The Intense, Lobster-Fuelled Fight Over America’s First Floating Wind Farm

The Intense, Lobster-Fuelled Fight Over America’s First Floating Wind Farm
The crew on a lobster boat hauls traps off the coast of Portland, Maine. (Photo: Robert F. Bukaty, AP)
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There’s a rumble brewing out in the ocean, and it could forecast some troubles ahead for renewable energy. It involves some of Maine’s small fishermen, a high-profile wind project in the state, and an aggressive showdown with a research vessel earlier this week.

On Sunday, local Maine outlets reported that a slew of fishing boats gathered in a show of protest against a planned wind project in midcoast Maine. While the weekend flotilla of fishermen was peaceful, tensions continued to rise on Monday. That’s when the wind project’s owners accused three fishing boats of intentionally surrounding a research vessel that was out for an ocean floor survey, “creating an unsafe situation” that forced them to suspend operations, a project manager told the Portland Press Herald.

The Aqua Ventus wind project is the cause for the discontent. In 2019, Maine’s governor signed a set of bills designed to get the state to 80% renewable energy by 2030. A key part of those bills was the approval of the Aqua Ventus project, which would generate 12 megawatts of energy, and be the first floating wind farm in the nation (yes, they’re a thing).

The project will consist of one turbine situated around 3.2 kilometres offshore, far beyond where lobster traps are dropped. But some of the lobstermen who gathered Sunday told the local news they’re worried about how the installation of a power cable, which would run 37 kilometres along the ocean floor to deliver power before running aground further south on the coast, could impact lobster fishing in the area. That’s what led to the protests.

Erik Waterman is a fourth-generation fisherman in South Thomaston, Maine who has been fishing in the area for more than 30 years. (His daughter also fishes, he said in a Facebook direct message, and his grandmother was an independent lobsterwoman. “I’m pretty proud,” he said). He said that word of Sunday’s protest, which he joined on his fishing boat and emphasised was “peaceful,” spread by word-of-mouth through local fishing communities. By his count, between 80 and 90 boats participated.

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The U.S. National Renewable Energy Laboratory has addressed concerns around the potential impact the project could have on fisheries. In a webinar on floating offshore wind farms presented in April of last year, the agency said that the mooring lines for floating turbines like Aqua Ventus “would be a significant challenge for large-scale commercial fishing” inside the turbine area itself, and that fishing and floating wind farms “should be a topic for further research and discussion.”

But even a huge deployment of offshore wind all along the East Coast would only take up a tiny portion of the ocean, NREL noted, meaning “fishing would continue normally in most ocean areas.” Experts have said that it appears that offshore wind turbines in Europe may actually have beneficial effects on some species of fish (fish may like the artificial reefs that moored turbines provide). There’s still comparatively little research, however, on the specific impacts offshore wind could have on fisheries. That’s particularly true around U.S. shores, which is simply because there are so few offshore wind farms, said Miriam Goldstein, the director of ocean policy at the Centre for American Progress.

“A lot of [the research] comes from Europe, so it’s not completely analogous,” she said. “And the reason for that is that Europe has a lot of wind farms, and the U.S. has two.”

The boat that the lobstermen surrounded on Monday was actually conducting a seabed survey for the cable, completing some of the research needed to determine the impacts of the Aqua Ventus project. For his part, Waterman — who sent over a picture of him and his daughter with a 209-kilogram bluefin tuna he said they caught in the area where the wind turbine would be installed — said he is afraid of what the installation of this one turbine could mean for the rest of the ocean where he fishes.

“We fear for our livelihood because if this single turbine gets a foothold, it will most definitely snowball up and down our pristine coast,” Waterman said. “Our way of life providing seafood for the world will be forever altered.”

While a lobsterman’s salary is on the modest end, it’s still a coveted profession in Maine, where some wait decades for a chance to get a commercial lobster fishing licence with the state. Maine lobstermen have enjoyed a healthy harvest over the past decade, with record-high sales and demand for their product accompanied with high levels of catch, which some scientists say is attributable to warming waters in the Gulf of Maine. But as the waters keep warming, some studies project that lobster populations could decline as much as 60% by 2050.

Of course, the only way to help lobsters not overcook in a too-hot ocean is by moving away from dirty energy as soon as possible, which probably means putting up a lot of turbines in the ocean. The Department of Energy has estimated that the U.S. has the potential to get 2,000 gigawatts of energy from offshore wind turbines, which it notes is double the annual total of all electricity used in the country annually. The research found parts of the Gulf of Maine are among patches of ocean with the greatest wind potential.

Opposition to renewable energy projects, especially wind turbines, often come with a whiff of NIMBYism. Last month, Hamptons residents filed a lawsuit against a proposed offshore wind farm based on a claim that an expert described to Earther this way at the time: “Frankly, it’s stupid.”

But not all opposition to renewables is created equal, especially when questions about an already at-risk industry and livelihoods are involved. Sarah Schumann, a climate activist and commercial fishing deckhand in Rhode Island, said writing off concerns from fishermen about offshore wind as NIMBYism or climate ignorance is “offensive” to the people who are watching the ocean — and their livelihoods — change firsthand.

“As fishermen, we live in the natural environment, we care about nature as much or more than anyone else out there, and we’re on the front lines of climate change,” Schumann, who has been working in the fishing industry in the state for 15 years, said. “I don’t know any fishermen who are climate deniers. Everyone is seeing it firsthand, everyone is responding to it firsthand.”

Fishermen in the U.S., Schumann said, feel like there’s a sudden foot on the gas towards developing offshore wind.

“There’s this headlong rush, we’re really flying blind. We’re talking a major overhaul of the ocean ecosystem without a reliable prediction of what that will do, economically or ecologically,” she said.

However, Goldstein pointed out that there is a large body of research how fish and other ocean life have responded to another type of structure that’s been in US waters for decades: oil rigs. And from that research, it appears that the impact is mixed.

“Putting a bunch of hard structures in the ocean is good for things that like it and not good for things that don’t,” Goldstein said, noting that some oil rigs have become coveted spots to fish red snapper.

Both the fishing industry and renewable energy experts in Maine bemoaned the tensions between fishermen and the wind project to local outlets this week, especially Monday’s showdown, which blocks the research needed to make more decisions on how this renewable energy may or may not affect the lobster industry.

For his part, Waterman thinks the solution is simple. “Go solar,” he said.

Schumann agrees. “I wish we could have a more intelligent conversation in this country about the pros and cons of shifting to renewable energy,” she said. “We have so many other options. A lot of fishermen are in favour of small-scale local options, like putting solar on every roof. Every fisherman I know would be happy to get on a roof to install a solar panel and help their neighbours.”

Distributed energy is unlikely to meet the nation’s entire demand, though. An NREL working paper found that rooftop solar could supply around 40% for U.S. demand. When it comes to large renewable power installations, Goldstein predicted that hammering out ways to lower emissions with wind is key to keeping the ocean intact.

“The path that we are on if we do not change our emissions is a very dark one for the ocean,” she said. “We don’t want to pretend that there are not real side effects to building out offshore wind at the level that it’s predicted that we need to generate that much energy. We do need to carefully consider siting, fishermen need to be at the table, they need to have a way to register and influence the process. But the answer is not to just say that if we don’t put [wind] in, things will be OK because we have pretty good scientific evidence that they will not.”