NEW BEDFORD — The five enormous turbines that have been generating electricity off Block Island over the past year are considered a model for the future of offshore wind.
But the nation’s first ocean-based wind farm also has exposed what fishermen say are serious threats to them caused by scattering massive metal shafts and snaking underwater cables across prime fishing grounds.
With state officials poised to announce the winners of bids to develop much larger wind farms south of Martha’s Vineyard, fishermen across the region have been pressing officials for answers to their concerns about where the turbines will be located, how far apart they’ll be built, and the placement of the cables to the mainland.
Some have pointed to issues they’ve encountered in the waters around Block Island as the reason they are worried.
“It’s true that the area where the turbines are have created habitat that attracts fish, which is good; but in the area where the cable lines extend to the mainland, it’s completely devoid of fish,” said Michael Pierdinock, chairman of the Massachusetts Recreational Alliance, which represents about 50,000 recreational fishermen. “These used to be fruitful fishing grounds.”
The opposition of the fishing industry, a powerful interest group in New England, could prove a hindrance for developers of the proposed wind farms, which will be chosen next month.
Those projects, which could ultimately span hundreds of thousands of acres some 14 miles south of Martha’s Vineyard, are expected to generate 1,600 megawatts of power within a decade, or enough electricity for about 800,000 homes.
At a meeting last month in New Bedford of fishermen, developers, and state and federal officials, Pierdinock and commercial fishermen urged regulators to study the potential impact of the proposed wind farms on marine mammals, spawning grounds of herring and squid, and other species that inhabit the area.
The fishermen also raised questions about the impact of electromagnetic waves pulsing across the seafloor on species such as sharks, which navigate and hunt in part by sensing electrical currents, and how rotating turbine blades could impede their ability to navigate with radar.
Wind power companies have dismissed most of their concerns, and fishermen have become increasingly frustrated, saying that they’re being ignored.
“We don’t know the causes of some of the things that have been happening, and it’s apples and oranges to compare fisheries off the United Kingdom and the North Atlantic,” said Beth Casoni, executive director of the Massachusetts Lobstermen’s Association. “There’s just a lot more we need to know.”
Officials at Deepwater Wind, the Providence-based company that built the Block Island wind farm and is seeking to develop one of the larger projects off the Vineyard, rejected assertions that the underwater cables from their turbines have harmed the fishery.
“There’s zero scientific evidence for that,” said Aileen Kenney, vice president of permitting and environmental affairs at Deepwater Wind. “We’ve heard of no decline of fishing activity around the project.”
She also dismissed claims that fishermen have had their lines caught on the concrete casings that cover small portions of cables that couldn’t be buried. Most of the cables connecting the turbines to electricity substations on land have been laid 4 to 6 feet below the seafloor.
“We haven’t received any complaints,” she said.
Still, Deepwater Wind intends to bury as much cable as it can if it is selected to develop one of the new projects, she said.
Erich Stephens, chief development officer for Vineyard Wind, which is also bidding to develop one of the offshore projects, said he hopes the fishing and offshore wind industries will learn to coexist.
“All indications are that fish and wildlife are not harmed by wind turbines,” he said. His company, which has proposed building a $2 billion wind farm that could generate 800 megawatts of power, has sought to accommodate fishermen, he said.
Instead of placing turbines in an irregular pattern, which would produce the most energy, the company intends to position them in neat rows, eight-tenths of a mile apart. That would allow two fishing vessels to drag their nets through the area at the same time, he said.
“We have made an effort to meet with fishermen and understand their concerns,” Stephens said. “It’s going to take patience and understanding all around.”
State and federal officials said they’re also trying to address fishermen’s issues. Baker administration officials said they have told federal regulators that any decision about where to build the turbines “must include consideration of natural resources and important marine ecosystems.”
State officials have also recommended that federal authorities — the wind farms are to be built in federal waters and regulated by the federal government — reduce the proposed areas where turbines would be located by 60 percent. In addition, they’ve held more than 100 meetings to address the concerns of fishermen and environmental groups.
“There are important questions we need to explore,” David Pierce, director of the state Division of Marine Fisheries, said at the meeting last month in New Bedford. “Some might say it’s late in the game, given that construction and operating plans are being submitted. But I don’t think it’s too late.”
Officials at the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, the federal agency overseeing the development of the offshore wind projects, say they’re aware of fishermen’s concerns and are conducting studies to address them.
But until the companies submit specific plans, the concerns are based on “hypothetical facilities and impacts,” officials said.
The agency will conduct a “rigorous environmental review” of those plans, and the companies would be responsible for minimizing or eliminating any environmental impact, said Stephen Boutwell, a spokesman for the bureau.
Environmental advocates, who for years have been urging the state to accelerate its transition from fossil fuels to renewable energy, have doubts about what they consider to be fishermen’s newfound concerns about the ecosystem.
“Seriously, are those real tears that they are shedding over marine mammals? I am sure the right whales would snort if they heard that,” quipped Peter Shelley, senior counsel at the Conservation Law Foundation in Boston.
But fishermen say the threat to their livelihoods is real.
They worry, for example, that maintenance requirements or security threats could cause the government to close wind farms to fishing with little warning.
To protect valuable scallop grounds, the fishing industry filed a lawsuit in 2016 against the bureau to halt the development of a 26-mile wind farm off Long Island. Fishermen argued that the government never adequately addressed their concerns and failed to consider alternative locations.
“It is becoming quite clear that [the bureau] and the wind developers are just interested in checking the box of ‘met with fishermen,’ and have no serious intention of taking into account any of the concerns or suggestions,” said Drew Minkiewicz, an attorney at the Fisheries Survival Fund, a Washington-based group that represents the scallop industry.
In New Bedford, officials are trying to strike a balance between wind and fishing interests.
The city is the nation’s highest-grossing fishing port, and it’s hoping to be the base for the construction of offshore wind projects across much of the Eastern Seaboard. It already has a $113 million, state-financed Marine Commerce Port Terminal, which was designed to deploy offshore wind components.
Mayor Jonathan F. Mitchell is a major proponent of the offshore wind industry, but he is also the lead plaintiff in the lawsuit over the New York scallop grounds.
“I personally believe both industries can coexist successfully,” said Mitchell, who called fishermen’s concerns legitimate. “But there has to be a far better dialogue than there has been. This has to be done the right way.”
David Abel can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @davabel.