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Sunday, September 3, 2023

Fishermen quit in protest over wind energy

R.I. fishing panel resigns en masse over offshore wind approvals

by Nancy Lavin, Rhode Island Current

Fed up with state coastal regulators’ perceived “deference” to offshore wind developers, all nine members of an advisory panel of Rhode Island fishing industry representatives have quit.

In a letter sent Thursday, Aug. 31, to Rhode Island Coastal Resources Management Council (CRMC) Executive Director Jeff Willis, the entire Rhode Island Fishermen’s Advisory Board (FAB) declared its members were resigning effective immediately. 

The decision comes amid mounting tension between offshore wind developers and fishermen over the slew of offshore wind projects planned in and around Rhode Island waters. 

“We will not allow our names to be connected in any way to Council approvals now amounting to wholesale ocean destruction,” the letter, which was obtained by Rhode Island Current, stated. “Rhode Island is supposed to be the Ocean State, not the Windmill State.”

Laura Dwyer, a spokesperson for the CRMC, said in an emailed response Friday that the agency was “disappointed” by the news.

“The FAB has provided valuable information and insight to the CRMC for its federal consistency reviews of offshore wind energy projects,” Dwyer said. 

“While unfortunate, these resignations do not affect the CRMC’s review scope, obligations and timelines as contained in the federal [regulations]. The CRMC remains hopeful that the Rhode Island fishing community will continue to participate in the public process for reviewing offshore wind energy projects, as well as any other projects affecting the fishery resources of the State.”

The CRMC through its Ocean Special Area Management Plan gets to weigh in on any development within 30 miles of the state coastline. In the case of offshore wind arrays, that means determining whether the projects meet state regulations and also recommending mitigation measures to help minimize losses to the fishing industry from the construction and operation of the projects. 

The Ocean SAMP also outlines the role of the Fishermen’s Advisory Board, stating that the council “shall engage commercial and recreational fishermen in the Ocean SAMP decision-making process,” by including on wind farm locations, access, and mitigation measures, according to the regulations. The board is appointed by the council, with no definite term limits. 

Rhode Island is supposed to be the Ocean State, not the Windmill State.

– Letter of resignation from all nine Rhode Island Fishermen’s Advisory Board members to Rhode Island Coastal Resources Management Council (CRMC) Executive Director Jeff Willis

The FAB has weighed in on the handful of offshore wind projects reviewed by the CRMC, beginning with the Vineyard Wind project in 2019, but in most cases, failed to agree with the council’s decision, or the final compensation package. In the letter, the FAB blasted the CRMC for not following its own rules, reducing state regulations to “mere political theater” and downplaying or outright rejecting the input of the FAB and its expert consultants.

“Concurrence decisions are made ahead of time regardless of any other considerations” the letter stated, adding that FAB expertise has been “rejected and ridiculed by the Council as “anecdotal.” 

It continues, “staff spends its time attempting to downplay impacts and placate developers rather than hold developers to the standards of the Ocean SAMP…The process has become a mockery of what the Ocean SAMP was designed to accomplish.”

In the council’s Aug. 22 decision affirming the Sunrise Wind project, council member Stephen Izzi described the testimony of FAB members and consultants as “anecdotal,” with “cherry-picked quotes.”

However, fellow council member Catherine Robinson Hall, who also voted in support of the wind project, touted the FAB’s input as crucial to the decision-making process.

FAB member Meghan Lapp, who is the fisheries liaison for Rhode Island-based frozen seafood distributor Seafreeze Ltd. who spoke at the Aug. 22 meeting, pointed to the council’s swift decision that night as further evidence that the process was fixed in the developer’s favor.

“It was very clear that the decision was made before people sat down around that table and that’s a problem,” Lapp said in an interview Friday. 

Rich Hittinger, another member of the FAB and vice president of the Rhode Island Saltwater Anglers Association, did not attend the Sunrise Wind meeting, already frustrated by his experiences with prior projects, he said Friday.

“It just seems very clear that our input is not being considered by the CRMC,” he said.

Hittinger resigned on his own in a letter on Aug. 28, which he said set off the decision by fellow members to follow suit.

The mass resignation of the volunteer panel doesn’t necessarily preclude the state process from continuing for future offshore wind reviews, since the CRMC could appoint new members to meet its regulatory requirements, according to Marisa Desautel, the attorney representing the FAB.

However, Lapp doubted the council could find other fishing industry representatives willing to take on the volunteer role.

“You’re not going to find people to do this,” she said. “The Rhode Island fishing community is so tired of being railroaded by offshore wind developers.”

Lapp also said the resignations, while symbolic, could prove problematic to the federal approval process under the U.S. Bureau of Ocean Energy Management. BOEM has final authority over development in federal waters, but cannot set compensation agreements to mitigate for losses. 

Therefore, the monetary deals worked out by Rhode Island coastal regulators are crucial to allow the federal agency to approve projects despite finding adverse effects, Lapp said.

“This is more than just a political statement,” Lapp said of the members’ resignation. “Now this becomes a problem for BOEM.”

A spokesperson for BOEM did not immediately return inquiries for comment on Friday.

Updated to include comments from Laura Dwyer, a spokesperson for the Rhode Island Coastal Resources Management Council, and Rich Hittinger of the FAB.



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