LONDON, ENGLAND – Over the last few years, European fishermen have been forced to grapple with the sudden reality of wind farm construction on their fishing grounds. Their experiences offer important lessons for fishermen here in the Northeast.
In mid-March, a team of people involved in fisheries in this region traveled to England to learn how offshore energy development is unfolding there (see CFN May 2013).
The five-day trip, sponsored by Ocean Conservancy, included meetings with a number of fishermen and fishing industry representatives impacted by offshore energy development.
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Across the board, they had several loud and clear messages for US fishermen. The first was perhaps best summed up by Tom Watson, a former fisherman who now works as a fishing industry representative for seven offshore wind farm projects in the United Kingdom (UK).
“A lot of fishermen wonder, ‘Can they really build the wind farms?’ The answer is they can and they will,” he said. “There’s been a lot of angry second guessing, which is a waste of time. They’re going to do it and, if you stand in the way, you’re going to be a casualty.”
The next step is to create, as early as possible, a clear line of communication directly between fishermen and energy developers – without government involvement.
Engineer Andy Revill, who is well known in international fishing gear technology circles, was hired by DONG Energy last year to engage with the fishing industry on behalf of the Scandinavian company.
DONG operates four offshore wind farms in the UK and is a partner in the 175-turbine London Array, the world’s largest operational offshore wind farm.
Without honest and direct dialogue, Revill said, most energy developers will be unaware of how the siting, construction, and operation of a wind farm might affect local fishermen.
“As a company, DONG has strong moral standards and a responsible attitude,” he said. “But, basically, it’s a group of engineers who like to build things. They don’t understand the issues.”
In the UK, issues for fishermen have included being shut out of traditional fishing grounds during wind farm construction and then trying to figure out if and how they can safely and practically resume fishing in and around the farms once they are built.
“Cables float free and come down on pot trawls,” said Mike Cohen, CEO of the Holderness Fishing Industry Group, which represents dealers, processors, and fishermen involved in the European lobster fishery.
“There are impacts outside the farms, too,” he added. “Sediments dug up during trenching to bury cables have traveled outside farm parameters, smothering the bottom. Not only did this kill off the lobster stocks living in the area at the time, but it also covered habitat features that made the area suitable for lobsters in the first place.”
One positive result of having good communications is that the energy company eventually heard and understood some of these concerns.
“DONG has proposed changing drilling practices to contain the kicked-up sediment by placing a ring of stone around the trenching area,” Cohen said. “It’s encouraging to see that come from DONG.”
However, many side effects of wind farms remain costly for fishermen, and the other goal of establishing relationships with energy developers should be negotiating mitigation agreements.
“Instead of looking for cash, look for something that will help you make a living,” Watson urged.
The Ramsgate-based Thanet Fishermen’s Association has dealt with the construction of two wind farms in its backyard – the Thanet Offshore Wind Farm and the London Array.
As part of a mitigation package, energy developers agreed to install fast-flow pumps at the association’s fuel co-op dock and then purchase fuel from the co-op for its service vessels.
Mitigation measures offered by UK energy companies have included direct compensation to fishermen for earnings lost during construction. Developers also may agree to hire local fishing vessels to assist with surveys and monitor construction areas.
Energy companies can create funds to compensate fishermen for lost or damaged gear, pay for vessel upgrades or retraining, and more. They also establish “community benefits funds” that local communities can tap to fund school, renewable energy, and other projects.
Cohen, too, stressed that the goal in negotiating a mitigation agreement should not be a big cash payout, but something more long-term.
“My interest is not to have people move out of fishing. It’s the only major employer in my region, and there are strong cultural ties to fishing,” he said. “Compensation isn’t the point. Fishermen don’t go fishing to make a certain amount of money. They go fishing to try to make a living.”
Fishermen and industry reps in England had two other pieces of advice for fishermen here in the Northeast – participate fully and honestly in efforts to identify traditional fishing grounds, and get organized.
“Only a few fishermen participated in a brief mapping survey conducted for the London Array,” said Thanet Fishermen’s Association treasurer Merlin Jackson. “The conclusion was there were no fish there and no fishing action. That wasn’t right.”
Unity is important, too.
“Be one. Speak as one,” said Ramsgate fisherman John Lowe. “If you’re fragmented, they’ll pick you apart one by one, chew you up, and spit you out.”
Jackson offered this final message to Northeast fishermen.
“Being well organized in as large a group as possible with sensible, pro-active leadership is an important starting point,” he said. “And develop a strong awareness of how the planning process works. At the earliest point at which fishermen can be involved, give input regarding the areas concerned. It is important that your fishermen realize what a very real thing this is and do not wait for the first ship to turn up before becoming active.”