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Guest Column – Coping with wind farms through ‘best practices,’ mitigation, planning – John Williamson

williamson-SHIn the global picture, offshore wind power is an increasing part of the energy mix in Europe, China, and Japan.  The world leader in offshore wind production, the United Kingdom (UK), which includes England, Wales, Scotland, and Northern Ireland, has ambitious plans for quadrupling its present capacity by 2020.  The race is on.

Although the United States has been slow on the uptake by comparison, the chances are good that Mid-Atlantic and New England fishermen will become very familiar with offshore wind farms over the next decade – and that the two industries will compete for space on the water and on the waterfront.

There are a lot of reasons this is the case.  The Northeast continental shelf has massive potential for wind power development, within miles of one of the most demanding energy markets in the world.  The Obama Administration has identified offshore wind power as a key component of its energy strategy and as a way to create jobs while advancing the goal of energy independence.  And Congress has directed the federal Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM) to begin leasing offshore sites to wind developers.

Taken altogether, this push for offshore wind energy development will have big implications for the economies of coastal communities and for fisheries management.  Fishing community leaders need to pay attention to the planning processes now underway and to participate at this formative stage in order to help guide future policy.

Last March, I was part of a fact-finding delegation of seven individuals from various aspects of Northeast US fisheries that spent four very busy days on the ground in England, meeting with local fishery leaders, government planners, and wind power developers (see CFN May 2013).  What we learned was not what we anticipated.

“No insurance company has placed any restrictions or increased any premiums because of a wind farm in the UK,” said Tom Watson, a former commercial fisherman who now works as a fishery liaison officer for DONG Energy, managing fishing activities near wind farms in the Irish Sea.  Insurance companies treat wind farms as just another hazard in an already hazardous business.

Likewise, there are no regulations prohibiting UK fishing boats or any vessels from entering wind farms.  Nonetheless, “some will, some won’t,” Watson told us.  Sea conditions are a big factor, as is the skill and judgment of the vessel operator.

The Thanet Wind Farm off the southeast coast of England, which the US delegation visited in March, is typical of the present generation of offshore wind energy projects.

Covering nearly 14 square miles, similar in size to a small city, the wind farm contains 100 three-megawatt turbines.  Being on a boat motoring down a corridor of wind towers 385′ tall and spaced one-third of a mile apart feels like driving in the city, too.

At the base of each tower rock riprap helps control scour, further encroaching onto traffic lanes.  And, fishermen are asked to observe a 50-meter (150′) buffer zone around the towers to avoid problems.

Under benign sea conditions, UK fishermen report that fishing in a wind farm is no different from any other complex navigational venture.  Typically, a trawler sets gear at the head of a corridor between towers and tows out of the array.

However, things get more challenging when the weather turns sour or fog settles in.  And, a single unexpected problem like a hang-down can cause things to go very wrong, very quickly.

 

Mitigation strategies

In the US, BOEM has approved leases in areas zoned for wind power development off Virginia and Massachusetts/Rhode Island.  More leases in other areas soon will follow.

This first stage of the leasing process requires the developer to collect data on what impacts the proposed wind farm may have on the natural and human environment, including impacts to fishing communities.

At a later date and before issuing a construction permit, BOEM will have to decide whether those cumulative impacts are within tolerable limits.  Therefore, developers have incentive to demonstrate awareness of the effects on fisheries, fishermen, and fishing communities, as well as their willingness to mitigate those impacts.

On our UK trip, we heard from fishermen about different mitigation strategies and how these have evolved over time.

Early in their process, UK fishermen pursued “cash settlements” from developers but soon realized that the benefits were short-lived and difficult to distribute fairly.

“I don’t want someone to pay me not to go fishing,” said one.  “It’s what I do.”

Instead, fishing associations found it better to negotiate with developers for long-term investments in fishing communities, upgrading of waterfront infrastructure, and policies under which wind power companies hire fishing vessels to carry out necessary support services.

These could include serving “guard duty” to warn other vessels away from sensitive sites, acting as charters for data collection activities such as bird and marine mammal surveys, and transporting workers.

“Get a piece of the cash-flow returned to the community,” was advice we heard repeatedly.

Where wind towers are sited and how they are configured are the biggest factors in whether a wind farm is something fishermen can live with.  In the latest round of UK wind development, fishermen are working directly with developers to identify “micro-environments” where wind towers will be less of an impediment to fishing operations.

 

Best practices

Wind farm construction creates a different set of hazards for fishermen than working within an established farm and dealing with ongoing maintenance operations there.

During construction, sites are typically designated as off-limits and specialized construction vessels must be given a wide berth.  Once built, wind farm maintenance creates daily vessel traffic as workers are carried in to service turbines or monitor and maintain power cables.

At all stages, communication and coordination are important for both fishermen and farm developers to avoid conflicts, hazards, and gear loss.

To this end, the Crown Estate, Britain’s permitting agency, brought together representatives of UK fishing associations and energy companies.  The group was charged with negotiating “best practices” to be observed by both industries, and the subsequent recommendations serve as a prime tool for reducing risks to fishermen operating in or near wind farms and minimizing the displacement of fishing effort.

The result is an evolving working relationship.  Energy companies are expected to hire experienced fishermen to serve as “fishery liaison officers” (FLOs).  The companies also pay for “fishing industry representatives” (FIRs) who are responsible to the fishermen’s organizations and the communities they serve.

Together, FLOs and FIRs facilitate a daily information stream between the developers and the commercial and recreational fishermen operating around wind farms.

E-mail is the preferred communication medium.  Fishermen are kept informed of maintenance activities, vessel traffic related to construction, and navigational hazards.  Communication between FLOs and FIRs is local and flexible enough to respond to problems as they occur and get the word out quickly to fishermen of situations they should avoid.

 

Planning is key

Our experience in the UK showed us two industries trying hard to work together even though the relationship is at times testy.  As one Brit expressed it, “There is no doubt that all of the fishermen would be far happier if the wind farm was not there.”

On the other hand, a wind farm representative told us, “The people I work for are just engineers who like to build machines.  They don’t understand fishermen’s issues until I explain them.”

In this country, we are in the beginning stages of planning for orderly development of the outer continental shelf.  Federal agencies are coming together with state and tribal governments to form regional planning organizations in New England and the Mid-Atlantic (see CFN June and July 2013).

These groups are responsible for coordinating the use and management of offshore resources in order to implement the Obama Administration’s National Ocean Policy.  The regional fishery management councils will play a central role in these planning efforts.

BOEM also will participate in these regional planning forums while at the same time moving forward with its leasing process for offshore wind development.

As wind farms become a reality in the US, communication will be key to making them “fishery friendly” and minimizing disruptions.  Fishermen already are being called upon to provide detailed information about their fishing grounds.  The planning processes now underway are an opportunity for fishery leaders to step forward and help shape the future.  Doing so is the best way to preserve the long-term interests of fishermen.

John Williamson

 

John Williamson, F/V Sea Keeper, works with fishermen in education and ocean planning.  Serving as a consultant to Ocean Conservancy, he organized a fact-finding trip to Great Britain in March to learn how fishermen there are dealing with offshore wind farm construction (see CFN May 2013).  A former New England Fishery Management Council member, he lives in Kennebunk, ME and may be reached by e-mail at <john@seakeeper.org>.

For more information on ocean planning processes and how to get involved, visit the Northeast Regional Ocean Council website at <www.northeastoceancouncil.org> and the Mid-Atlantic Regional Council on the Ocean website at <www.midatlanticocean.org>.  The federal Bureau of Ocean Energy Management also has set up a website that reports on the activities of the Mid-Atlantic Regional Planning Body.  The address is <www.boem.gov/Mid-Atlantic-Regional-Planning-Body>.

 

Back to the October 2013 Issue of CFN

 


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