Meghan Lapp was steamed. It was late February, and Rhode Island regulators had just finalized a mitigation plan intended to blunt an offshore wind project’s economic impact on local fishermen. Lapp, who handles government relations at a Rhode Island fishing company, viewed the plan as a farce.
"What happened last night in R.I. was an absolute roll over the fishing industry," she wrote to two staffers at NOAA Fisheries, the federal agency that regulates commercial fishing.
State regulators had taken little input from fishermen on the plan, she wrote. What input they did receive did not sway them. A calamari processor told Rhode Island officials his biggest customer would likely have to source squid from China if the 84-turbine project proposed by Vineyard Wind in federal waters off Massachusetts was allowed to proceed.
Lapp’s company, Seafreeze Ltd., fishes for squid in the area and has taken a lead role in opposing the project.
"We are losing on every angle," Lapp wrote federal officials. She later added, "I appreciate all the work you guys are doing on the offshore wind issue, and I thought particularly with regards to the squid industry that this was important to share."
Doug Christel, a fishing policy analyst at NOAA, responded a week later. The federal agency had not been closely tracking the state process but had discussed Lapp’s concerns, he said.
"Similar to some of your comments, we feel the DEIS [draft environmental impact statement] underestimates landings from within the WDA," he wrote, referring to the wind development area leased by Vineyard Wind from the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management.
As opposition to offshore wind in the commercial fishing industry has mounted, fishermen have looked to regulators at NOAA Fisheries for help, according to emails obtained by E&E News in a Freedom of Information Act request.
Fishermen have long argued they were shut out of BOEM’s permitting process for offshore wind developments. But in NOAA they have a powerful ally. In April, NOAA officials informed their counterparts at BOEM they could not support the bureau’s draft environmental impact statement on Vineyard Wind.
NOAA argued more study was needed on the project’s potential impact, saying BOEM’s review did not provide enough evidence to support the conclusion that the wind project would have a minimal impact on fisheries.
The Trump administration seized on the concerns (Climatewire, Aug. 12). Despite pursuing a wider deregulatory agenda, the Interior Department, which oversees BOEM, called for additional review of the Vineyard Wind project. Interior Secretary David Bernhardt said further study of the cumulative impact of other projects in the region was needed before Vineyard Wind could proceed.
The decision was a setback for wind developers who have struggled for years to break into the American market. Only one offshore facility, a 30-megawatt development off Rhode Island, is in operation today. But developers have flooded into the United States with proposed projects in recent years, buoyed by the falling cost of offshore wind in Europe and increased interest in clean power from Northeastern states.
Addressing fishermen’s concerns is now one of the primary challenges facing the industry. Developers contend they have made significant efforts to minimize the effect of their operations on fishermen, only to be stymied by a few outspoken opponents.
The emails do not show that fishing interests influenced NOAA’s position on Vineyard Wind. But they do show that fishermen and NOAA officials were in regular contact regarding Vineyard Wind — and that federal regulators often shared fishermen’s concerns.
When the School for Marine Science and Technology at the University of Massachusetts, Dartmouth, released a 121-page fisheries monitoring plan for Vineyard Wind in March, Andy Lipsky, a planning official with NOAA’s Northeast Fisheries Science Center, wrote an email to his colleagues to highlight a single paragraph calling for "more extensive regional research."
Lipsky also appeared to raise doubts about the number of jobs promised by offshore wind supporters. In an email to the head of a fishing group, he included a link to a study looking at job estimates for the Dutch offshore wind industry.
"320 jobs does not seem very much?" Lipsky wrote to Annie Hawkins, the director of the Responsible Offshore Development Alliance.
"Right," Hawkins responded, adding, "VW DEIS projects 169 FT jobs during the operations phase."
A NOAA spokesman declined a request for comment.
‘Best not to share’
Hawkins frequently communicated with NOAA officials, looking for information on the agency’s work around offshore wind. In November, Hawkins shared a list of talking points for an upcoming offshore wind working group meeting at UMass Dartmouth.
"It’s best not to share this email or attribute these points directly to RODA," she wrote, using an acronym to name her group. The first point: Seven to 10 years of scientific study is needed to establish a series of baseline data and accurately assess the impact of wind turbines on fisheries.
Hawkins said she wasn’t entirely sure how NOAA came by that email, which was addressed to an email list of RODA board members. NOAA officials are not on that email list, she said. The email was shared among NOAA staff members, though they offered no opinions of their own.
She said it is common for fishermen to share their concerns with the agency. Many fishermen already know NOAA officials from years of working together on fisheries management plans.
"We’re communicating on these issues, but we’re not coordinating," Hawkins said. "We obviously can’t control what the agency does or put words in their mouth. It is a small group of people who work on these issues, and they certainly talk to each other."
Lapp, the Seafreeze representative, could not be reached for comment.
Other fishing industry representatives noted RODA has subsequently signed a memorandum of understanding to work with NOAA and BOEM to address fishermen’s concerns with offshore wind.
"That doesn’t happen overnight, and there are conversations that lead to it," said Bob Vanasse of Stove Boat Communications, a public affairs group focused on fisheries issues. "The goal has been to get the agencies on board with an open and transparent process."
Vineyard Wind, which did not respond to a request for comment, has consistently argued that its impact on fishermen would be limited. The original lease area targeted for wind development by BOEM was pared down to remove prime fishing areas. Supporters of the project have pointed to BOEM’s finding that relatively little fishing is occurring in the area.
The squid, mackerel and butterfish catch in the area ranged from $100,000 to $300,000 in eight of the 11 years between 2007 and 2017, according to BOEM’s draft environmental impact statement. In all but one year, that accounted for less than 1% of the value of all squid, mackerel and butterfish landings. The odd year was 2016, when the catch of those species in the wind development area was $932,616, or 1.62% of total landings.
NOAA took issue with those figures in a March 15 letter to BOEM, saying the review appeared to undervalue landings. But a closer look at NOAA’s comments shows that the differences appear to be minor.
For instance, NOAA highlighted a table that showed the average value of the squid, mackerel and butterfish catch as a percent of the catch in the wider Massachusetts Wind Energy Area. BOEM reported the value as 0.9% of all landings for those species.
NOAA noted that the average was only based on the years between 2007 and 2015 and argued that the figure would be higher if BOEM had used data from 2016, when the squid catch was greater. BOEM included information for 2016 and 2017 in subsequent tables.
Fishermen were nevertheless pleased. When Christel, the fishing policy analyst, shared NOAA’s comments about the Vineyard Wind study with fishermen a few days later, their praise was effusive.
"Thanks, Doug," Hawkins wrote, "these are excellent."
Lapp added, "I am still reading through your comments regarding the VW DEIS. Amazing."