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Tuesday, October 17, 2023

"Decisions are made by those who show up"

Fishing industry voice now absent from wind farm negotiations

By Nancy Lavin, Rhode Island Current

Jo Shelley/CNN
The usual uproar over how offshore wind projects will affect Rhode Island’s fishing industry may be muted Tuesday night as state coastal regulators consider a 130-turbine wind farm planned for waters south of Martha’s Vineyard.

Not because fishermen are less upset about how the two-phase New England Wind Farm project would affect their livelihoods. But they have lost their usual platform to voice objections, having resigned en masse from a state appointed panel meant to represent the fishing industry during Rhode Island Coastal Resources Management Council (CRMC) consideration of offshore wind farms.

The CRMC’s scheduled review and vote Tuesday on the New England Wind Farm (formerly known as Vineyard Wind South) will be the first offshore wind decision to come before Rhode Island regulators since members of the Rhode Island Fishermen’s Advisory Board (FAB) quit in August. The mass resignations came amid mounting frustrations over offshore wind negotiations, and the CRMC’s perceived deference to developers. 

The CRMC through its Ocean Special Area Management Plan (SAMP) 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. 

Past considerations of offshore wind projects include ongoing negotiations between the FAB and developers, as well as opportunity for expert witnesses and testimony during the quasi-judicial decision process.

Not this time. As noted in the CRMC staff report, the resignations meant there was no way for staff to solicit feedback from the FAB as part of the review process.

“Staff provided each former FAB member as well as other interested parties from the fishing community individual access to all materials and meetings under review including mitigation and compensation proposals, with an open-door invitation to provide any input whatsoever that would be helpful to mitigating impacts from the [New England Wind Farm project as well as addressing fair compensation,” the report stated.

Whether fishing industry representatives took them up on that offer isn’t clear. Marisa Desautel, the attorney who has represented the FAB in past negotiations, did not return calls and emails for comment on Tuesday. Four FAB members were also contacted, but did not immediately return calls.

However, in prior interviews, members suggested they were washing their hands of the process after feeling that their feedback was ignored.

It’s not too late for fishermen to take a stand, at least during the public comment planned as part of Tuesday’s review. 

As proposed, the project from Avangrid Renewables would span more than 100,000 acres about 20 nautical miles south of Martha’s Vineyard. The first phase, known as Park City Wind, sought to provide 804 megawatts of power to Connecticut, while a second phase called Commonwealth Wind would bring another 1,200 megawatts of electricity to Massachusetts. However, power agreements in both states are likely to change, after Avangrid pulled out of its deals with utility companies in each state in hopes of securing better pricing to offset rising project costs.

Rhode Island does not directly benefit from the project, but its proximity to the coastline gives the CRMC a say in the proposal.

The details of the power pricing don’t affect the CRMC’s review, which instead considers how development in nearby waters conforms with Rhode Island coastal policies. 

The CRMC in its staff report recommended approval of the project, subject to several conditions aimed at minimizing disruption to native species and habitat, and the fishermen who rely upon them. The developer has also offered a $4.4 million compensation package to recreational and commercial fishermen to offset industry losses during the construction and operation of the wind farm.

How to calculate the financial losses that wind projects cause for fishermen has been an ongoing source of conflict, with each side offering different calculations based largely on what is, at this point, speculative data for a nascent industry. The FAB, having since disbanded, did not provide formal feedback on the proposed payments.

However, “CRMC staff assumes the FAB would stand by its prior assertions that a wind farm project does not meet any of the CRMC’s Ocean SAMP enforceable policies,” the report stated.

Avangrid Renewables did not return inquiries for comment Tuesday.



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