Island lobstermen are irked that a federal agency is giving Vineyard Wind a pass on how many marine mammals are affected by its construction while fishermen are held to a different standard.
According to the incidental harassment authorization issued by NOAA, there are levels of harassment Vineyard Wind is allowed per species. The Marine Mammals Protection Act lists two definitions for harassment, which are labeled as Level A and Level B. Level A harassment is “any act of pursuit, torment, or annoyance that has the potential to injure a marine mammal or marine mammal stock in the wild,” while Level B includes “acts that have the potential to disturb (but not injure) a marine mammal or marine mammal stock in the wild by disrupting behavioral patterns, including, but not limited to, migration, breathing, nursing, breeding, feeding, or sheltering.”
The incidental harassment authorization shows that Vineyard Wind was given take counts for a variety of marine mammals under both levels. Under Level A, animals with more vulnerable populations are allowed low numbers, such as the five fin whales. The more common the animal, the higher the allowance is, shown with the 35 common dolphins. This is the same for Level B, except at much higher numbers: 33 fin whales and 4,646 common dolphins.
The incidental harassment authorization is valid from May 1, 2023, to April 30, 2024.
Lobstermen Wayne Iacono and Wes Brighton expressed frustration at the “double standard” that NOAA seems to be playing by giving Vineyard Wind an incidental take count. The Marine Mammals Protection Act defines take as “to harass, hunt, capture, or kill, or attempt to harass, hunt, capture, or kill any marine mammal.” Vineyard Wind is allowed some incidental take, which is “unintentional, but not unexpected, taking,” according to NOAA.
One species, in particular, the lobstermen are worried about is the endangered North Atlantic right whale.
Charles (“Stormy”) Mayo, the director of the Center for Coastal Studies’ right whale ecology program, told The Times these animals are “on the brink of extinction,” with an estimated population of around 340. Mayo said the population is on a downward trend, and the primary causes of death are entanglement from fishing gear and collision with ships, as well as the impact of climate change. Additionally, the whales eat tiny organisms, like plankton, in large quantities. This makes them “significant circulators of nutrients” in the ocean, although their numeric impact has shrunk over the years. Mayo said preserving the right whales is important for biodiversity.
“We are faced with a double standard, and what’s at stake is the expenditure of a fragile [right whale] population,” Brighton said, calling these developments disheartening. “Fishermen are sacrificing at great cost to innovate fishing gear so that we can ensure a sustainable future for whales and fishing, all while the regulations are all but lifting as we are about to build [a huge wind farm] in the same sensitive area of ocean.”
The right whale does not fall under the allowance for Level A harassment, but other endangered species, like the sei whale, have a small allowance under Level A. To the lobstermen, this seemed like a “license to kill” granted by NOAA.
“It’s kind of ironic. They’re shutting us down, but allowing them to kill whales,” Iacono said. The Marine Mammal Protection Act prohibits take counts for commercial lobstermen unless they are in an area known for frequent interactions with marine mammals. “I don’t know, it just doesn’t make a lot of sense to us.”
Iacono said the project hurt both wildlife and fishermen’s income. “They’re shutting us down from February until May 1,” he said. “It is a loss of income for us, yet they are allowing Vineyard Wind, Mayflower, and whoever else is out there to continue their operations.”
The area Vineyard Wind is slated to start construction is in waters south of Martha’s Vineyard, which Iacono said Islanders and fishermen from Massachusetts towns farther away, such as Westport and New Bedford, come to procure various kinds of fish and shellfish. Iacono said the closure of this fishing spot is “affecting everybody.”
While Iacono believes striving for green energy is a worthy endeavor, he thinks people’s perception of the wind farm has been “greenwashed.”
“Believe me, I’m not a [Donald] Trump supporter in any way. I’m all for green energy and preserving our environment, but this is very bad for our environment. Especially for our oceans,” Iacono said, listing injuries to migratory birds and an increased carbon footprint as examples.
Brighton said people who push green energy, such as the Conservation Law Foundation, do not have a realistic vision for fishermen and lobstermen with their goals, such as replacing current lobster pots with gear without buoy lines. Brighton said these lineless traps can cost $70,000 to $80,000 each, a significant hit to a commercial fisherman or lobsterman’s budget.
NOAA public affairs specialist Katie Wagner told The Times this is the first time a wind farm developer was awarded an incidental harassment authorization. However, take counts have been awarded before. Commercial fishermen and lobstermen cannot receive these take counts through incidental harassment authorizations. Commercial fishermen obtain permits if they operate in category I or II (frequent and occasional marine mammal injuries and deaths, respectively) fisheries.
Wagner said Vineyard Wind’s incidental harassment authorization does not allow for the “serious injury or mortality” of marine mammals.
But how was the high amount of Level B harassment numbers, some in the thousands, justified?
“There are several monitoring and reporting requirements in the Vineyard Wind 1 IHA (incidental harassment authorization),” Wagner said. Aside from reports done by workers on the site, there will also be “observers” that will make routine reports to NOAA, using visual and acoustic data and monitoring, to keep marine mammals from harm.
When asked about the perceived double standard, Wagner said NOAA Fisheries “assessed the impacts of project construction on marine mammals and their habitat.” She also said NOAA Fisheries is working with the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management to make a final environmental statement, which “analyzes the direct, indirect, and cumulative impact on the human environment (including the impacts on fishing) from Vineyard Wind’s project.”
Vineyard Wind director of communications Andrew Doba pointed to the record of decision for Vineyard 1. The document showed 98 measures Vineyard Wind will take to mitigate harm to marine mammals, such as delaying pile-driving activities and reporting animals sighted in certain zones. The incidental harassment authorization also shows measures implemented to protect marine mammals, such as using mufflers for their pile-driving operations and monitoring for animals.
“The project has been through years of rigorous review from dozens of entities, including local, regional, state, and federal governments, and in consultation with scientists, conservation groups, and other stakeholders,” Doba wrote in an email. “It was only given approval after meeting very high standards that ensure any impact to the environment will be avoided, minimized, or mitigated.”
Mayo said the plans sound good, but the environmentalists, government entities, and Vineyard Wind will need to be “on their toes” to continue monitoring protection of marine mammals. There are uncertainties, but Mayo thinks that Vineyard Wind’s project can potentially be a model for doing marine construction while protecting wildlife.