BLOCK ISLAND, R.I. — As the charter fishing vessel Seven B’s V relentlessly pounded through 2-foot chop, the slowly revolving blades of five offshore wind turbines rose out of the bank of morning fog and drizzle. Three miles off the southeast corner of Block Island, these turbines supply power to the island, replacing diesel generators that burned a million gallons of fuel each year and emitted 40,000 tons of CO2 annually into the atmosphere.
But a beneficial byproduct of these 390-foot-tall turbines is hidden beneath the waves.
Soon after the turbines were installed in 2016, algae and other sea vegetation started growing on the 90 feet of support columns underwater. Mussels followed, then fish.
“Smaller fish, like black sea bass and scup, feeding around the column, blues and striped bass circling the outside (edges of the support column),” said charter boat fishing captain and columnist David Monti. “The fishing there before the wind farm was good, and it’s at least as good, if not better, now.”
But it was the process that impressed many in the recreational fishing community who often complain they were not given enough opportunity to comment on fisheries decisions.
“My understanding from talking to anglers is that Deepwater Wind (the original developer of the Block Island Wind Farm and now known as Orsted) really worked with the recreational fishing community to make sure they were engaged,” said Zach Cockrum, Northeast director of conservation partnerships for the National Wildlife Federation.
Cockrum helped found Anglers for Offshore Wind Power to unite recreational fishermen around the principles of guaranteed access to the ocean encompassed by wind farms, advocating for greater input into the decision-making process around siting, permitting and other issues, and fisheries research before, during and after construction.
The wildlife federation saw that the benefits of offshore wind turbines extended beyond clean energy production to fishery habitat creation — reefs that had the potential to improve fishing for recreational enthusiasts in particular. While the base of the 6 megawatt Block Island turbines is relatively small, the Vineyard Wind 12 megawatt turbines, which stand nearly 600 feet tall to the uppermost blade tip, are nearly twice as large and will have a protective collar of stones 170 feet in diameter that will provide fish habitat, according to Crista Bank, fishery liaison for Vineyard Wind.
A 2017 article in MIT Technology Review cited a German study that showed that a single large offshore wind turbine could support nearly 9,000 pounds of mussels, and that it served as the basis for a community that included crabs and fish. The study said that by 2030, North Sea wind farms could account for 20 percent of the total stock of blue mussels.
“I have seen the underwater footage and I know it creates habitat and attracts fish,” Monti said.
But these benefits are good only if you are allowed to fish there, and nearly all European wind farms are closed to fishing.
In 2016, Massachusetts required that electrical distribution companies doing business in the state buy long-term contracts for at least 1,600 megawatts of wind power by 2026. Vineyard Wind will begin construction within the year on 84 turbines in a federal offshore wind power lease area approximately 15 miles south of Martha’s Vineyard.
The 800 megawatts of power produced by the wind farm is already contracted out to three utility companies. Orsted, which owns two large tracts off the island, and Eversource are involved in a joint venture to sell 400 megawatts to a Rhode Island power utility. Other developers are also gearing up to secure power contracts and begin construction.
With hundreds of square miles off the Massachusetts shoreline likely to be developed in the coming years, both commercial and recreational fishermen need to become involved in the process to ensure they are not harmed.
Commercial fishermen have been voicing their concerns all along about access, safety and their ability to catch fish. In April, Rhode Island commercial fishermen helped negotiate a nearly $18 million fisheries mitigation package with Vineyard Wind.
“Both parties, in Massachusetts and nationally, have their foot on the throttle for this (offshore wind power),” said Patrick Paquette, a recreational fisheries advocate, community organizer and charter boat captain from Hyannis. Fishermen are not going to stop the offshore wind industry, but they can be part of the decision-making process, he said.
But the process of permitting a wind farm is bureaucratic and the meetings are endless. Bank pointed out that her company agreed with comments received from commercial fishermen on the benefits of reorienting the layout of the 84 wind turbine project, but they came in too late for the change to be made.
Fishermen are still awaiting a Coast Guard plan that will create lanes for larger commercial vessels to safely pass through on their way to offshore fishing grounds, and that may guarantee access as well.
“The Coast Guard has said there will be no limiting of fishing in the area, either recreational or commercial mobile and fixed gear,” said Bank.
Recreational fishermen are particularly vulnerable, as they only fish part time.
“The process is imperfect,” Cockrum said. “Reaching the right people is always challenging.”
It is hard for a large, diverse group of fishermen who fish only part time to remain engaged in every step in the permitting process. He would like to see more than two weeks’ notice on important meetings.
Cockrum said he has seen improvements in how offshore wind developers deal with fishermen. Vineyard Wind supported a request for a fishery monitoring study on the impact of turbines before, during and after construction on highly migratory species such as mahi-mahi and tuna that recreational fishermen pursue in the lease areas.
“We’re pretty sure this (wind farms) will be good for fishing, but ‘pretty sure’ is not good science,” Cockrum said. “That’s why we want a science commitment.”
Cockrum and Paquette helped organize a trip out to the Block Island Wind Farm on Tuesday for members of Massachusetts recreational fisheries organizations, offshore wind company representatives and some state officials. Paquette hoped the fishermen’s experience with Block Island wind farm developers would be translated to the larger tracts.
“We’re not looking at America’s first wind farm right here,” he said Tuesday, extending his arm toward a turbine that towered nearly 600 feet over the boat. “We’re looking at America’s first offshore wind sales room. They (Deepwater Wind) built this to show the Northeast how it should be done right.”
Monti said he had many discussions with Deepwater Wind on behalf of the Rhode Island Saltwater Anglers Association, with 7,500 members, and the Rhode Island Party and Charter Boat Association and thought they were treated fairly.
Even so, the scale of the new wind farms entering the permitting and construction phases dwarf that off Block Island and could have unforeseen developments both positive and negative.
“The (Bureau of Ocean Energy Management) and the fishing community really have to get their act together, because it’s not an organized approach at this point, because we are both learning,” Monti said.
By: Doug Fraser