Offshore wind turbines
The Block Island Wind Farm off the coast of Rhode Island was the first offshore wind farm in the U.S. Credit: Dennis Schroeder / U.S. Department of Energy

A new alliance seeks to collect and share information on the relationships between fisheries and wind development.

As plans for wind farms across New England’s waters progress, fishermen continue to express concerns about the impact of the burgeoning offshore wind industry on their livelihoods.

And while wind development is moving rapidly, scientific research on the impacts on fisheries has struggled to keep up.

But the tides may soon be turning, thanks to the collaborative efforts of the fishing industry, offshore wind developers, and government agencies.

Last week, the Responsible Offshore Development Alliance announced a new initiative to advance regional research on fisheries and offshore wind called the Responsible Offshore Science Alliance.

According to Annie Hawkins, the development alliance’s executive director, the new group hopes to fill a critical void in the offshore wind discussion. Up until now, comprehensive research has been scant.

“There’s not a lot of studies done,” she said. “They’re partial at best.”

That’s largely the result of the industry being so new to the area. The first offshore wind farm in the United States launched off the coast of Rhode Island’s Block Island in 2016. Since then, there’s been a burst of activity in neighboring states like Connecticut and Massachusetts, and elsewhere along the Eastern Seaboard in New Jersey, New York and Maryland.

As an emerging industry, there are many unknowns about both short-term and long-term effects of developing in coastal waters. For example, how the construction of turbines could disrupt commercial fishing operations from navigating around the massive turbines, or the likelihood in shifting fish migration patterns.

And so the relationship between commercial fishermen and offshore wind developers has been tense. Some fishermen have filed a lawsuit against the federal government in response to a proposed wind farm in Long Island.

If the goal is to coexist, information is the natural first step. Right now, so much is poorly understood. What research does exist is lacking in regional coordination, Hawkins said, and also collaboration.

“There needs to be better understanding of the complexities of fishery science and management in informing wind energy development,” she said. “This means really putting people together and looking at the problem holistically. We need more communication between the two groups.”

Hawkins notes there are a lot of things that people outside the fishing industry may not realize — for instance, that there are limits to the number of days one can fish in a certain area. “If it takes you 6 hours to navigate around development areas, it’s 6 hours you don’t have to fish,” Hawkins explained. “Details like that come out as you have these conversations.”

The goal of the Responsible Offshore Science Alliance is to facilitate these conversations, while also collecting and disseminating credible data on the relationships between fisheries and wind development. Socioeconomic impact will be one area of research, as will pre-facility baseline activity and resource status, ecosystem-based fishery management, and cumulative effects.

“It’s all interrelated,” Hawkins said. “What happens under the water impacts the economics and behavior of fisherman.”

“We’re behind because wind energy development is progressing quickly in the region,” said Jon Hare, science and research director at the Northeast Fisheries Science Center. He said they’ve done some work in terms of mapping the resources in the vicinity of wind farms, as well as the effects of construction noise on whale populations.

He also points to additional studies from the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management which focused on habitat mapping of wind energy areas in the Northeast and socioeconomics of fisheries using data from 2007 to 2012. The bureau also put together best practices for developers to avoid areas with the most impact.

“What could be determined as an area for future research is understanding how fishing behavior might change in the wind energy area,” said Brian Hooker, a marine biologist at the bureau. Only time will tell how commercial and recreational fisheries will use the space surrounding offshore wind facilities and how they might modify their fishing practices. Right now, it’s all assumptions, but he said the Block Island Wind Farm is a good place to start looking into that dynamic — and what it might mean in the long term.

“You do have to realize we have a new industry going in a place where another industry has existed, and the status quo is always safer than the unknown,” Hooker said. “We’ll make progress; it will be slow. I don’t see a magic bullet or panacea.”

Hare said the current research is valid, but he thinks it could be stronger with a more coherent regional framework in place. It hasn’t relieved concerns of commercial fishermen, as it doesn’t account for the variation in terms of region, fish species, and so on. “There is information about impact, but not at the level of individual business,” Hare said.

Aside from federal efforts, the offshore wind industry is attempting to be more inclusive of the fishing industry in its own research efforts. One company, Vineyard Wind, recently announced it would monitor its planned 84-turbine farm in collaboration with University of Massachusetts Dartmouth School for Marine Science and Technology.

More research hasn’t exactly helped dissolve tensions in Europe, where the offshore wind industry has existed for decades. In Europe, offshore wind developed largely without input from fishermen. That’s already happened a few times in the U.S., but groups like the Responsible Offshore Development Alliance want to change that moving forward.

Tension between commercial fishermen and offshore wind developers is inevitable. But increased knowledge and collaboration could help mitigate its magnitude. Developing a robust scientific knowledge base that can be used in decision making is critical to that effort. Compensation for damages or loss after the fact — which has become a go-to approach of offshore developments in both Rhode Island and Massachusetts — should be a last resort, Hawkins said.

“There are direct conflicts, and there always will be [tension] between the two industries,” she said. “But we can reduce a lot of the conflict with smart planning.”

Meg is a freelance journalist and audio producer based in Connecticut who reports on the environment, gender and media. She’s reported and edited for the Columbia Journalism Review, PBS NewsHour, Architectural Digest, MediaShift, Hearst Connecticut newspapers, and more. In addition, her audio work has appeared on WSHU, Marketplace, WBAI, and NPR. Meg covers Connecticut and Rhode Island.