Despite what the skeptics say, offshore wind power could be good for saltwater anglers
Depending on who you talk to, offshore wind power (wind farms at sea composed of multiple turbines) is the best thing in the world or the worst. What I tend to believe is that most people think that offshore wind equates to “sustainable energy” with a minor footprint, certainly smaller than that of oil and gas. To some extent that’s correct, although the footprint may not be all that minor, and really they are not yet “sustainable” in the true sense, although hopefully they are headed that way.
Because these massive wind farms are offshore, in one of the most salt-laden/corrosive environments in the world, it takes an awful lot of diesel fuel (think boats with maintenance crews) to maintain them. I should note here that this is still a young technology, is far from perfect, and not yet profitable mainly because of the maintenance costs. It’s pretty well known that most of the European wind farms receive government subsidies and that’s presumably the only way they can exist. It’s my personal opinion that, as a society, we will never get sustainable, environmentally-friendly power right unless we start somewhere, so I understand the rationale.
Regardless, wind power is hip. Overall, the American people seem to like it and want it, and the current administration seems to be into it. As watermen we all know that at sea, wind blows harder and longer, and suitable sites (note: “not in my backyard”) are more readily available to enable large projects to operate. Perhaps more important than any of this is that there’s a lot of money being dumped into offshore wind right now by huge companies like Google. The point is, offshore windfarms are likely coming soon. I don’t think there’s any stopping them at this point.
So, let’s take a look at what it means for us. Sure, there’s the domestic, sustainable energy stuff, and I’m down with all that. But at the risk of seeming parochial, I’m pretty much only looking at this from a fisheries perspective. With that said, I was invited to go to the United Kingdom with a group of commercial and recreational fishing interests (sponsored by the Ocean Conservancy) to ground truth their offshore wind power programs. The trip was basically a fact-finding mission to see what these things meant for fishermen and fishing communities.
Sure, we spent a lot of time in pubs, talking to local fishermen and representatives from various fishing organizations. We also spent quite a bit of time in government agency offices, and even wind power industry offices. But what was without a doubt the most memorable part of the trip was steaming though the Thanet Wind Farm, which is located about seven miles off the coast of the Thanet district in Kent, England and consists of almost 200 wind turbines. Man that was cool! And of course I was thinking how “fishy” it all looked. Each structure was a potential fish magnet. Unquestionably, such structures would draw in tons of life if they existed on our coast, particularly in the Mid-Atlantic, where save for a scattered array of deteriorating artificial reefs (most states just don’t have the money to add to or maintain them anymore), it’s pretty much all sand. It’s intuitive to anglers that fish aggregate around such objects placed in the sea. We pretty much always look for “structure” even if it’s something as simple as a depth change. I mean, you don’t need to look any further than the Gulf of Mexico’s oil platforms to see the potential benefits.
In case you aren’t convinced, the analysis of existing wind farms in the English Channel and North Sea have shown an increase in biomass by 50 to 150 times! Such structures provide a hard stable substrata for colonization by a range of marine organisms. Mussels, barnacles, tubeworms, hydroids, sponges, soft corals and other invertebrates, attach themselves permanently to the structures attracting various free-living invertebrates and small fish, which in turn attract predators. The science has been pretty clear that they increase species diversity, biomass and general productivity. The biomass increases have been shown to be particularly steep if such hard substrate structures are placed in soft substrate environments.
So really, these things could be damn good for fish. But that means far less if we can’t access them. As mentioned, offshore wind power really isn’t profitable yet. And so there is a justifiable fear that, given the liability that developers may face for accidents that may happen, fishermen may simply be shut out. While the oil industry can likely afford such risk, a fledgling industry like wind power probably can’t. That said, access has not been an issue thus far in the UK. Anglers and charter operations have complete right-of-entry to the sites. The only constraint is a 50 meter “recommended” safety zone around each turbine. Commercial boats can enter the safety zone too, although it’s obvious that trawlers would have gear problems. Fixed gear (e.g. pots) have also been problematic as currents tend to wrap them around the structures. So by default, such arrays become hook-and-line only zones, which most readers of this blog would agree, isn’t a terrible thing.
On the other hand, North Sea fishermen were not so lucky. The Swedish, Danish and German governments, based on environmental and safety assessments as well as a simple cost-benefit analysis, did indeed shut fishermen out. The risks to cables, liability within the farms and search and rescue issues were all driving factors. Of course, in that region fishermen weren’t considered as culturally and economically important as they are here, and the fishing industry also didn’t really engage in the development process until it was too late. There were also regionally powerful environmental groups who pushed for no-fishing zones.
While this is indeed a concern, I do not believe that would happen on our coast. The agency in charge of such offshore wind power – the Bureau of Energy Management (BOEM) – says on their website that they do not intend 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 on wind farms. If a safety zone is ever deemed necessary it would follow formal proposed and final rulemaking (with public comment). Could the developers themselves exclude anglers? 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, it would likely fail.
We should be well aware, however, that during construction, which may last one to two years, anglers will be prohibited from entering the area. It should also be noted that that pile driving during the construction phase does create high levels of underwater noise, which likely will drive fish away. There will be further considerable turbidity as the bottom gets stirred up. Marine predators simply don’t like such murky water. Yet, studies have shown that abundance of both fish and marine mammals not only return but increase post-construction.
Yes, there’s some concern, albeit unfounded in my opinion, about noise and vibration admitted by the wind farms once they are operating. Studies conducted in the United Kingdom indicate the amount of noise and vibration is negligible compared to both natural and prior-occurring noise and vibration. That said, an electromagnetic field (EMF) produced by the lines that transfer electricity from the array to shore could indeed have some negative effect. Natural EMFs are detected by sharks, skates, rays and are used for prey detection, finding mates and orientation. There’s some science indicating lobsters, turtles and cetaceans and are may use EMF for orientation, navigation and homing. And so there’s some speculation that anthropogenic EMF may disrupt natural movements. The evidence to support this is sparse though, and there are no data available that allow an assessment of impact.
So here’s my honest, no BS take on all of this. I’m not terribly concerned about the environmental impacts of these things. Sure, it may suck for a year or two during construction, but generally the long-term increase in biodiversity will outweigh all of that stuff. I think there are extremists from the environmental community who claim that these wind turbine arrays at sea will alter fish migration patterns, and they may be right to some extent. God forbid fish actually have to swim around them, and given the wide spacing of the ones that I saw (from what I’m told, the newer larger turbines will require even more space between each other) I’m not sure what fish couldn’t simply swim through the farms. And there are also some folks who still think that there will be “vibrations” that will negatively affect fish and the marine environment. Please show me the science that this is the case? As far as I can tell, it doesn’t exist. And then there are the bird people. Apparently these things kill a few birds trying to fly though. Seriously??? I can’t help but think there’s some natural selection here. Why birds can’t simply fly around is not within my understanding of bird migration patterns.
On the commercial fishing side, there is genuine concern that large areas will be off limits, due simply to the difficultly of fishing inside of these things, and there is always the issue of catching a cable (believe it or not, that’s happened in Europe more than once). While there are those extremists would have us all believe that the current administration’s ocean policy and particularly the marine spatial planning initiative is a conspiracy to end all fishing, (remember this article?) it is exactly this sort of circumstance that the initiative seeks to address. It gives fishermen a say in where development is appropriate and where it isn’t. In other words, they have some input in where wind farms may be placed. That’s pretty darn important I think!
The bottom line is this: experience from the past 15 years in Europe shows that wind farms can be engineered and operated without damage to the marine environment and vulnerable species. Comprehensive environmental monitoring confirms that even large wind farms pose low risks. Of course, I may end up being drastically wrong, but unless someone can convince me otherwise, I can’t see how wind farms won’t be a boon for recreational fishing. Really, we should be welcoming these things. Generally, all I’m hearing is pushback, although I have yet to hear reasonable explanation why, save for the access issue which I’ve covered here.
When will we see wind farm construction along our coasts? It looks like construction isn’t that far off. BOEM has identified several Wind Energy Areas (WEA) off the East Coast that appear suitable. A number of states on the Atlantic coast have initiated planning for offshore wind projects and developers are currently pursuing leases.
Unless there is some big change in policy, it looks like I may actually see wind farms off our coast in my life time. I hope I’m not dreadfully wrong about my assessment, but I’m actually looking forward to this. I can’t help but think it will mean better and more consistent fishing, not to mention a big move toward more sustainable energy.