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Guest Column: East, West Coast fishermen grapple with offshore wind

Noah Oppenheim

Noah Oppenheim is the executive director of the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen’s Associations.

In my day-to-day work for commercial fishermen on the West Coast I often find the similarities between political issues facing Northern California fisheries and those facing Maine fisheries are striking. In my first column for Landings the subject was whale entanglement in the Dungeness crab and lobster fisheries. As I keep writing, I will continue to explore these similarities with the hope that our respective sectors of the fishing industry can learn from each other, strengthen our connections, and craft solutions together to guide us through our respective challenges. Maine and Northern California have the dubious distinction of being the only regions in the country where floating offshore wind energy development is being contemplated by developers and the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM). While New England fishermen are coping with massive leases south of Cape Cod, off Long Island and elsewhere, California fishermen have been watching those developments from a distance. The impacts to the commercial fishing industry resulting from the development of offshore wind resources are numerous and significant, from spatial displacement and gear concentration to impacts on safety and on shoreside operations. From the fishing industry’s perspective, offshore wind development is similar to eminent domain on land. It’s clear to me, and to fishermen all over the country, that offshore wind areas equate to closed areas for commercial fishing. The beneficiaries of these closures will be corporate entities, foreign and domestic, who sell power to consumers. It’s a transfer of assets and resources from one space-intensive ocean user group to another. This set of tradeoffs, like any eminent domain process, is a choice for society and our elected leaders to make. Let’s make wise choices here.

What’s the status on the West Coast? BOEM is currently considering leasing three Call Areas, totaling 1,073 square miles, within the Outer Continental Shelf of California. The Diablo Canyon and Morro Bay Call Areas lie off Morro Bay in California’s Central Coast in close proximity to the soon-to-be-decommissioned Diablo Canyon nuclear power plant. The Humboldt Call Area is offshore of Eureka in Northern California. While the locations have productive wind speeds and easy access to the electrical grid, the three Call Areas were put up for consideration after unsolicited requests from developers. These three areas sit offshore some of California’s historic commercial fishing ports. The reason why these fishing grounds are so productive can be traced to high winds, lots of upwelling, and the rich primary productivity in the ocean that results. And, of course, the best wind energy areas are the same places where all this ocean activity happens. Make no mistake: commercial fishermen are right now entering into direct competition with multinational energy conglomerates for some of the best real estate on the ocean.

What can Maine expect from the BOEM process? The BOEM leasing process doesn’t take fisheries’ productivity into account at the beginning. Rather, the process exists in a vacuum; the top priority is putting wind energy development boundaries on a map. It’s pretty extraordinary actually: developers can submit unsolicited bids for wind development anywhere in the US Exclusive Economic Zone, including fishing grounds used for generations, and BOEM is bound to consider the proposal. Meanwhile, the agency leaves it to developers to make first contact with fishing communities and industry members. This of course leads to promises, deals, and offers, kept and not kept, rather than a genuine seat at the table where the big decisions are made. Rarely are genuine partnerships formed to discuss offshore wind siting and operational impacts, although some folks appear to be genuinely trying. I believe that this general approach to leasing is incompatible with several of our procedural environmental review laws, including that National Environmental Policy Act. It should be changed. And until it is changed, Maine fishermen can expect more of the same.

What can we do to step up? The potential footprint of wind energy on the West Coast and the Gulf of Maine is enormous. The problem, of course, is that these areas are virtually all situated in productive fishing grounds. We need to know before leasing takes place if a wind energy project isn’t appropriate for a given space. The Outer Continental Shelf Lands Act and the National Environmental Policy Act both require significant analyses of wind development impacts to commercial fisheries. But because BOEM maintains that it is not foreseeable that wind energy development will result from wind energy leasing, the full environmental scoping process, including economic analyses of development, doesn’t take place until after tens of millions of dollars have been poured into purchasing leases and engineering studies. The farther along in the process we go, the greater the financial investment — and the higher the stakes — for the leaseholder. I believe that we need to reform BOEM’s scoping and leasing process for offshore wind, and we should encourage our respective elected officials to start working on it. We also need to assess the indirect impacts to commercial fisheries appropriately. There are many scientific questions that remain unanswered that must be answered by agencies and developers before these facilities get installed. We need to know whether floating wind structures aggregate fish stocks, reducing access and productivity. We need to know what the loss of federal fish population survey stations will mean for our stock assessments and what management constraints we can expect from more uncertainty being injected into these processes. We need to know about impacts to radar and other navigation tools. We need to know not only about what impacts these projects could have on sensitive and Endangered Species Act-listed species, but what those impacts could mean for commercial fisheries that those same species constrain. PCFFA and other West Coast fishing organizations have begun coordinating with those who best understand this history and the impacts of offshore wind on fisheries: the Responsible Offshore Development Alliance (RODA). RODA is a membership-based coalition of fishing industry associations and fishing companies focused on improving the compatibility of the offshore wind energy industry and ours. The group works to coordinate science and policy to manage OCS development in a way that minimizes negative impacts to the fishing industry, and they have been making incredible inroads and providing extraordinary support to fishermen in southern New England and the mid-Atlantic. Annie Hawkins, the executive director of RODA, came to the West Coast this year to testify with me on the fishing industry panel at a California Joint Committee on Fisheries and Aquaculture hearing on the potential impacts of offshore wind energy on California’s fisheries and wildlife. The hearing aimed to address mitigating impacts on the environment and on fisheries and featured speakers from BOEM, the California Energy Commission, the California Coastal Commission, the California Ocean Protection Council, environmental groups, and the fishing industry. You can watch an archived video of the hearing here. The fishing industry panel begins at 1 hour 54 minutes. Ms. Hawkins said it best: “Fishermen must never be seen as merely a stakeholder in the offshore wind leasing process. If anything, offshore wind developers are simply the newest stakeholders to enter into California’s centuries-old fishing industry, which provides the state with irreplaceable benefits: jobs, revenue, food security, tourism, recreation, actual meals on dinner plates, traditional ecological knowledge, and a significant contribution to the state’s very identity.” Neither California, nor Maine, nor any other state on either coast should throw away its renewable fisheries resources, and their extraordinary heritage, away to make way for a new industry.

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