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State Selects Offshore Site for First Commercial Floating Wind Farm

In July the Governor’s Energy Office (GEO) announced that it had identified a preferred site for a proposed 12-turbine floating wind energy installation in federal waters off southern Maine. Governor Mills announced in November 2020 her administration’s intention to apply to the Bureau of Offshore Energy Management (BOEM) for an offshore wind research lease to construct the installation.

As stated in a GEO press release, the site decision was the result of balancing “a number of factors, such as impacts on fisheries and wildlife, navigation, costs, and more.” The GEO identified its preferred location for the 16-square-mile final lease site within a 56-square-mile Narrowed Area of Interest (NOI) recommended by Department of Marine Resources (DMR) with input from Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife (IF&W) and the public. GEO accepted public comments on the preferred site through July 30.

“The MLA is very concerned about taking another step towards development of a wind farm in the Gulf of Maine given the lack of data on where lobstermen fish, which areas are most important, and the potential economic impact of wind development on the lobster fishery,” said Patrice McCarron, executive Director of the Maine Lobstermen’s Association (MLA). “DMR did an admirable job of characterizing fishing activity and economic impacts with extremely limited data, but there’s still too much that is not understood.”

The GEO conducted outreach through a series of online meetings to solicit feedback on the location of the preferred site to minimize impacts on fisheries and the environment. The GEO initially identified a broad swath of the ocean or Area of Interest (AOI), 770 square miles in size, as the general area in which the 16-square-mile lease would be located. The public engagement process included four public meetings, one workshop, five work sessions, two webinars and numerous informal conversations with fishermen, individuals, scientists, and organizations, according to the GEO. At the request of lobstermen, DMR held six meetings with the Lobster Zone Councils.

The DMR was instructed by the GEO to conduct an analysis of the 770-square-mile area and its importance to marine wildlife, commercial and recreational fisheries. The DMR resulting report “first provides a record of concerns identified by the fishing community.” The report states that fishing communities were concerned “that their jobs were being undervalued compared to potential new jobs created by offshore wind platform construction and maintenance” and “whether Maine would realize the benefits that are being outlined by the State in its justification for the project.” DMR also reports that “fishermen were also deeply concerned that the mooring systems might adversely impact whales or entangle fishing gear that could then cause a secondary entanglement for a whale” and that “that they will continue to bear the cost for future risk reductions that could be caused from offshore wind development rather than fishing gear.”

Fishermen raised additional concerns regarding the dangers of fishing in narrow corridors around offshore wind structures, anchors and catenary mooring lines; the impacts of cables including installation, electric and magnetic fields from the cables, and fishing around cable mattressing systems; increased vessel traffic to construct and maintain wind farms; and competition for access to already limited working waterfront.

To characterize the AOI, the DMR made use of a wide array of public data, looking at bathymetry data from recent surveys, fishery data drawn from federal vessel monitoring systems (VMS), the Northeast Data Portal, an online survey, interviews with fishermen and other sources.

Based on this work, DMR created a composite map of affected fisheries including lobster, groundfish, recreational and commercial tuna, Atlantic herring and scallop fishing. Fishing activity was standardized into one-minute grids to characterize activity across all fishing sectors. Based on this analysis, DMR identified the 56-square-mile “Narrowed Area of Interest” (NOI) where it determined there is less known impact on fisheries activities.

Fishing activities within the large AOI vary by time, activity and level of intensity. Data indicate that the area, which abuts Platts Bank, acts as a transition between inshore and offshore marine species. Lobstering takes place throughout, but generally in areas shallower than 90 meters. Groundfishing, on the other hand, picks up in deeper water and extends further east into the Gulf. Recreational tuna fishermen noted that bluefin tuna use the area extensively because of the aggregation of prey species.

The DMR also characterized the economic importance of fisheries in the AOI. DMR used NOAA Fisheries economic data which indicated that the top five Fishery Management Plans (FMP) that would be impacted in the larger area were Atlantic herring, Northeast Multispecies, fisheries without a federal FMP, monkfish, and American lobster.

The data, however, are not complete. “DMR believes the NOAA economic data reported above represents a six to seven-fold underestimate for landings and value for the Maine lobster fishery on an annual basis” because “only 3% of Maine lobster license holders and 16% of the federal lobster trap permit holders are required to report through federal VTRs.” The DMR revised NOAA’s estimate of a $258,565 annual value for lobster landings in the AOI to $7,321,477 using DMR dealer and harvester data from 2016 to 2018.

The DMR also reviewed data on the how the AOI is used by marine mammals, such as baleen whales. While the data are scarce, DMR concluded that the highest abundance of baleen whales, such as North Atlantic right whales or humpbacks, is to the southwest, near Jeffreys Ledge and in the region of Platts Bank. The lowest abundance is to the northeast of Mistaken Ground. Smaller cetaceans, such as large and small delphinids, have the potential to use the Large AOI broadly with no known high abundance areas.

“Ultimately, DMR has determined that there is no location within the Large AOI that avoids impact completely, though the Narrowed AOI was selected because it appears to be an area of lower intensity of fishing activity, as compared to other areas of similar depth and bottom characteristics within the Large AOI,” the agency wrote in its report to GEO.

“This area avoids parts of the initial <770-square-mile area> with significant fishing activity, mostly avoids areas with outcropping and upwelling that attract significant wildlife, avoids the TSS shipping lanes and published USCG Guidance regarding TSS buffer areas … and avoids areas central to DoD (Department of Defense) activities. The final 16-square-mile site will be located within the Narrowed AOI and will be determined by the time the State files the application with BOEM,” GEO stated in its official Pre-application Siting and Stakeholder Summary report.

The GEO also noted in the report that while it plans to maintain a limit of 12 floating turbines in total at the final site, those turbines will be larger than initially described. Rather than 10-12 megawatts (MW) in power, each turbine will be between 12-15 MW. By contrast the floating turbine envisioned for the pilot wind energy installation New England Aqua Ventus, off Monhegan Island, will be 11 MW.

After close of the public comment period on July 30, the GEO will evaluate the comments and finalize its decision on the exact location of the 16-square-mile site for the offshore wind research array. The GEO will develop a research framework with areas of potential focus and then submit a research array lease application to BOEM. The lease application process includes a National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) review and opportunity for additional public input before a research lease is issued.

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