Vineyard Wind is expected to start construction of the nation’s first large-scale offshore wind farm this fall. The $2 billion project has come after a seven year battle between the company, federal regulators, and fishermen who are concerned about the effects of wind farms on their livelihoods. Despite industry efforts to address the economic impact, the maritime industry says its concerns are far from settled.
In Ken Schneider’s 40-year fishing career, he’s fished for pretty much everything that’s out in the Mid-Atlantic.
Now, at 60 years old, Schneider spends most of his time hunting for lobster. On this day, he’s making some extra cash building a boat deck at Leonard’s Wharf in New Bedford before his next fishing trip. He takes his son with him sometimes.
“He don't like fishing with me probably,” Schneider says. “Somebody else would be easier.”
His son works as an engineer at a drafting company. But if anything ever happens to him financially Schneider says, “he's got a [fishing] license and everything and if everything else goes bad he's always got this.”
Schneider’s daughter owns part of the family business too. But now, Schneider says all of it is at risk. He and other fishermen in New Bedford will soon have to share the open ocean with Vineyard Wind. The company is building the the nation’s first large-scale offshore wind farm...84-turbines about 14 miles off the coast of Martha’s Vineyard.
There are final federal and state permits still pending approval but it’s expected onshore construction will start this fall. And by next year, construction will move to the ocean as the over 600 foot turbines settle in their new home.
Schneider says the seismic activity from the construction is going to change the ocean floor and marine life isn’t going to stay around. He thinks he could lose over 30-percent of his lobster catch because of the construction.
“This is going to affect every fisherman and fishes around these windmills,” Schneider says. “These crabs, these lobsters, seismic activity bothers them I believe and it's not benefiting any one of us except a foreign company.”
Schneider’s not alone. Fisherman along the Rhode Island and Massachusetts coast fear they could lose a significant portion of their catch. This is especially true for squid fishermen because the wind farm area will be constructed near their fishing grounds.
Vineyard Wind and studies from federal regulators show the wind farm should have a relatively minimal impact on marine life there.
But seven years later, fishermen are still skeptical of the findings which, they say, generally favor the offshore wind industry.
Dr. Kevin Stokesbury is a professor of fisheries oceanography at the University of Massachusetts, Dartmouth. He says the wind farms will be installed in a fairly large homogenous environment in the sea floor, which will change the environment.
“You’re putting out hundreds of islands,” Dr. Stokesbury says. “And when you create an island or when a volcano creates an island, you create a different ecosystem.”
Out on boat Liberty in New Bedford, he’s preparing for the last sea scallop survey before Vineyard Wind begins construction.
Dr. Stokesbury says there are a lot of unknowns because this wind farm is the largest of its kind in the country. And there’s a reason for that.
“The fact is we do have the capability to know a lot more than we do,” Dr. Stokesbury says.
The surveys he’s working on give a snapshot of the species that live in the ocean floor in order to better predict the future of the stock. It’s a type of survey, he says, could have been done years ago in order to better understand how turbines could affect fish populations.
“To put it fairly bluntly, no one put out the money to look at the studies,” Dr. Stokesbury says. “We just have to have the organization and the funding sources, and they should be in my opinion from the federal government supported by the industries, to get out there and do it.”
The scallop industry has conducted these kinds of surveys for years and now -- once construction begins and the turbines come up -- they’ll be able to have a better understanding of how the ocean floor has changed compared to their past surveys.
Crista Bank, the fisheries liaison for Vineyard Wind and a former field biologist for the fishing industry, agrees more studies like these should have been done.
“In my opinion, it was a large oversight of government agencies who knew better I would say than the fishing industry that this was coming,” Bank says. “Had there been more foresight and planning some of the issues we're dealing with now might have been avoided.
Vineyard Wind has setup a $4.2 million compensation package for Rhode Island fishermen who will be directly impacted by the wind farm. An additional $12.5 million will be put in a trust to cover any additional costs over the next five years.
The deal was controversial. Rhode Island fishermen said Vineyard Wind’s economic loss projections were inaccurate, citing a report from government officials that estimated losses to the fishing industry to be between $30 and $35 million dollars over the next 30 years, more than Vineyard Wind’s projections.
Now, Vineyard Wind’s compensation package for Massachusetts fishermen is currently being reviewed by the state. Fisherman there don’t anticipate much from the deal.
“I don't expect there to be any trust between fishermen and Vineyard Wind right now,” Bank says. “Trust takes time and it takes deeds and showing what we're doing to try to work and make things as easy as it can be for the fishermen to adjust to this change.”
Lobsterman Ken Schneider knows he can’t fight what’s coming.
“The city is looking to revive itself,” Schneider says, “but it's gonna hurt us.”
Vineyard Wind’s turbines are expected to provide enough energy to power over 400,000 Massachusetts homes. And it’s just one of more than a dozen active wind areas setup for potential development across the Northeast. But Schneider wonders what the future of fishing will look like as offshore wind continues to grow.
“Generations have fished out here and now we're not allowed to? Now the next generation coming up, my son, now he's gonna lose too?”
He calls offshore wind a big fugazi or “fake diamond.”
“They're just pouring money into it,” Schneider says. “In the end, we're not going to know 20 years down the line until what happens.”
Schneider knows he won’t be fishing 20 years from now, but whatever happens will affect his son’s future security as the industry is forced to work alongside green energy.