OCEAN CITY — There was a brief confrontation last week between a local commercial fishing boat and an offshore wind survey vessel, which ran afoul of the fishing boat’s gear, resulting in a meeting this week with elected officials.
Last week, a US Wind vessel surveying offshore was outside the designated lease area and ran through a setup of conch pots and destroyed some of the commercial vessel’s equipment. Captain Jimmy Hahn, whose conch pots were destroyed, briefly confronted the survey boat Emma McCall in an effort to save his gear, and more importantly, his livelihood. US Wind representatives explained how the survey vessel was out of the lease area and ran over the pots accidentally. For his part, Hahn believes the incident was a symptom of a much larger issue that is only going to get worse.
US Wind Marine Affairs Director Ben Cooper explained how the Emma McCall ended up in the historic fishing grounds.
“Our scientific research vessel had been in port and came out that afternoon to conduct some surveying,” he said. “Unfortunately, there was bad weather, and they were told to get closer to shore, but to be sure to look out for commercial fishing activity. The vessel went inshore and found the pots. Then, they went over to an area where they found no pots. There was bad weather that day. That’s why the survey vessel was in that inshore area.”
Cooper described the survey vessel’s interaction with Hahn.
“The commercial fishing vessel came up and intercepted the survey vessel,” he said. “The pots were obscured by the high seas. Unfortunately, we didn’t see them. He was very upset. Our fisheries liaison told them they would stay out of that area and it was a miscommunication on our part. It was an unfortunate situation and a tense interaction at sea.”
US Wind Director of External Affairs Nancy Sopko said the confrontation last Monday was likely an aberration, the first of its kind in the many months since the survey work began.
“We’ve been surveying out there since April and we’ve had 186 days of surveying since the start,” she said. “This is the first interaction of this kind. We’ve done pretty well with communicating with the fishermen.”
Sopko said the Emma McCall has been sent to port and US Wind’s survey work has been put on pause for now following last week’s incident. However, the survey work will resume in December with two different vessels working in the waters off the coast. Sopko said she did not expect a repeat of last week’s incident because the new survey vessels, by and large, will not be dragging gear.
“The survey vessel has reached its limitations in terms of weather and those kinds of things and the Emma McCall has been demobilized,” she said. “For the rest of November, there will be no survey work. It will resume in December with different vessels. The upcoming surveys will be in pre-set areas and won’t involve a lot of dragging of equipment.”
However, Hahn said he was told all of the survey work would be completed by the end of October, or right at the beginning of the most lucrative conch season for local commercial fishermen.
“They told us they would be 100% done with surveying by the end of October,” he said. “That’s the start of conch season for us. They don’t give two [expletive deleted] about us. I’ve been in constant contact with them and I set my pots five miles outside the lease area and they still plowed right through my gear.”
Sopko said US Wind has offered to reimburse Hahn for the loss of his gear. However, Hahn said it’s not as simple as just replacing the damaged pots.
“How are they going to reimburse us?” he said. “It’s not the cost of the pots. It’s the hundreds of thousands of dollars those pots would make me. I make my living during conch season. I lost a quarter of my year because of this.”
Last week’s incident has captured the attention of the area’s elected officials. On Wednesday, U.S. Congressman Andy Harris and Senator Mary Beth Carozza held a closed-door meeting with local watermen. Hahn said the meeting was productive, but questions still linger.
“It went really well with Andy Harris and Mary Beth Carozza,” he said. “They’re going to do what we can, but I still believe we’re going to lose our fishery. US Wind is bringing two 200-foot survey vessels back in December. They are foreign vessels with foreign crews.”
For its part, US Wind has vowed to keep the lines of communication open going forward.
“We will continue to communicate with the fishing community through our liaisons,” he said. “We want to continue to let the know where we’re going to be and have them let us know where they are going to be. It’s a teachable moment for us in terms of communication.”
Hahn believes, however, last week’s incident is just the beginning.
“Once they start constructing windmills, we’re done,” he said. “We have from now until Dec. 1 to make our living. We have 15 days until those survey vessels return.”