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Apr 11, 2019 12:35 PMPublication: The Southampton Press

British Fishermen Offer A Glimpse Of The Future For U.S. Counterparts Worried About Offshore Wind Impacts

Merlin Jackson, left, and Colin Warwick at Inlet Seafood in Montauk last week.     MICHAEL WRIGHT
Apr 16, 2019 11:33 AM

A pair of British fishermen told a room full of South Fork commercial fishermen last week that they went through the same sort of battles with wind farm developers 10 to 15 years ago that Northeast fishermen are just beginning to wade into now.

While it was an uphill climb, they said, they have gradually found a way to win some concessions from the giant companies and get a voice, albeit small, in the planning processes for major wind farm developments in United Kingdom waters.

They told of similar frustrations—finding themselves ignored or muted, or poorly represented, or seeing the information they offered rebuffed and misused—that New York fishermen and their representatives say they have experienced as the South Fork Wind Farm and other offshore wind energy projects wend their way toward being built in the waters southeast of Block Island, and as state and federal agencies explore new locations for future wind farm siting in the region.

Over and over, as the South Fork fishermen mentioned the ways that the approval process for such projects seems to pass over their concerns, the two British fishermen, Merlin Jackson and Colin Warwick, would nod and mutter, “It was the same for us,” or “That sounds like 10 years ago in the U.K.”

But they also offered the local fishermen hope that there is light at the end of the tunnel, even if it couldn’t yet be seen by those gathered at Inlet Seafood in Montauk on Monday, April 8.

They said they that, over years, and as more projects were built and the problems they caused were aired, fishermen have at least earned a seat at the negotiation table now, thanks to changes by U.K. lawmakers to the licensing guidelines for wind farm projects.

And most of the fishermen are now compensated to some extent by wind farm developers for disruptions in their fishing due to the placement of the wind farms in traditional fishing grounds or by temporary displacement of fishing during the construction process.

With more than 200 turbines already in the pipeline to be built in the Atlantic just beyond Block Island starting in 2020, and hundreds of square miles of additional sea floor within range of Long Island boats leased to multinational wind farm developers, the British fishermen urged those who gathered in Montauk last week to stay engaged and organized if they want to find a way to force themselves into the decision-making process.

“A lesson we learned early on is that ‘no’ is really only a good answer for the first meeting,” said Mr. Warwick, a fisherman from Cornwall with a thick, lyrical brogue, who is now the National Fisheries Liaison Officer for the Crown Estate. “We’ve come a long way.

“It didn’t happen overnight,” he added. “It’s about building trust. You’ve got to keep pushing. You’ve got to keep saying, ‘We’re asking for a voice,’ and ‘Give us a place at the table.’”

Each step of the way for the U.K.’s fishermen has been a fight, echoed Mr. Jackson, who fishes the Thames Estuary, just east of London, where several large wind farms have been built smack in the middle of centuries-old fishing grounds. At the outset, he said, the fishermen were not consulted about siting of wind farms at all and were caught wholly off-guard when the first large projects were presented to them.

“We blanket-objected to everything, but by that point we were already on the back foot, because the Crown was already going down the road of granting that license,” Mr. Jackson recalled of the proposal for the Thanet Wind Farm, a 100-turbine wind farm built seven miles off the coast of Kent in 2010, targeting 13 square miles of the best cod fishing grounds for Thames fishermen. “There was no process for engaging fishermen—we hadn’t been consulted. The first we knew of it was when the developer came to us with the chart of the territory they’d been given license to.”

The tale echoed the cries from South Fork fishermen about the almost entirely unknown leasing process by the federal Bureau of Ocean Energy Management for several huge swaths of sea floor between Block Island and Nantucket to wind farm developers, with almost no engagement or notice to the New York fishermen who worked the areas.

And now, as government review processes for the first of five major wind farm developments that are proposed get rolling, fishermen say they are finding they have little recourse to steer development designs to minimize the impacts on them.

“We are fighting on transit lanes, we are fighting on everything,” said Bonnie Brady of Montauk, who heads the Long Island Commercial Fishing Association. “We are united as a group, but we can’t seem to get our teeth in, because the windmill companies are just saying, ‘I can’t hear you, I can’t hear you,’ and charging ahead.”

Ms. Brady said that reams of data fishermen must collect about their fishing movements—something the British fishermen said the United States is far more advanced with—was diluted and then ignored when BOEM issued a lease for more than 100 square miles of sea floor in the New York Bight. Fishing advocates sued to halt the lease, saying BOEM failed to consider the impacts to fishermen, but lost in court.

The locals also lamented the difficulty they have had even getting what they see as a fair interpretation of the few demands that are put on the development companies to engage fishermen. Ms. Brady and Julie Evans, the “fisheries representative” to the South Fork Wind Farm project, said that Ms. Evans’s role has been greatly diluted by Deepwater Wind and Örsted and that the “fisheries liaisons” working for the company have done little but pay lip service to fishermen to tally interactions that will fulfill demands in the application process.

“All they really want is numbers of interviews to satisfy regulations,” Ms. Evans said.

And Mr. Jackson and Mr. Warwick said such difficulties in establishing useful representation was their experience, for about five years of fighting with the wind developers, before terms were changed that made the fisheries representatives and liaison roles much more controlled.

“We’d like to jump those five years,” Ms. Evans said.

“It’s a really hard place to sit,” Mr. Jackson acknowledged of the fisheries representative role, which is supposed to advocate for the fishermen but is paid for by the developer. “It only works if the fishermen trust the representative, and if the developer is forcing the [representative] to not represent the fishermen’s interests, it’s an almost impossible position.”

Mr. Jackson said it took the development of two major wind farms in his region before the fishermen’s complaints started to be heard. But he said that as the U.K.’s fishermen were brought into the conversation, some of the development companies—many of them the same companies driving the rapidly building surge of offshore wind developments off the East Coast—became more welcoming partners in finding ways to minimize the impacts on fishermen.

They have funded tracking systems for fishing boats that demonstrate where the heaviest fishing areas are—both so that they might be avoided but also to justify compensation payments to fishermen for lost revenues.

The companies have also funded studies of how the development of wind farms has affected fishing. In one such study—funded by Örsted, the Danish energy company that has purchased Deepwater Wind and the rights to the South Fork Wind Farm—the survey revealed that lobster fishing had been unaffected, or maybe even slightly improved, among the new turbine stanchions.

“[Örsted] may not have liked it, but they accepted it, and the end result was a classy piece of work,” Mr. Warwick said, with Mr. Jackson nodding agreement. “And it easily could have gone the other way for them, but they did it, nonetheless.”

But, beyond that, and a scattered few other efforts, the two fishermen said, there is precious little evidence of whether the development of large wind farms in the ocean changes the migratory patterns of the fish that have used the area historically. No baseline data was collected before the early wind farms were built 25 years ago, and even anecdotal observation has been diluted by changes in fish stocks from other factors like climate change and over-fishing, Mr. Jackson said.

He noted that the Thames Estuary has continued to have good fishing, with the exception of cod, which have largely vanished, a change that some have blamed on the wind farms but others on warming seas, since the fish have disappeared from areas without wind farms also. A once-robust Dover sole fishery in the vicinity of another large wind farm was set upon by large commercial fishing boats from elsewhere in Europe a couple years after the wind farm was completed, decimating the fish stocks, and also the chance at any sort of indication whether the fish would be affected by the operating turbines.

Mr. Warwick said that the power cables connecting the wind farms to land routinely are exposed by shifting sands in the strong currents off the U.K.—a major concern that has been raised by local fishermen about the coming wind farms—but that most fishermen are able to deal with them without too much difficulty.

“I’ve been fast to them before, but I’ve never lost a net. I’ve always been able to get off once the tide turned,” he said. “The big problem we’ve got is that the cable industry would like us to not fish over the top of the cables. If that was the case, we would lose millions.”

But Mr. Warwick said that he and other U.K. fishermen have accepted that wind farms in their seas are the way of the future for some time to come. As European subsidies have expired and new wind farms have continued to come into the planning and development process, their economic viability has been anchored, he said, and fishermen are continuing to gain more solid footing.

“We have to accept that it is the energy of the future,” he said. “I want my son and his son and his son to be able to go fish for a living, and we’ll have to be smart about it. We can’t change the decisions of the past, but we can influence the decisions of the future.”

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