Offshore Wind and the Fishing Industry: The Path to Co-Existence

Turbine installations can be stymied by the fishing industry. More research and more conversation are key to the success of this renewable energy source.

Offshore wind may finally be having its moment in the United States. In March, the Biden administration released a plan to expand offshore wind capacity to 30 gigawatts by 2030, a significant increase to power more than ten million homes and create more than 44,000 offshore wind jobs.

In addition to investing in R&D and supplying low-interest loans to boost the industry, the administration seeks to speed the permitting process for offshore wind projects. As a result, environmental reviews for as many as ten new projects could be initiated this year. This would represent serious progress for a nation with just one offshore wind project currently online.

Despite this promising boost, the offshore wind industry has challenges to overcome. In addition to the obstacles posed by coastal communities perturbed by visual impacts to shorelines and bird deaths caused by turbines, a significant challenge to offshore wind comes from the fishing industry.

Fishermen have concerns about the impact of the emerging offshore wind industry on their operations and resources. These concerns include:

  • Restricted fishing access and risks
  • Impacts on fish habitats
  • Increased industry competition within smaller sea area

The U.S. commercial fishing industry provides over $170 billion in annual sales, to which offshore wind development represents a threat. Adding to the industry’s concerns is the overall lack of information regarding the environmental impacts of offshore wind farms in the U.S. In particular, the effects of wind farms on fish populations is not yet completely understood. Combining this with perceived exclusion from the decision-making process for project development, fishing groups have strongly opposed proposed offshore wind projects.

Conflict between the two industries has even resulted in lawsuits, as was the case with Empire Wind, the 816-megawatt project planned off the shores of Long Island, New York. An advocacy group for sea scallop fishing sued the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM), arguing that the federal offshore wind leasing process did not properly evaluate alternative options and take into account the fishing industry.

Mitigating conflict with the fishing industry is a key step to fully unlocking the potential of offshore wind. Mechanisms to reduce the burden of offshore wind’s impact on fishing include:

  • Allowing fishing within project areas
  • Compensating for the disruption of fishing activities
  • Providing alternative employment for fishermen

In all cases, bringing the fishing industry into the conversation early on during project development can reduce conflict. The 30-megawatt Block Island Wind Farm off the coast of Rhode Island is the first offshore wind facility in the U.S. and demonstrates the power of early and meaningful inclusion. By effectively engaging local fishermen with the projects’ marine spatial planning, developers were able to build trust and facilitate dialogue to garner support.

For Vineyard Wind, the 800-megawatt project proposed off the coast of Massachusetts, $21 million has been set aside to compensate fishermen for financial losses. From conversations with the fishing industry, the developer also agreed to change turbine orientation to address navigational concerns, shift the landing point of its transmission cable, and reduce the number of turbines proposed from over 100 to 62. The project is now in the home stretch of the permitting process, having received its final environmental review approval in early March, 2021.

In addition to inclusion and effective collaboration, offshore wind’s environmental impact on the fishing industry needs to be further elucidated. Vineyard Wind, for instance, is funding ongoing studies of local fisheries to expand knowledge of fishery impacts. On the federal level, the Biden administration’s offshore wind plan includes a $1 million grant to fund research on offshore wind’s effects on fishing and coastal communities.

The fishing industry itself has also taken charge; in April, 2019 the Responsible Offshore Development Alliance (RODA), a broad coalition of fishing industry associations and companies, started an initiative to advance regional research on offshore wind.

The month prior, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Fisheries and BOEM signed a ten-year memorandum of understanding with RODA to promote engagement with the fishing industry in offshore wind development and support research efforts. In response to Biden’s offshore wind plan, RODA has contended that $1 million is not enough to effectively study fishing impacts and asserted the need for greater collaboration.

According to the Department of Energy, offshore wind’s technical potential in the U.S. is over 2,000 GW. To further harness this potential, the fishing industry’s concerns should be properly addressed. Conflicts between fishing and offshore wind can be mitigated through effective planning, research, and collaboration, such that these two industries can co-exist in the sea.

This insight is a part of our Undergraduate Seminar Fellows’ Student Blog Series. Read work from other students and learn more about the Undergraduate Climate and Energy Seminar.

Margaret Badding

Undergraduate Seminar Fellow
Margaret Badding is an undergraduate student in the College of Arts and Sciences double majoring in philosophy, politics, and economics (PPE) and psychology, with a minor in environmental studies. Badding is also a 2021 Undergraduate Seminar Fellow.