The offshore wind industry may be in its infancy in the United States, but it’s been a thriving renewable resource in Europe for decades. As parties debate about the impacts of wind farms on commercial fishermen safety, countries like the United Kingdom, where fishermen and offshore wind have co-existed for over 20 years, say it’s safe. But a clean track record abroad doesn’t mean all the safety questions have been answered.
The United Kingdom, with just under 2,000 wind turbines in its waters, has produced a pretty remarkable safety record since the late 1990s.
Pete Lawson, offshore energy liaison for the U.K. Coast Guard, says there have been less than a handful of accidents and it’s because turbines are spaced far apart and placed in a linear grid.
"The fishing industry in general has been able to co-exist with offshore wind," Lawson says. "Not to say that doesn't impact them to some degree but they're still able to operate in and around them safely."
Lawson says fishermen there have adapted to the changing landscape. Fishermen with small boats can operate fairly well. Larger boats, however, tend to fish outside of the wind farm areas.
But introducing any new structure into the sea, Lawson says, creates an "inevitable" increase in safety risk for mariners. "However we do a lot of work in trying to mitigate these as best as we can."
The fishing industry in the U.K. has adjusted but it’s not like there aren’t any safety issues. Dale Rodmell is the assistant chief executive for a fishing industry association which represents fishermen in England, Wales, and Northern Ireland.
He says trawlers (those fishermen with large boats and massive nets) are staying away from the wind farms all together even though they’re legally permitted to fish there. They’re fearful, he says, of nets getting caught in the turbine’s transmission cables.
"Even now, we don't have a great deal of experience for trawl gears operating in wind farms," Rodmell says. "There's a period of learning to what extent the activity can [actually] take place both practically and in a safe manner."
After over 20 years, U.K. trawl fishermen are still grappling with how to safely navigate within turbines other than just completely avoiding them. But in the U.K., trawl fishermen are a minority. Commercial fishing is generally done on small boats and weather conditions are generally mild.
It’s a stark difference to the New England commercial fishing industry where many fishermen are trawlers and boats almost 200 feet in length have been observed transiting through Vineyard Wind’s area. The weather conditions are also more severe.
It's part of the reason why New England fishermen don’t think the U.K.’s nearly clean collision record means their safety questions have all been answered.
Eric Hansen has been a sea scalloper for over 20 years. He even built his 100 foot boat from scratch in the late 1980s. Now, Hansen and his son, who will eventually take over the family business, say offshore wind farms will make their already unsafe jobs even more dangerous.
Vineyard Wind, developer for the country’s first large scale offshore wind farm, plans to install 84 massive turbines in a grid-like pattern about three-quarters to a nautical mile apart. Fishermen argue that spacing isn’t enough to allow vessels to safely navigate through them.
"It will be very difficult to navigate through the wind arrays," Hansen says, standing in the boat's cabin. He added that, even now, observing a boat within a mile of his would make him "super sensitive and paying attention."
"I don't want to get into any accidents out there," Hansen says. "And you have a lot of other things on your mind too because you're trying to work."
And there is some validity to their concerns. In our first story about commercial fishermen safety, we spoke to an environmental economist at the University of Rhode Island who predicts offshore wind developments could contribute to maritime accidents that could cost millions of dollars in damage.
Fishermen like Hansen are asking Vineyard Wind and government officials to take action. They want to get the turbines spaced farther apart or closer together so the wind farm takes up less space.
Eric Stephens, Chief Development Officer at Vineyard Wind, has stood behind the wind farm’s layout, ensuring it will be safe for mariners.
"We're trying to do the best we can to make the project compatible or at least minimize disruption with fishing," Stephens says. "From the fisherman's perspective the best layout is no turbines whatsoever. But that's not an option for moving forward on a project."
Federal officials appear to be listening to fishermen’s concerns. The Vineyard Wind project has stalled because a cooperating federal agency has concerns about how the wind farm’s layout will impact commercial fishermen.
And the Rhode Island congressional delegation sent a letter to federal officials just three weeks ago asking them to revise their regulations related to offshore wind in order to reduce conflicts with fishermen and other stakeholders.
U.S. Senator Jack Reed says the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the U.S. Coast Guard have not resolved key issues including safety around vessel transit routes.
"There is a situation where you do have to have space to safely maneuver particularly in different types of weather," Reed says. "And then it's a technical question which you have to rely ultimately on experts. And that's something we we wanted to call to their attention."
Fishermen’s concerns, Reed says, are valid and need to be listened to.
"[Fishermen] have very special knowledge. They are in these waters every day," he says. "These concerns have to be taken into consideration they can't be ignored."
It’s a big period of uncertainty for New England’s fishermen. They won’t know the true impacts of offshore wind farms until the turbines are actually in the water.
And it’s not just Vineyard Wind. Fishermen, including Hansen, have concerns about the cumulative impact offshore wind farms will have on their safety. Federal officials are already working on over a dozen offshore wind projects from Massachusetts to North Carolina.
"Getting our concerns heard is part of the battle," Hansen says. "[But] getting them to act on it is another."
Vineyard Wind is trying to quickly work with federal regulators to get the permits they need to begin construction this year in order to secure a federal tax credit worth millions of dollars.
But it’s become clear that, just like in the U.K., offshore wind energy doesn’t come without drawbacks.