Op-Ed: Another blow to Massachusetts fishermen

No one needs to be told how the fishing industry, once an economic mainstay of the Massachusetts economy, has been declining in recent years. Overfishing, followed by increasingly onerous federal regulation, has reduced the state’s catch, and its fishing fleet, to the lowest level in decades.

Now comes yet another blow to this tottering industry. On December 28, the federal government issued a “Request for Interest” for proposals to erect electricity-generating wind turbines — hundreds of them — in 3,000-square miles of federal waters south of Martha’s Vineyard and Nantucket.

The problem is, these 3,000-square miles of ocean include some of the richest fishing grounds off the coast of Massachusetts. “Half a billion dollars worth of seafood comes out of this area,” according to fisherman David Goethel, member of the New England Fisheries Management Council. The area also includes great swaths of seabed where fishermen are barred on the grounds that sensitive yellowtail spawning grounds are there.

The location of these productive fishing grounds and sensitive spawning grounds are well-known to the fishing industry and to the U.S. government. Yet none of them have been removed from the areas the government is offering to put out to bid for wind turbine construction.

It is particularly grating to the fishing community to be told that while their fishing activities are too damaging to be allowed in these “sensitive spawning areas,” the government is now inviting in an industry that will bring in hundreds of huge metal pilings, each weighing many tons, and pound them dozens of feet into the seabed, a third of a mile apart, all to be connected with a giant tangle of support wires and transmission cables.

The government’s explanation is that after the wind industry picks its preferred sites, the wind developers will then participate in an environmental review process that will provide all the protection needed for the fisheries, the spawning grounds, the endangered whales, and other species that frequent this part of the ocean.

The fishermen aren’t buying it. “This was sprung on us,” says David Prebble, who chairs the habitat committee of the Fisheries Council.

“This is another flank we’re being attacked on,” said one discouraged fisherman at a recent meeting at New Bedford’s Whaling Museum.

They are right to be skeptical. When the wind industry gets first pick of its preferred sites, and only after that do the environmental impacts get weighed by a government that is clearly in a rush to install offshore wind, the predictable result will be that the industry’s chosen sites will end up being approved, albeit with “compensation” and “mitigation” and much “further study” being thrown into the mix.

A far better approach would be to undertake the studies necessary to identify the species and areas that need protecting before putting these ocean areas out to bid, not after. That was the intent of the Massachusetts Ocean Management Plan, and Rhode Island Ocean Special Area Management Plan, both of which dealt with wind development in state waters.

But it clearly is not the intent of the federal government. The rush to develop large-scale renewable wind energy, apparently, will not wait for good policy or good science.

Gov. Deval Patrick has recently been standing up strongly for the state’s fishermen. In correspondence with the US Department of Commerce, he pushed for a review of fines levied on fishermen, fines which may well have been unfair and excessive and also misappropriated. In a more recent follow-up letter to President Obama, he criticized the Commerce Department’s “intransigence and disrespect” to the state’s fishing industry.

Here is another place where the governor can and should weigh in. He and the governor of Rhode Island, the other state abutting the federal waters being put out to bid, have an agreement to work together on wind development issues in federal waters.

Both governors should now jointly step in and demand that the Federal government set aside and protect the rich fishing areas, the sensitive spawning areas, the right whale and other endangered species habitat, and any other area worth protecting in this 3,000-square mile area being offered up — before the wind industry gets to pick its sites, not after.

Eric Turkington of Falmouth, a lawyer, is a former state representative whose district included Martha’s Vineyard and Nantucket. He is a consultant to POINT (Protect Our Islands Now for Tomorrow) a Vineyard-based group dedicated to promoting conservation, education, and sound choices for a sustainable environment.