Offshore Wind Power: California Fishing Industry Voices Its Concerns

By Karen Robes Meeks

Burbo Bank Offshore Wind Farm
The Burbo Bank Offshore Wind Farm in the Irish Sea. Photo by Paul Langrock via Offshore Wind California.

When the Biden Administration announced in May that it would open California’s northern and central coasts to offshore wind projects for the first time, government officials touted the move as part of a larger effort to generate jobs through the creation of 30 gigawatts of domestic offshore wind by 2030.

The announcement included comments from California Gov. Gavin Newsom, who called the potential for building renewable energy through offshore wind “a game changer” for reaching the state’s own goals in addressing climate change while boosting the economy.

“This historic announcement, which could provide clean power for up to 1.6 million homes over the next decade, represents the innovative approach we need for a clean energy economy that protects the coasts, fisheries, marine life, and Tribal, and cultural resources we value so much as Californians,” said Newsom, whose California Comeback Plan features a proposed $20 million to help fund offshore wind capacity in the state.

But for hundreds of West Coast fishermen and their families, the development of such projects could forever change the way they fish in the region.

“It will take away a lot of fishing area, cause a lot of ship traffic, and there are a lot of unknowns on how it will affect fish behavior,” said Tom Hafer, president of the Morro Bay Commercial Fishermen’s Organization.

The White House identified two areas for offshore wind development, which include about 399 square miles northwest of Morro Bay, where the creation of three gigawatts of offshore wind could be supported, and the Humboldt Call Area. The state and the U.S. Departments of Defense and the Interior weighed in on identifying these areas for new development.

The agreement calls for the pursuit of floating offshore wind platforms, with more than 95% of the prospective area for lease sales planned 20 to 30 miles off the coast of California, according to Newsom’s office.

After the areas for development are finalized, an environmental analysis is expected to take place, according to Newsom’s office, adding that a lease sale could be offered by the Department of the Interior’s Bureau of Ocean Energy Management as early as 2022 for development near Morro Bay and another area on the North Coast.

That’s too soon, said Mike Conroy, executive director of the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen’s Associations, which represents more than 800 fishermen and their families in 17 local and regional associations from Santa Barbara to Southeast Alaska.

“There’s a bunch of other things that need to be addressed before they put steel in the water,” Conroy said, adding that officials are “rushing unproven technology, with unknown impacts to our ocean ecosystem, in locations which were not identified with any meaningful input by the fishing industry.”

“We were very much surprised at the fact that they were moving forward so quickly without really doing any outreach to the fishing industry,” Conroy said.

map of Three areas off the Northern and Central California coasts
A map of three areas off the Northern and Central California coasts that the federal Bureau of Ocean Energy Management has designated for development. Image: Bureau of Ocean Energy Management.

Unanswered Questions

Fishermen have voiced their concerns about how floating wind turbines could affect California’s marine life, including any noise created from building and running a wind farm, as well as electromagnetic fields that could hinder Pacific Coast salmon and other fish stocks.

The fisheries in the Morro Bay Call Zone are the deeper ground fish, sable fish, albacore, and swordfish fisheries, Hafer said. The electromagnetic cables will go through the deeper nearshore and shallow nearshore rockfish, salmon, squid, dungeness and rock crab, spot prawns, pink shrimp, hagfish, sea bass, and halibut, he explained.

There’s also the potential impact a wind farm could have on upwelling and access to nutrient-rich foods necessary for marine life. It could also change the migratory patterns of marine mammals, seabirds and fish stocks.

Another major concern is space, especially in the Morro Bay Area, where ports have a limited amount of room.

“If you have to have a fleet of vessels that would support the offshore wind farm, where are they going to go?” Conroy said. “And the list goes on and on.”

Hafer said he and Morro Bay fishermen plan to meet with OSW (offshore wind) engineers to get answers to their more than three dozen questions, including:

What safety measures will OSW companies have in place for any vessel of any size that breaks down in or around the wind array? What about a freighter? Will there be a 24-hour tugboat on duty?

What will be done if there’s a hurricane or a big storm? How will the array be strengthened to minimize the “domino effect” if one or more platforms break loose during a storm or tsunami event? What measures can be taken to isolate sections of the array to avoid a critical loss of power to the grid that might occur as a result of an extreme weather event?

Will there be exclusion zones? Will fishing be allowed inside the array? What stance could maritime insurers will take regarding fishing inside an OSW array?

Who will be responsible for the removal of the turbines after the government subsidies for alternative energy have dried up and the maintenance costs outweigh the income stream? Will taxpayers have to foot the bill if an OSW company files bankruptcy?

How will fishing opportunities and catch be affected? Does OSW understand that fisheries are habitat-based—including sea surface temperature as habitat—so fishermen can’t simply go someplace else to fish?

Next Steps

The next step is to get a thorough socio and economic impact report of the local commercial fishing community, Hafer said.

There are concerns that the study will be too narrow and not include all potential impacts, so they put together a list of datasets that should be included, such as albacore and swordfish log books, F and G landing data for all commercial fisheries and stock assessment reports by the Pacific Fisheries Management Council

“We have to account for fishing in the Call Area as well as the fishing area being taken for cable routing and shipping lanes,” Hafer said. 

Various factors—from the potential noise from anchor chains and EMF emissions from electromagnetic cables to increased large ship traffic—have the potential to cause effects on sea life behavior, possibly causing them to avoid the area.

“The potential to affect fishing in a several mile radius from the call area should be reflected in the impact report,” Hafer said.

A transparent comprehensive analysis of the effects of such development needs to be conducted and it needs to include input from the fishing community, Conroy said, adding that there has been no planning process to review fisheries data and spatial needs in relation to floating wind turbines.

“We really don’t know what the impacts are going to be because we really don’t know what these things are going to look like,” Conroy said. “We’ve been kind of closed off from participating in any of the processes, so it puts us immediately in a defensive, reactionary mode.”

Conroy and others were irked when BOEM announced the Intergovernmental Renewable Energy Task Force meeting to talk about the proposed wind energy project areas was to take place on June 24, the first day of the June Pacific Fishery Management Council meeting in which most of the West Coast fishing community was expected to attend.

After outcry from the commercial fishing industry, BOEM moved the meeting to July so fishermen can focus on the FMC.

“I know when it comes to fisheries, it is a complex issue,” said BOEM spokesman John Romero. “It’s a very sensitive issue, and we are working hard to look at ways of how we can better communicate and have a dialog.”

A lease sale is still in the planning phase and nothing yet has been issued, he added. This is a formal process with public scoping meetings and the development of an environmental review and draft document, which then goes back out for more input before a final report is issued before deciding whether to look at the entire wind energy area or part of the identified wind energy area to offer up for leasing, Romero said.

A federal lease is necessary for any company to be granted the authority for up to five years to do additional survey work and have the opportunity to submit an actual plan to the federal government, Romero explained.

“That gets an additional environmental review under the National Environmental Policy Act, and that’s where things really get deep and into the technical aspects,” he said, “because that will be the first time that we will actually see what companies have in their mind of what a project might look like.”

In the meantime, a task force has been assembled with federal and state agencies who have a role in permitting or regulating any potential activity related to offshore wind, as well as members of the tribal governments and local representation from the cities of Morro Bay and Humboldt.

“We’re committed to having those discussions and certainly welcome that discussion and dialog and looking at ways that we can, you know, minimize any impact,” Romero said.

Given the likely cost of generating power offshore, Conroy wondered if officials should consider other clean energy alternatives, such as solar panels over the California aqueduct, which could generate a large amount of electricity and inhibit evaporation. Other alternatives could involve converting farmland into solar farms.

“The fishing industry has been told, ‘This is what’s happening’,” he said. “We’ve never been asked, ‘Hey, we would like to do this. How can we do this in a way that least interrupts your activities so that we’re not totally having a negative impact on the nation’s food supply?’ We haven’t been given that courtesy.”

“We’re not at the table,” he said, “so we’re clearly on the menu.”