What has Ocean State Lost? A story of Squandered Opportunity
October 22, 2023
In 2009 I started working on ocean planning with a group of dedicated ocean planning experts at the Coastal Resources Management Council (CRMC) and the Coastal Resources Center (CRC) at University of Rhode Island. I was representing local saltwater anglers and giving input regarding how we use coastal waters for fishing.
We were one of many groups who CRMC and URI asked for input. We had many meetings and drafted a comprehensive document that became the basis for the first ocean planning document in the United States. It was the beginning of the Ocean Special Area Management Plan (Ocean SAMP).
In 2010 we had many productive meetings and finalized the first draft of the Ocean SAMP. My input was primarily in Chapter 5: Commercial and Recreational Fisheries. Many research projects by scientists from URI and other institutions were conducted to provide the essential scientific basis for the Ocean SAMP. These projects gave us a better understanding of many natural processes in the Ocean SAMP study area. Scientists completed detailed fishery studies, marine geologic studies, evaluation of existing uses, measurement of currents and bathymetry, and evaluation of human perception of the idea of offshore development.
It was no secret that one of the key reasons for the Ocean SAMP was to provide a thoughtful process for the future siting and permitting of offshore wind power generators. At the Baird Symposium in November 2009 there was much discussion about the possibility of locating a wind turbine project near Block Island with five to eight turbines. For this reason, it became important to draft regulatory standards that would give serious consideration of potential interactions between these new uses and existing uses such as commercial and recreational fishing.
These regulatory standards were developed carefully to assure that no project would be allowed to cause undue impact on the marine environment or to existing users of coastal and offshore waters. The process set forth is very prescriptive and detailed. It was done in this fashion to assure a smooth permitting process for any future development applications. This set of regulations is detailed in Ocean SAMP Section 11.10 Regulatory Standards.
The entire Ocean SAMP was held up nationwide as a model program and several other coastal states began to use it as a model for similar planning. This made it all the more disappointing to me when I was part of the CRMC Fisheries Advisory Board (FAB) and it seemed that someone high in the chain of command had decided that the offshore wind projects were too important to be slowed down by the rigorous process defined in the Ocean SAMP. That process would be too slow and/or too expensive to follow, according to the huge foreign corporations who were pushing rapid development of offshore wind energy (OWE) projects.
Compared to the interaction with stakeholders and the detailed scientific studies conducted during the planning, permitting, and development of the five-turbine Block Island Wind Farm, permitting of Vineyard Wind, South Fork Wind, Revolution Wind, Sunrise Wind, and other subsequent OWE projects “must push forward quickly” we were told.
A new player stepped in — the federal agency Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM). BOEM was going to run the leasing, oversee the permitting, and control the construction schedule. We were told that BOEM had firm timelines and if state approvals were not granted in the BOEM timelines then the default answer was that BOEM would say that state approval was granted by default. We had no option to protest this process at a state level, so if we didn’t think that something was fair or in accordance with laws and regulations, our only option would be to go to federal court at great expense.
The first of these projects to push through the Ocean SAMP process was Vineyard Wind. During this permitting there were many contentious meetings and discussions between the developer and representatives of the fishing community. No one was happy about the corners that were cut, but there was discussion back and forth until a tenuous agreement was made and the approvals were granted by CRMC.
I did not have a high level of concern about this project because neither the turbines nor the cables were proposed in areas where Rhode Island recreational anglers fished frequently. I did comment regarding the need to evaluate alternative methods of construction such as jacketed foundations similar to the ones at the Block Island Wind Farm turbine bases rather than the monopiles that would create damaging noise levels during construction and would do little to enhance habitat. This negotiation and permitting was shepherded through by then-CRMC executive director Grover Fugate. Again, no one was happy with the final agreements, but the process concluded with a form of agreement.
The real problems became more obvious during permitting of the first project proposed to be located on Cox Ledge: South Fork Wind (SFW). The process of interaction among CRMC, the FAB, and Ørsted, the project developer, had to be conducted remotely because of the COVID pandemic. The project is defined as a “large scale development” in the Ocean SAMP due to the design and proposed construction schedule.
The project was proposed to be located on Cox Ledge, an area that has been designated in the Ocean SAMP as an area of particular concern (APC). In addition, the document describes why glacial moraines like Cox Ledge are so important to commercial and recreational fishermen and shows the APC designation for Cox Ledge on a figure. Because the developers did not meet all of the requirements for APC as described in the Ocean SAMP, they never met the requirements that require “A description of the measures the applicant shall take to avoid or minimize adverse effects and any potential incidental take, before the applicant conducts activities on the project site.”
Ørsted was conducting geophysical surveys which are known to disturb fish populations long before any environmental impact statement was accepted for the project. Ørsted also failed to meet decommissioning details and financial assurance in the form of “an appropriate performance bond or other Council approved security.”
“The Council shall require that the potential adverse impacts of offshore developments and other uses on commercial or recreational fisheries be evaluated, considered and mitigated,” according to the Ocean SAMP.
But in a weak attempt to meet this requirement, the developer hired “experts” from Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute (WHOI). These “experts” concluded that there was no state or federal database that quantified recreational fishing on Cox Ledge, therefore recreational fishing does not occur in this area and no consideration of recreational fishing is necessary.
I can tell you that recreational fishing certainly does occur on Cox Ledge and I have personally been fishing there since the 1970s. In fact, it is the most important offshore fishing area for recreational anglers in Rhode Island and southern Massachusetts.
Developers were allowed to totally disregard the Ocean SAMP in its entirety with respect to recreational fishing. This weakens the Ocean SAMP and the ability to have any future projects comply with it.
CRMC did not require Ørsted to conduct a survey or any study of recreational fishing activity to back up the WHOI claim even though the Rhode Island Saltwater Anglers Association (RISAA) made a written offer to work with any of the developers to conduct surveys of recreational anglers to get details about who fishes on Cox Ledge, how often, for what fish species, etc.
What made it even more ridiculous was during installation of the turbine bases in early summer 2023, Ørsted personnel reached out to RISAA members to find out what they could do to speak with some of the “many recreational fishing boats who were operating in the SFW construction area” to get them to operate more safely. Ørsted was concerned that the large number of recreational boats operating there would lead to problems even though their permit approval was based on the WHOI “expert” opinion that recreational fishing does not occur in that area.
The failures described above are only an example of all of the problems that I observed during SFW permitting. These and other concerns persisted during the permitting of the Revolution Wind and Sunrise Wind projects. CRMC had a model program in the body of the Ocean SAMP but now all future developers know that the document must be followed only if you can’t get political clout to circumvent the regulations.
Rhode Island resident Richard Hittinger is a recreational angler, 1st vice president of the Rhode Island Saltwater Anglers Association, former vice chair of the Rhode Island Fisheries Management Council, and former Fisheries Advisory Board member.
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