windmills go free. He’s kinda skeptical,” said Larson. Gutowski characterized the concern about global warming that is powering the push for offshore wind farms in this way: “You know it’s a like a car salesmen. ‘You got to get in on this thing; it’s your last chance!’”