Scallop fisherman Chris Scola pulls out of a Montauk marina at 2 a.m. and spends the next two-and-a-half hours motoring to an area about 14 miles out into the Atlantic. Then, with the help of his two-man crew, spends about 10 hours dredging the sea floor for scallops before heading back to port.
“We have this little patch that’s sustained by myself and a few other boats out of Montauk and a couple of guys from Connecticut also fish down here.”
Scola gives me an earful about state and federal regulations, but the thing that really has his dander up these days is the prospect of hundreds, and perhaps even thousands, of giant wind turbines spread out in the New York Bight, an area along the Atlantic Coast that extends from southern New Jersey to Montauk Point. It’s one of the most productive fishing grounds on the Eastern Seaboard.
“To me, building windfarms here, it’s like building them on the cornfields or the soyfields in the Midwest.”
Scola belongs to the Long Island Commercial Fishing Association, which is run by Bonnie Brady, the wife of a longtime Montauk fisherman. She’s an outspoken critic of the windfarms.
Brady sums up plans by New York authorities to site 240 turbines in the Atlantic like this: “A really bad idea that’s going to make some hedge funders a nice big chunk of change and then they can move on to their next prey.”
Providence-based Deepwater Wind, which operates a five-turbine windfarm off of Rhode Island, is proposing a 15-turbine installation called the South Fork Windfarm off Long Island. Deepwater also plans a 15-turbine installation off of Maryland, another windfarm off the coast of New Jersey, and one to be located 12 miles south of Martha’s Vineyard.
And Deepwater is not the only offshore wind energy developer planning to put turbines into the Atlantic.
“It’s not just us in New York. It’s all down the Seaboard. They want projects from Maine all the way down to South Carolina.”
These windfarms, Brady argues, will affect commercial fishing all up and down the Atlantic coast.
“Fishermen go where the fish are, so depending on which fish species that you’re trying to catch, right off of Montauk, you could have fishermen from Massachusetts, Maine, North Carolina, Virginia, New Jersey, and Connecticut and Rhode Island. Let’s say if squid this year was just crazy off Montauk and federal waters, they’d all be there, because that’s where they go. If the fishing is really hot off of Nantucket, that’s where they go.”
The New York State Energy Research and Development Authority, NYSERDA, held hearings this summer on a lease area for the wind turbines off Long Island.
Greg Matzat, NYSERDA’s senior advisor for offshore wind, says, “We have not predetermined where we’re trying to locate these. We’re looking at a very large area off of New York in the Atlantic Ocean south of Long Island.”
Matzat said NYSERDA’s been studying the impact offshore wind development has had on commercial fishing in Europe where turbines have been a fact on the seafloor for 20 years, and off Rhode Island where construction of the Block Island Windfarm, the first offshore wind development in the U.S., was completed a year ago.
“We want to understand where they fish, how they fish, trends they’ve seen over time, so that we can understand where best offshore windfarms could be located that’ll have the minimal impact on fishing, and then further, on top of that, how we can best design the windfarms within those areas to make it the easiest for fishermen to fish within them.”
But make no mistake, he says, offshore windfarms and commercial fishing can coexist.
“We absolutely believe that there will absolutely be fishing within these windfarms.”
The president of the Rhode Island Fishermen’s Alliance says that so far there are no measurable effects on his members’ catches off of Block Island.
But a spokesperson for Deepwater Wind confirms that more than a dozen Rhode Island fishermen were compensated for interruptions in their work during construction of the turbine.
The Fishermen’s Alliance is also calling for further study of the long-term impact of the electromagnetic waves emanating from underwater cables. The cable connecting the Block Island Windfarm to the mainland forced a fish company in the Narragansett area to relocate. And concrete mats placed over the cable to protect it have snagged and destroyed fishing nets, prompting more requests from commercial fishermen for compensation.
Bonnie Brady, of the Long Island Commercial Fishing Association, says, “You don’t just stick an industrial park, frankly, on the ocean floor. You don’t pile drive and jet plow the ocean floor, where we get our food, and expect that to necessarily have a good conclusion. But they’re doing it out there ‘cause there’s less people to fight.”
The issue is likely to play out in the courts. A group of municipalities in New England and New Jersey have joined commercial fishing interests in a legal challenge to the lease of another offshore wind energy area closer to New York City, which was awarded to the Norwegian energy giant, Statoil.
This report comes from the New England News Collaborative, eight public media companies coming together to tell the story of a changing region, with support from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.