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OF OFFSHORE WIND, FLUKE AND GRAINS OF SALT

Offshore wind farms are coming, how they work out for us largely depends on us… 

By Capt. John McMurray

Indeed, we’ve written here and elsewhere on offshore wind-power development.  Specifically, on the potential for wind-turbines – dozens, maybe well over one-hundred – placed in designated areas off our coast.  Generally, we have been in support of such development, as long as it’s done responsibly with stakeholder input mind…  But full disclosure, such support is partially due to self-interest. 

Most red-blooded anglers understand what happens when you drop all that hard structure in a marine environment, particularly in a place where very little structure existed in the first place.  Fish magnets – not just of the bottom dwelling type (i.e. black seabass, tog etc.) either.  Big bluefish, mahi, false albacore.  And if you put that stuff in water over 15-fathoms, well, all sorts of pelagics are bound to come in there. 

In my neck of the woods, anglers who have been around for a bit know what the deal was with Ambrose Tower.  “Ambrose”, the official entrance to the shipping channel, was a large 3-leged structure that sat about 8 miles SSE of Breezy point, in 90’ of water.  Unfortunately, it was decommissioned/torn-down a little over a decade ago, because ships that set their GPS/autopilot kept running into it.  Even in the dog-days of summer when very little was going on inshore, you could run out to Ambrose and catch monster bluefish all day long, mahi would show up regularly, and sometimes, even school bluefin would make an appearance.  Good stuff man…  I can only imaging what would happen should you drop a few dozen such structures in that general area.    

Of course, this is one very small example.  There are a ton of others.  Deepwater Horizon excluded, we all know about how the oil platform situation has worked out for Gulf of Mexico anglers.  And while it’s still pretty new, anglers are reporting increasingly good fishing at the Block Island Wind Farm.  And why wouldn’t they.  It’s “structure”.    

It’s not just anecdotal.  There’s plenty of science out there suggesting that such structure increases biological productivity.  An analysis of existing windfarms in the English Channel and North Sea has shown an increase in biomass by 50 to 150 times, and most of this is low trophic level stuff. In other words, lots of food that draws predators in.  Most of us don’t need a peer-reviewed paper to tell us this.  It’s intuitive.  Structure, especially of this scale, equals more fish, certainly not less. 

But that’s not the messaging coming out of some parts of the recreational fishing community right now. It’s been hard not to notice what seems like a well-organized anti-wind-farm campaign developing in New Jersey, from both the recreational and commercial side.  I do get the commercial side of things, because trawling might be awful hard in a wind-farm, for a number of reasons.  But the recreational opposition is, IMHO, counterintuitive.  That said, it’s not terribly surprising.  The folks leading such opposition have long been averse to ANYTHING that might be “green”, or, gasp, supported by the environmental community.  Maybe it’s a stretch to say there’s a political axe to grind here, but it’s hard not to speculate.  The point is such views are often bias, and maybe we all need to take what those folks say with a grain of salt.  The important thing to focus on here is the science. 

That said, I wouldn’t say that the fears articulated by these folks are unfounded.  For sure windfarms will come with tradeoffs.  But IMO, what’s being put out there now is greatly overexaggerated.

Access, of course, is a big concern.  It is absolutely true that during construction, which may last one to three years, we would be prohibited from entering the area where the construction is happening.  But it should be clear that any exclusion from access is temporary.

Still folks seem to be hung up on this, saying over and over that “there is no guarantee”.  That’s not entirely true.  The Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM) – an agency within the Department of the Interior tasked with managing offshore energy development – has stated on the record on a number of occasions that it does not have the authority to guarantee access, nor to restrict vessel traffic in and around offshore wind facilities. If a safety zone or buffer were implemented, it would be by the Coast Guard, who has said publicly that they have no intention of establishing such zones. If a safety zone is ever deemed necessary it would have to follow formal proposed and final rulemaking, including public comment. Could the developers themselves exclude anglers?  That would be very unlikely. They would need to go through an extensive public process to do so, and given the public’s historical use and their desire for continued access, they would more than likely fail.  Lastly, access has not been an issue in the UK windfarms, and as most of us should know by now, anglers have total access to the Block Island Wind Farm. 

Yes, pile-driving during windfarm construction raises concern.  That sort of thing creates high levels of underwater noise, which likely will drive fish and marine mammals away. There will also be considerable turbidity as construction stirs up bottom sediments. Yet, studies have shown that abundance of both fish and marine mammals not only return, but also increase post-construction.

There is also some concern about noise and vibration generated by operating windfarms, yet UK studies indicate that the amount of noise and vibration is negligible compared to both natural and previous man-made noise and vibration. In a busy shipping area like the New York Bight, I’d think this would be completely irrelevant.

But it’s the electromagnetic field (EMF) emitted by the transmission cables that currently has folks riled up, particularly it’s purported effect on summer flounder, and that’s understandable given that they are probably New Jersey’s most important recreational fish. 

A recently unearthed  study from a Danish windfarm seems to suggest flounder species won’t cross cables during periods of high volume energy transfer.  “Flounder primarily crossed the cable when the strength of the electromagnetic fields was estimated to be low, i.e. during calm periods”.  The study is also clear that while EMF may alter migration, it certainly doesn’t block it. 

The New York State Energy Research and Development Agency (NYSERDA) in their Offshore Wind Master Plan, point out that a large number of high capacity cables already exist in the ocean outside of New York and New Jersey, as well as other sources of EMF in the marine environment, noting specifically: “Additionally, offshore New York and New Jersey already experience anthropogenic EMF within the marine environment from existing tunnels, subsea cables, and bridges”.  And most of those things have been there for an awful long time.  In fact, the “Neptune cable” – a 65 mile undersea and underground high-voltage direct current transmission line, which provides up to 660 MW of power to Long Island electricity consumers, extends under water from Sayreville, New Jersey to Nassau County on Long Island.  This cable is higher capacity, higher voltage and emits higher overall EMF than any currently proposed transmission cable, and has historically not seemed to affect summer flounder migration into New York Harbor/Raritan Bay.    

A similar conclusion was reached by the Army Corps of Engineers in the environmental impact statement from the Block Island Wind Farm. It found that with sheathing and cable burial, EMF would be at the detectable level by sensitive species for less than 1% of its route length. And, well, captains are catching cod, tautog, black sea bass and, yes, fluke among other species in the middle of that wind farm.  All this said, I suspect that there may be some localized impact on and around the cables, but it’s hard to believe it’s a real barrier to fish movement.

NYSERDA analyzed dozens of existing fisheries studies as part of their Offshore Wind Master Plan.  Their conclusion was that construction may create limited temporary impacts to nearby fish as pile driving and construction disrupt habitat.  However, impacts during operation, including electromagnetic fields, vibration etc., are expected to be minimal and highly localized, and will likely be offset by the biological/artificial-reef-effect of the turbines.

I am more apt to trust those science-based conclusions, and of course what I’ve seen on the water over the last two decades, than social media posts I’ve seen from the anti-conservation/anti-environmentalist folks.  I’m taking all that stuff with a grain of salt, and so should you.

While timelines are anything but certain, it’s pretty much a fact at this point that offshore wind is coming.  And it should, because it holds great potential for the U.S. to produce clean sustainable electricity right where it is most needed, not to mention the good-paying jobs likely to come along with it.   Considerable investments in time and money have been made by the feds, states and of course the energy companies themselves.   States from Maryland to Massachusetts have made serious commitments to developing offshore wind power.  There is momentum as both Republican and Democratic governors and the Trump administration all seem to be getting behind it.   

Wherever you stand on this, it should still be clear that the whole “just-say-no” anti-wind-power movement just ain’t gonna work.  The recreational fishing community needs to be involved, and contribute productively as this moves forward, or be left out.  We need to be at the table, ensuring all of this works for anglers, instead of just screaming “NO!” from the sidelines. 

A relatively new group intent on being a reasonable voice for all of this: Anglers for Offshore Wind Power has it right with their Principles for Responsible Development of Offshore Wind Power.   

1.  Access

Recreational anglers must be able to fish up to the base of turbine foundations to take advantage of the new habitat that will be created by offshore wind power development. We understand access may be limited during construction.

2.  Public Input

Recreational anglers must be engaged early in the planning process for offshore wind power development. Clearly communicated opportunities to provide input on siting, permitting, access and other issues can avoid future conflicts.

3. Science

Fisheries research before, during and after wind turbine construction is essential for monitoring impacts to species of interest to recreational anglers. Study results should be publicly available and regularly communicated to our community.

Click here:  Principles for Responsible Development of Offshore Wind Power.  

Take a few minutes to sign on to these.  Not only will it help to endorse the above, but it will also put you on an email list so you can follow all of this, and hopefully it will provide opportunities to engage should you want to. 

Do it now. 

In the end, offshore wind power could be really good for us, on a number of levels.  But it’s critical that we engage, early and often. 

Stay tuned.