OCEAN CITY — After hearing a strong presentation on the potential impacts of offshore wind energy farms on fishing off the Ocean City coast and throughout the mid-Atlantic, resort officials this week seemed poised to strengthen their opposition to the proposed projects.
Since the Maryland Public Service Commission over a year ago approved the leases for two wind energy projects off the coast, Ocean City officials have been in a prolonged battle with the two approved developers to site the massive turbines offshore by at least 26 miles, or a distance perceived to have them not visible from the shoreline. From the beginning, the Mayor and Council’s official position has been an overall support of the concept of renewable, offshore wind energy, but not at the expense of sightlines from the resort’s coast and the potential impact on tourism and property values.
While much of the wind turbine issues, at least locally, have focused on the proposed distance and the perceived impact on tourism and property values, there has been little formal discussion of the possible impact on the resort’s vast fishing industry. Almost certainly, there will be some disruption of commercial and recreational fishing during the construction of the vast wind farms off the resort coast including some likely closures.
In the long term, however, the conventional thinking, at least from the recreational side, is that the future development of wind turbines could actually enhance fishing with the massive bases of the structures creating artificial reefs of sorts.
After hearing a strong presentation from a noted expert on the impacts of wind farms on commercial fishing, the Mayor and Council seem inclined to strengthen opposition to the wind farms off the resort coast in general.
By the end of Monday’s lengthy presentation, the council voted unanimously to explore ways to prevent the high-voltage electric cable that would connect the offshore wind farms to the massive regional power grid on land from coming ashore in the resort.
Monday’s presentation was spearheaded by Meghan Lapp, who is the fisheries liaison for Seafreeze Ltd., a Rhode Island-based company that is the largest producer of sea-frozen fish on the east coast. The highly-decorated Lapp also serves on numerous fishery management councils up and down the east coast including the mid-Atlantic region.
Joining Lapp during Monday’s presentation to the Mayor and Council were a handful of local commercial fishermen, most of whom have been working the seas off the Ocean City coast for generations. While Lapp’s presentation included larger potential impacts to regional fisheries from New England to the Carolinas, much of her focus was pertinent to Ocean City and the mid-Atlantic region. Lapp said she knew the deck was stacked against the fishing industry when she went to her first Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM) hearing on the proposed offshore wind energy projects.
“When we went to the BOEM meeting, one of the presenters said, ‘I’m not a marine biologist, but I’m a history maker,’” she said. “That told us right from the start we were going to be the losers in this. Fishing is the oldest industry in the U.S. and it could potentially be obliterated. If you take fishing out of these designated wind energy areas, these guys are going to be out of business.”
Lapp said offshore wind farm developers are fond of pointing out similar projects in Europe and in the north Atlantic are thriving and have had no impact on commercial and recreational fishing. However, she pointed out the dynamics are different in the areas in Europe with established offshore wind farms.
“If you go to Europe where these wind farms are, they are in the North Sea,” she said. “It’s not hospitable for recreational fishing. It’s nothing like you have here in Ocean City. In one area, there were 100 commercial fishing vessels and maybe five recreational vessels.”
Lapp’s presentation included tons of information about the location of the existing and proposed wind farms in relation to the established commercial and recreational fishing grounds. She pointed out the amount of electro-magnetic activity produced by the massive wind farms has proven to snarl radar and create hazards for vessel traffic large and small.
“Inside the wind farm, the radar is all clutter,” she said. “You can’t tell what is what. If you’re going through a field of hundreds of these, you’re not going to be able to tell what is a wind turbine, what is another vessel or even a super-tanker. It’s a very dangerous situation.”
Somewhat on a parallel path to the development of clean, renewable wind energy is an ongoing effort to open vast areas off the Atlantic coast to offshore oil exploration and drilling, which is strongly opposed up and down the east coast. However, Lapp said the proposed wind energy farms could present equal dangers.
“If folks think you have less of a chance of an offshore oil spill with wind turbines, they need to think again,” she said. “The potential for a collision with a turbine is very high. There is the potential for a Valdez-scale oil spill, not if but when.”
Lapp pointed out the proposed location of the wind turbines is in close proximity to the shipping lanes for massive oil tankers and other cargo ships and that there was little room for error.
“Heaven forbid one of those super-tankers loses a rudder or the auto-pilot goes off and it hits one of those turbines because it takes them miles to stop,” she said. “It would be a major disaster. You would have oil or jet fuel all over the beaches and in the fishing grounds.”
While much of Lapp’s presentation focused on commercial fishing, she was quick to point out the potential impacts on sportfishing and the recreational side including the annual White Marlin Open.
“Last year, there were 359 vessels and 3,000 contestants,” she said. “If folks think that they will be able to leave this port and go through these wind farms to get to the canyons without potentially hitting one of those turbines, they are mistaken.”
Lapp said the potential devastation to the commercial fishing industry was not worth it compared to the relatively unknown benefits of offshore wind farms at this point.
“That’s the big trade-off,” she said. “Commercial fishing has been feeding America for 400 years. Are we willing to sacrifice that for a 25-year project?”
While the PSC has approved the leases for the two Wind Energy Areas (WEA) off the Ocean City coast, there are still several federal regulatory hurdles to clear for developers. Lapp said federal regulations require the ultimate decision-makers to consider impacts on existing, thriving industries.
“The Secretary of the Interior has a duty not to go forward with the leases if the impact on commercial fishing can be proven,” she said. “BOEM may cancel the leases. The threat to a clearly established industry meets every criterion.”
For their part, local commercial fishermen said they feel the proposed wind farm projects are being ram-rodded through without strong, empirical evidence of the potential impacts on their industry.
“They’re trying to push this through without all of the information,” said local commercial fishermen George Topping. “Everybody needs to take a step back and get some studies done on this.”
Wes Townsend, another local commercial fisherman who spoke on Monday said there is sufficient evidence to prove the wind farms will have an adverse effect on fishing, particularly during the construction phase.
“When these wind farms come, the fish will be gone,” he said. “When they start pounding pilings into the sea floor, the fish are going to scatter and they might not be back next year or the year after. There are not many of us fishing and this may be the final nail in the coffin.”
Topping said the proposed projects off the Ocean City coast are just small links in a larger chain that will someday have wind energy farms up and down the east coast. He said the designated wind energy areas will gobble up areas of open ocean historically utilized by the nation’s vast commercial fishing industry.
“When this is all said and done, there will be wind turbines 10 miles to 30 miles off the coast from Massachusetts to the Georgia line,” he said. “That’s where they want to put these windmills. That’s where the majority of the commercial and recreational fishing takes place.”
Councilman John Gehrig questioned if the recreational fishing sector shared the same concerns. Officially, the recreational fishing industry, both locally and regionally, has not come out one way or the other on the issue. Anecdotally, however, the general vibe around the sportfishing community has been a wait-and-see approach with most of the early concerns focused on the construction phase for the projects.
“From our conversations, it seems like the recreational fishermen are being persuaded this wind farm is going to be good for them,” said Gehrig. “It seems like they are willing to take nine months of pain because they believe there will be a better fishing future. The fish will be gone for nine months because of the construction, but they’ll be back better than ever. That’s kind of what we’re hearing from the recreational side.”
Gehrig said the wind farm developers are clearly aware there is an apparent rift between the commercial and recreational sectors and are preying on that division.
“The opponent’s method is to fracture everybody,” he said. “That’s easy to accomplish if there is a wedge between the groups.”
Townsend said regardless of the wind turbine location issue, the proposed projects will likely keep pushing the fishing grounds further and further offshore.
“It’s going to keep on pushing fishing further out,” he said. “We used to catch sea bass just five miles out. Now, it’s 15 miles before you see one. Now, they’re going to start driving piles at 20 miles, so are the fish going to be 45 miles out? Heck, we used to catch marlin at the Jackspot. That’s what it’s famous for.”
Topping pointed out the wind farm developers have offered incentives to the town of Ocean City in exchange for relaxing the opposition to the siting of the wind turbines. There have even reportedly been offers to some commercial fishermen to offset their anticipated losses.
“If it’s so great, why are they offering the town money and incentives and why are they offering fishermen money to stop their opposition?” he said. “Let’s put a halt on this for five to 10 years. Let’s do some real studies to see what the impacts are going to be.”
Gehrig said the town shares the commercial fishing industry’s concerns and reiterated it will likely take a consolidated approach by all parties.
“We hear you and we’ll join the fight,” he said. “It seems like the industry needs to be unified, but there are cracks. What can we do to help you? You need to get the larger industry unified. It seems like they are trying to fracture you.”
Local commercial fisherman Sonny Gwin said his industry was appealing to elected officials at every level to take a step back and consider the long-term consequences.
“We need elected officials and we need you all,” he said. “We need the Senators and the Congressmen. We need the people who make decisions to get on board and make sure they are doing the right thing. We need to make sure we don’t find out in 10, 20, even 50 years that they don’t work, because by then they will have killed everything.”
Mayor Rick Meehan said the various hearings on the proposed wind farms off the resort coast often feature long presentations by the developers with brief response times allowed for the stakeholders.
“This all goes back to the first Maryland Public Service Commission meeting when I said we only have one chance to get this right,” he said. “That applies here. At those hearings, there were hours and hours of presentations from the wind industry and about two minutes for the fishing industry to make their case.”
Meehan agreed it will likely take a strong, unified voice to have the decision-makers agree to slow down the process until all potential impacts are explored and vetted thoroughly.
“This message is not getting out,” he said. “What we need is for you to help us and we need to collectively step up and get loud about this. People have to realize there is more to this than what is being proposed. What we don’t want to do is look back and say how did we let this happen.”
Meehan said the town’s position from the beginning is to protect tourism and fishing, both commercial and recreational.
“We have a successful formula with an industry that creates thousands of jobs and sends millions of dollars to the state of Maryland and that is tourism,” he said. “You have a successful industry and that’s equally important. We can’t stand idle and sit back and later say ‘I wish we would have.’”
Councilman Dennis Dare said the town’s elected officials are smaller fish in a much larger pond, but suggested there were still things local elected officials might be able to do to prevent or at least slow the progress of the proposed wind energy farms off the resort coast.
“With the town of Ocean City government, you’re at the bottom of the chain, but we can make a difference,” he said. “The real apex predators are further up Route 50. We’re just menhaden down here, or maybe we’re plankton, but I’d like to explore what we can do at the menhaden level.”
Dare pointed out the high-voltage cable from the windfarms will have to come ashore in some location to connect to the larger power grid and that could come with larger issues including electro-magnetic activity. He pointed out the town has been wrestling with the electro-magnetic issue with the uptown Delmarva Power substation and questioned if the same issues could apply on a larger scale with the wind farm transmission line.
“Now, we’re talking about bringing a high-powered cable into a residential area,” he said. “Running this cable into town is an industrial use. We need to explore if we can regulate having this cable come into town possibly through zoning or an ordinance change. That’s something we can do at this level.”
Dare ultimately made a motion to have staff and legal counsel begin exploring ways to regulate the location of the high-powered cable onshore, a motion passed unanimously by the council.
Gehrig later said the apparent strengthening of the town’s opposition from the turbine distance issue to a stronger opposition didn’t necessarily gibe with the position of the commercial fishing industry and reiterated it will likely take a unified voice from all parties involved.
“It seems like on the surface our position does not fit your position,” he said. “Our position up to now has been to push them back, but now we’re hearing we don’t want them anywhere.”
However, Lapp said after Monday’s presentation it appears the various parties were unified in their opposition.
“We do have a common position,” she said. “We share the same concerns. There is strength in numbers and we need to join forces and say ‘what about our industries?’ We just want to slow down this process and do real impact studies based on real science.”
Gehrig cautioned about buying what the wind farm developers were selling.
“Everything they say about jobs and money is just the sales pitch,” he said. “The jobs aren’t here, the money is not here and the energy is not here. The state doesn’t seem to have our backs here. What is our name? Ocean City. Ocean is right in our name and we need to protect that.”