Scientists identified spawning cod in a large area currently leased for offshore wind development, prompting fisheries regulators to declare the habitat a “high priority” and raising concerns that some projects could derail the decade-long effort to rebuild the struggling commercial fishery.
The designation by the New England Fishery Management Council was submitted to the federal NOAA Fisheries in August and is now pending final approval. Those involved say it is the most declarative action taken by the regional council in its approach to the emerging wind energy industry, highlighting its “concern over potential adverse impacts from offshore wind development.”
“We want to make it very clear that there are important fishery resources in this area,” said council spokesperson Janice Plante. “We hope that it creates an extra layer of consideration as these projects go forward.”
The boundaries of the designation, which is called a Habitat Area of Particular Concern (HAPC), is roughly 3,000 square miles and spans all nine wind-energy lease areas in federal waters off Southern New England. It includes a buffer zone beyond the lease areas, “recognizing that some types of development activities can generate impacts at scales of tens of kilometers beyond the site of construction and operations.”
It is the largest offshore HAPC designation in the region. Yet a main concern is cod spawning grounds in a smaller region within the designation, just east of Block Island.
That area, known as Cox Ledge, overlaps with some 250 square miles currently leased to developers Ørsted and Eversource for their joint wind energy project: South Fork Wind. It is one of only two offshore wind projects that have completed the federal permitting process.
Five turbine locations planned for the South Fork Wind Farm were identified to “have the most negative impacts on complex habitats on Cox Ledge,” the Council wrote in August. A spokesperson for the project did not respond to written questions.
NOAA Fisheries and its regional councils are charged with regulating the fishing industry. It has no regulatory authority over offshore wind development. The Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM), which is the federal body that oversees leasing and permitting for offshore wind, consults with NOAA Fisheries on issues related to fish habitat.
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It is unclear if the designation will force BOEM’s hand at issuing more clear and effective regulation to prevent harmful impacts on fish habitat. “That’s the million dollar question,” said Michelle Bachman, a fishery analyst who led the study for the New England Fishery Management Council.
“There would be no change in our permitting other than potentially some deeper analysis,” said Brian Hooker, a marine biologist with BOEM, adding that it will likely not delay the timeline for projects that are already fully permitted.
The council has struggled for about a decade to rebuild the Atlantic cod population, which remains “significantly below target population levels.” While some fishery scientists say that climate change and a warming ocean are reasons the cod population has not recovered, others say the wind farms — a potential solution to climate change — if constructed in important habitat or spawning areas could derail the council’s target of rebuilding the cod population by 2024.
“We are really going about the wind farm development very quickly,” said Kevin Stokesbury, a fisheries science professor at UMass Dartmouth, who studies cod in the Gulf of Maine. “It’s going to be quite a dramatic change to the ecosystem out there.”
In the groundfish industry, cod are known as a “choke species.” Fishermen don’t target the fish, but restrictions imposed on catching cod limit their ability to catch the more abundant groundfish species like haddock or pollock. The result is that the health of the cod population essentially dictates the commercial viability of the entire groundfish industry — which represents roughly 11% of all seafood caught off the New England coast, by weight.
“We’ve all made sacrifices so cod can recover,” said Capt. Tim Rider, who fishes for groundfish and scallops. “Now they’re going to put a wind farm there,” he said of the cod spawning grounds. “How about they put it somewhere that might not be as intrusive.”
The HAPC designation by the council was met with support from some in the fishing industry, who have long voiced concern, only speculatively, that offshore wind development could jeopardize vital fish habitat.
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It was also met with skepticism. One representative of the lucrative scallop industry said the designation could be a sort of Trojan horse, used by the council at a later date to restrict commercial fishing in the offshore wind area.
“It will be used to restrict fishing,” said Andrew Minkiewicz, an attorney for the fishing advocacy group Fisheries Survival Fund, in a NEFMC meeting. He added that he thought the designation was rushed through the approval process: “The irony is that we are apparently doing this because of wind — but I don’t think the designation is going to stop anything BOEM proposes within the wind energy lease area. It will just end up restricting fishing.”
Members of the council denied that was the case.
“While the Councils recognize the importance of domestic energy development to U.S. economic security, it is important to note that marine fisheries are profoundly important to the social and economic well-being of communities throughout the U.S. and provide numerous benefits to the nation, including domestic food security,” the Council wrote in a joint letter to the head of BOEM in August.
Email Will Sennott at email@example.com.