Offshore Wind Farms

Are they helpful to fishermen?

Offshore Wind Farms
Wind generators are rapidly becoming a common sight offshore.Jeff Gilbert / Alamy Stock Photo

If you live and fish along the Atlantic Coast, you are about to see some real structural changes to your fishing grounds.

The jury is still out on what the ­cumulative impacts will be. Some say they will be good. Some say they will wreak havoc. Most did not even know they are about to happen. By the early 2020s, if all goes according to plan, wind turbine towers will be erected and blades will be turning, with more to follow.

This whole process started in 2005 when the Energy Policy Act (­EPAct) ­authorized the Department of the ­Interior to craft regulations that provide a framework for issuing leases, easements and rights-of-way for outer continental shelf (OCS) activities that support production and transmission of energy from sources other than oil and natural gas. While there are some efforts to harness energy from wave ­action and flowing currents, this primarily meant developing wind energy.

Part of the process by the DOI Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM) was an effort to work with the ocean users to develop a GIS database of all the activity happening, so the siting process would have minimal impact on existing uses. All of that data would have to be melded with areas of consistent wind that had the right water depth and would not be too ­­far offshore.

Commercial fishermen have always been tight-lipped about where and how they fish. Much of that information has been considered proprietary and paid for with a lot of trial and error. So the net effect of the siting process by BOEM has been numerous conflicts between the wind-energy and commercial-­fishing industries, ­primarily the mobile-gear fisheries. For most, it will be ­problematic to tow their gear between the towers. One wonders if additional information at the front end of the ­process would have mitigated the conflicts. Since the lease areas are substantial, conflict may have been unavoidable.

Initially, there were a number of ­potential leases along the Atlantic Coast; the first was signed in October 2010, and the latest, as of this writing, was signed in March 2017.

In total, there are 14 leases, and they cover millions of acres of the OCS. It would be hard to site this large a combined efforts without having some interaction with all kinds of fishing effort. While my personal feeling has always been that it seems to make more sense to place these wind farms on land where construction is less costly, it has been driven home that their efficiency is directly tied to a constant supply of wind. Ocean siting is where the wind is the most constant.

By 2025, there may well be hundreds of towers on the OCS. They may pose a problem for commercial fishing, but they could be a benefit to the recreational anglers willing to venture offshore. Most of the current wind-farm leases are in areas that lack structure that attracts fish. Having fished around the oil rigs in the Gulf of Mexico, I am aware of the sea life attracted by these structures rising off the bottom. On my trips in the Gulf, the amount of fish activity that I saw around the oil platforms was breathtaking. If the Atlantic Coast experiences even a small percentage of that, these towers will be some of the most exciting areas to fish.

That is all the good news and, unfortunately, there may be some not-so-good news as well. While the hard structure should attract an array of fish, there could also be a repellent. Each of the towers will be connected to a grid and then to an at-sea substation where the power is transmitted to shore. The transmission cables give off an electromagnetic field (EMF) for AC. While most cables will be buried, there is still an effect. Many fish are sensitive to this EMF; some find it a repellent and some an attractant. While there has been research on this, it is not extensive. Some fishermen also wonder if there will be any impact on larval fish and forage. While I am hopeful, this could be a very big experiment whose outcome can only be understood after it is too late.

I do not want to come across as completely Pollyannaish, but I do remain sanguine that these wind farms will provide a positive to the resources in their area and that recreational users will benefit from them.

Extra info: Check out different wind energy areas (WEAs) at boem.gov.