Numerous uncertainties persist as the US East Coast accelerates its offshore wind power initiatives

The development of offshore wind power projects across the United States has been a topic of much discussion and debate in recent years.

While the potential benefits of these projects are clear – including reduced reliance on fossil fuels and a shift towards cleaner energy sources – there are also concerns about their potential impact on the environment.

In particular, those who depend on the sea for their livelihoods are worried about the unknown effects that these facilities could have on marine ecosystems.

Despite the urgency to build these projects, there remains a significant lack of scientific knowledge about their potential impact.

As Jim Hutchinson, managing editor of The Fisherman magazine in New Jersey, has noted, the prevailing attitude has been to build first and figure out the consequences later.

This approach is understandably concerning for those who are invested in the long-term health of our oceans and the communities that rely on them.

The wind power industry vehemently disputes such claims, drawing upon years of extensive studies and research to support their position.

These studies have been conducted by reputable institutions and experts in the field, employing rigorous methodologies and data analysis techniques.

The findings consistently indicate that wind power is a safe, reliable, and environmentally friendly source of energy.

The industry argues that wind turbines have undergone significant technological advancements, resulting in improved efficiency and reduced environmental impact.

Moreover, they emphasize that wind power is a crucial component of the global effort to combat climate change and transition towards a sustainable future.

The industry’s position is further reinforced by the fact that wind power has been successfully integrated into the energy mix of numerous countries, contributing significantly to their energy needs while reducing dependence on fossil fuels.

Therefore, it is essential to consider the wealth of scientific evidence and expert opinions before dismissing the claims made by the wind power industry.

According to the American Clean Power Association, the federal government has approved four offshore wind projects for the U.S. East Coast.

One of these projects, Vineyard Wind, will be located approximately 15 miles off Martha’s Vineyard and will consist of 62 turbines.

This installation is expected to generate enough electricity to power 400,000 homes. Another project, South Fork Wind, will be situated off Long Island, New York, around 35 miles east of Montauk Point.

It will feature 12 turbines and is projected to provide power to 70,000 homes. Additionally, the first of two Orsted projects in New Jersey, called Ocean Wind I, will be positioned about 15 miles off Atlantic City and Ocean City.

This project will encompass 98 turbines and is estimated to generate power for 500,000 homes. Orsted, a Danish wind power business, is responsible for building two of the three offshore projects approved for New Jersey.

Furthermore, the Revolution Wind development is planned for an area approximately 15 miles southeast of Point Judith, Rhode Island.

This project will consist of 65 turbines and is expected to power nearly 250,000 homes. It is worth noting that several other offshore wind projects have been proposed, and the U.S. Bureau of Ocean Energy Management intends to review at least 16 such projects by 2025.

Despite the rapid progress in this sector, Greg Cudnik, a recreational fisherman, bait and tackle shop owner, and party boat captain from Ship Bottom, New Jersey, highlights the importance of allowing adequate time for scientific research and analysis.

A comprehensive study conducted in March by two federal scientific agencies and the commercial fishing industry has shed light on the potential impacts of offshore wind power projects on fish and marine mammals.

The study highlights various factors such as noise, vibration, electromagnetic fields, and heat transfer that could potentially alter the marine environment.

The report, in line with numerous existing studies, emphasizes the complexities associated with the interaction between these structures and cables and marine life.

It reveals that while turbines may attract certain fish species, they can also repel others. Moreover, the study reveals that large underwater platforms quickly become home to smaller bottom-dwelling marine organisms, such as shellfish and crabs, which in turn attract larger predators like black sea bass.

However, the same platforms, due to cloudy water resulting from turbine operations, noise, vibrations, and electromagnetic fields, could also cause species to leave the area.

It is important to note that the report acknowledges the need for further studies to fully understand the impact of offshore wind energy on marine habitats.

Andy Lipsky, co-author and overseer of the wind energy team at NOAA’s Northeast Fisheries Science Center, emphasizes that this research aids in defining the necessary long-term monitoring required and highlights the necessity for additional work to determine the precise changes that offshore wind energy brings to marine habitats.

Research conducted in other countries also reveals a nuanced perspective. For instance, some European studies indicate that crabs and lobsters are attracted to the harder sea bottoms that support wind turbines, while other species like flatfish and whiting tend to leave these areas.

In May, the Biden Administration made headlines by offering an $850,000 grant aimed at collecting further information on the hearing abilities of critically endangered North American right whales.

The rationale behind this grant was the recognition of “knowledge gaps” in understanding the behavior of these animals, particularly in relation to the rapid development of offshore wind.

Despite the existence of substantial research on the subject, with the U.S. Bureau of Ocean Energy Management consistently publishing studies since 2016, some of which have called for additional investigation and analysis, the Biden Administration deemed it necessary to invest in further research.

Phil Sgro, a spokesperson for the American Clean Power Association, argued that the industry already possesses sufficient scientific studies to establish the economic and environmental feasibility of offshore wind development.

However, opponents of offshore wind development attribute the deaths of 70 whales on the U.S. East Coast since December to ocean floor preparation, a claim that three federal agencies have refuted, citing a lack of evidence.

Additionally, concerns have been raised by the U.S. fishing industry, both commercial and recreational, regarding the potential impact of offshore wind on their operations in areas that have long been available for fishing with minimal interference.

Interviews conducted with both commercial and recreational fishermen and women have revealed a shared sense of apprehension regarding the impact of offshore wind turbines on their livelihoods.

These individuals express concerns about the potential displacement of species they have long relied on for their fishing activities.

One particular worry centers around the electromagnetic fields emitted by underwater power cables, as there is a fear that these fields may deter or even harm marine life.

Furthermore, there is anxiety surrounding the safe navigation around these turbines and the possibility of being barred from historically productive fishing grounds that have sustained generations of fishermen.

Another worrisome aspect is the potential for unforeseen consequences that could lead to diminished catches and subsequently trigger government-imposed limits on fishing quotas if fish stocks decline.

Despite some companies voluntarily offering compensation to fishermen for any economic harm caused, there is currently no legal requirement for such compensation.

Meghan Lapp, the fisheries liaison for Seafreeze, a seafood company based in North Kingstown, Rhode Island, emphasized the gravity of the situation, stating that offshore wind poses the most significant existential threat to commercial fishing in the United States of America at present.

This sentiment was conveyed during a recent hearing with New Jersey lawmakers.

Cudnik, the boat captain from New Jersey, expresses concern over the potential displacement of key marine species due to changes in the ocean floor.

He emphasizes the significance of soft sand bottoms for species such as clams, scallops, flounder, and sand eels, which serve as a vital food source for other species like striped bass, sea bass, and mahis.

These areas coincide with the proposed offshore wind projects, raising apprehension about the impact on prime fishing habitats.

Keith Craffey, president of the Baymen’s Protective Association, worries that power cables from a New York project might traverse productive clam beds, rendering them off-limits for his members.

He questions whether the offshore wind companies will provide alternative employment opportunities for the affected fishermen.

The U.S. Bureau of Ocean Energy Management’s environmental impact statement for the Empire Wind project acknowledges potential impacts on commercial and recreational fishing, but also notes the creation of an artificial reef that could benefit certain fish species.

New Jersey’s fishing industry, with sales totaling nearly $690 million in 2020, is a significant economic contributor.

The wind power industry has collaborated with the government and fishing industry to address concerns, including avoiding turbine placement in heavily utilized fishing areas.

Orsted, a developer involved in New Jersey’s approved projects, highlights efforts to minimize negative impacts on fishing and cites a study from Block Island, Rhode Island, which showed no adverse effects on most species and increased abundance of black sea bass and cod after construction.

Orsted plans to compensate boat crews for gear damage or loss, provide direct compensation to affected recreational and commercial vessels, establish a navigational safety fund, and collaborate with authorities on seasonal operating restrictions to protect specific fish species.

While the federal government supports compensation for the fishing industry, it is not mandatory. However, eleven states are considering the establishment of a regional fund to administer such payments. U.S. Rep.

Frank Pallone Jr., a New Jersey Democrat, supports compensation for economic losses incurred by the fishing industry during the transition to offshore wind power.