Today, two wind turbines turn off Virginia’s coast. But by the middle of the next decade, hundreds more may have joined them.
With a major push underway by President Joe Biden’s administration to develop 30 gigawatts of offshore wind as a way to reduce U.S. reliance on fossil fuels, federal officials are looking to dramatically expand the areas where wind farms can be built in U.S. waters.
Virginia is an epicenter of interest: Of 4 million acres of ocean identified as potential wind energy areas in a new Central Atlantic call area, most lie off the Virginia coast.
For the commonwealth’s fishing industries, already wary of what their business will look like once Dominion Energy’s 188-turbine Coastal Virginia Offshore Wind project is constructed, the prospect of a much more expansive buildout of wind power throughout the rich fishing grounds off Virginia is sparking fears that the new industry will drive out the old.
“We know that when these lease areas are built out, it is going to be displacing fishermen, who are then going to be working smaller and smaller areas with more and more boats, which is going to lead to localized depletion,” said Tom Dameron, government relations and fisheries science liaison for Surfside Foods, a New Jersey-based commercial clam fishing company that last year landed roughly 10 percent of the East Coast’s entire surf clam harvest in Cape Charles.
For Virginia, which has made major commitments to decarbonizing its electric grid by 2050 and sees offshore wind as a major engine for economic growth in Hampton Roads, the challenge will be how to build out wind while also preserving its valuable fisheries.
Wind is an important solution to climate change, said Rachael Peabody, director of coastal policy, restoration and resilience for the Virginia Marine Resources Commission, but “you don’t want it to impact a healthy resource that is being managed well now.”
Farther north, other states have struggled to balance the two industries. Offshore wind development has sparked intense fights in New England and Mid-Atlantic states with vocal and well-organized fisheries groups worried about losing their livelihoods.
So far, Virginia has largely sidestepped the worst of those conflicts. The state has only one offshore wind farm under development — the Dominion-owned CVOW planned to be built 27 miles off Virginia Beach — and fewer than two dozen commercial fishers harvesting black sea bass and whelk have been identified as working in the lease area.
Todd Janeski, a fisheries coordinator with the Virginia Coastal Zone Management Program, said fisheries representatives are “still working through the pieces” with the utility.
As the federal government opens up new call areas where wind energy can be developed off Virginia, however, the potential for sharper conflicts may be growing.
Fishers impacted by offshore wind in Virginia to date have tended to be “less involved in policy and regulatory-type stuff,” said Annie Hawkins, executive director of fishing industry group Responsible Offshore Development Alliance.
“With the new call areas, that’s going to change,” she said. “Whichever of these call areas go forward, if any of them go forward, each of them overlap with fisheries that are already affected by offshore wind projects. You’re really expanding the scope in terms of who’s going to be impacted in terms of numbers and voices.”
Who could be affected is still an open question. The Central Atlantic Call Area being developed by the U.S. Bureau of Ocean Energy Management is still in draft form, with the federal government actively soliciting feedback on where its boundaries should be drawn.
“The effort here is to winnow this down into smaller areas to eventually focus in on areas that are compatible with both wind energy use offshore as well as with many of the other ocean users,” said BOEM biologist Brandon Jensen said during an agency presentation at Fort Monroe last week.
While fisheries aren’t the only limiting factor for offshore wind — existing shipping lanes, highly sensitive ecosystems and regions where certain naval activities are conducted also curtail where turbines can be built — they are perhaps the most complicated one, if only because no fishery is alike.
For the recreational fishing business, attitudes are more cautious than negative.
“We have no objection to the offshore wind farms. In fact, it’s a good thing for us, because they’re going to provide structure, and you’re going to have sea life all around them,” said John Bello, chair and co-founder of the Virginia Saltwater Sportfishing Association. “The thing that we don’t want is access to be restricted.”
But for commercial fishers, who operate bigger boats and heavier equipment, and who rely on the existence of particular populations of fish, the situation is more fraught.
“We’re not against wind power. We’re not against renewable energy,” said Bill Wells, a fourth-generation scallop fisherman, at BOEM’s Fort Monroe presentation. “We just want to operate as much as we can in the way we’ve been operating.”
“Coexistence” has become a watchword for many fishers. But at the same time, they are acutely aware that turbines — and especially large swathes of turbines — will inevitably change how fishing boats operate.
“We pretty much know after the turbines are in we’re going to lose those areas to fishing. … With turbines between six-tenths and a mile apart, you don’t have the space that we operationally need to run an efficient boat,” said Dameron.
Consequently, commercial fishers are eager to see the most productive parts of the ocean where they work excluded from the new Central Atlantic call area. At Fort Monroe, BOEM representatives urged fishermen to pinpoint especially active regions where boats operate.
Complicating that work is both the fluid nature of fisheries — surf clams, for example, have only recently resurged off Virginia after a roughly three-decade hiatus — and climate change, which is driving many populations northward in search of cooler waters.
“In order to make those plans, we have to have models to show us where they think those fisheries will be in the future,” said Peabody. “We just don’t have that yet for all our species.”
Fishery impacts, whether from climate change or from offshore wind, are likely to have ripple effects through the state’s economy. According to data from the National Marine Fisheries Service, Virginia’s commercial fishers took in $184 million in landings revenue in 2019, with scallops the most valuable species. (Those numbers don’t reflect the recent reappearance of the surf clam industry.) Recreational saltwater fishing produced hundreds of millions more in economic activity.
Virginia officials aren’t eager to see the state’s fishing industry constricted in any way. But when it comes to creating new wind energy areas, Peabody said the state’s power is limited.
“We don’t have legal authority over the approval or what’s going to happen out there, so we have to kind of play this role of trying to guide development through either commenting on projects or trying to give the commercial fishermen the platform they need in order to give good data and air out their concerns,” she said.
Hawkins said the “diffusion of responsibility” is one of the major challenges the fishing industry faces when it comes to grappling with offshore wind.
“It’s very, very difficult, because between the developers, the state and the federal government, every single one of the three is pointing the finger in a circle and saying, ‘Why don’t you ask them about that?’” she said.
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