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N.J. fishing groups worry offshore wind will adversely affect their industry: ‘This is our farmland’

An array of anglers, from recreational to commercial, are aligning against N.J.’s coming offshore wind farms, fearing they will disrupt fish habitat and shove sports fishing miles more out to sea.

Fishing boat captain Hank Lackner stands near his boat at Lunds Fishery in Cape May.
Fishing boat captain Hank Lackner stands near his boat at Lunds Fishery in Cape May.Read moreJOSE F. MORENO / Staff Photographer

Capt. Hank Lackner docked a 100-foot trawler in Cape May on a recent day after unloading a catch of squid that might end up as calamari on someone’s plate just about anywhere in the United States.

Lackner fears that offshore wind farms coming to the waters off the New Jersey coast in the next few years could threaten his business. Other commercial and recreational anglers, along with the Recreational Fishing Alliance (RFA), a political action organization, share his concerns.

They worry that wind farms with their soaring turbines could disrupt fish habitat, reroute fishing lanes, and force sport anglers farther out to sea.

Lackner, of Montauk, N.Y., believes that the farms will narrow the currently wide-open pathways to the vessel he docks at Cape May so often that he calls it his second home.

“We’ll have to tow in between turbines while dragging a quarter mile of gear,” Lackner said. “We’ll be passing boats, as our gear drifts. ... It’s not good to jump right into wind in such a big way.”

Ocean Wind, New Jersey’s first offshore wind project, calls for the developer Ørsted to install 98 turbines in the Atlantic Ocean. The project will be about 15 miles off the coast and is expected to be online by 2024.

Five additional projects are planned for New Jersey to meet Gov. Phil Murphy’s goal of generating 7,500 megawatts of wind power by 2035, enough to power 3.2 million homes. His administration says renewable energy sources are needed to lower greenhouse gas emissions that exacerbate the sea-level rise threatening the state’s coastline.

Ørsted says it has met with the fishing community repeatedly to help allay fears. It notes that not everyone who fishes has a problem with wind farms. The company has tried to address potential conflicts, from the placement of turbines and disruption posed by construction, to safety, and says the wind farm shouldn’t be a problem for most vessels.

Jim Donofrio, founder of the RFA, and one of the most outspoken critics of offshore wind, says the industry creates too many issues for fishing that haven’t been fully addressed.

“We want them gone,” Donofrio said.

» READ MORE: New Jersey's big bet on offshore wind

Commercial fishing is big business in New Jersey, accounting for $6.2 billion in sales and 37,100 jobs in 2016, the most recent data available from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. The state ranks fifth in the nation in commercial fishing production with a total catch of 198.6 million pounds. It ranks first in quahogs and second in sea scallops, surf clams, and squid.

Clams and quahogs

On a recent day, workers hand-shucked thousands of clams at LaMonica Fine Foods in Millville, Cumberland County. They loaded the meat onto conveyor belts that carted the clams around the plant. The clams either get chopped and canned, used for red and white sauces, New England clam chowder, or juice, or are battered, breaded, fried, and frozen. The company sells to the restaurant industry and retailers.

“Owners Michael and Daniel LaVecchia, who employ about 225 people, said their vessels leave out of Atlantic City and bring in their hauls within a lease area held by Atlantic Shores. New Jersey’s Board of Public Utilities is set to announce the location of a second wind project and developer in the coming months.

Both Atlantic Shores and Ørsted have both made bids.

Daniel unfurled a map and jabbed a finger down on the lease area where the company finds its clams. He said he is open to wind energy but believes that the fishing industry has no real input in how it plays out.

“We can coexist,” he said of his business and the offshore wind industry. “We’re a business, they’re a business. But we feel like we didn’t have a seat at the table.”

His brother Michael added: “If anyone was taking land from farms to put up wind farms, people would be really upset. This is our farmland. This is where we go to harvest.”

LaMonica, operating since 1923, dredges for surf clams and brings in about 450,000 bushels a year. Its take represents about 19% of the surf clam landings on the East Coast. LaMonica also process quahogs, a type of clam.

“We’re not opposed to wind, but give us a fair shot,” Daniel said.

Charter boats

Bob Rush, owner of Starfish Boats, a charter fishing operation out of Sea Isle City, serves anglers in search of summer flounder and other finned fish. He, too, has attended meetings with Ørsted and government officials but says he hasn’t seen enough scientific information on the impact of wind farms on fishing.

“I call this a science experiment,” Rush said. “If we lose our fluke season in the summertime, we’re going to lose everything at that point. Our fluke industry is part of a billion-dollar fishing industry in the summertime.”

He said fishing vessels in Europe, where offshore wind power is already established, have been driven miles farther out to sea because of turbine placement. His concern, he said, extends to hundreds of bait and tackle stores that make their livelihood in Shore towns.

Rush also wonders about the power cables to be run from turbines, fearing that electromagnetic fields could affect radar or aquatic life.

Scallops and squid

“We have no power,” said Jeff Reichle, chairman of Lund’s Fisheries, a processor of scallops and squid in Cape May that employees 300. “We’re being bulldozed here. It’s just being rammed down our throats.”

He also has attended meetings, and concludes the wind industry and its government backers have all the clout.

Reichle said he is not opposed to offshore wind and was part of a group called Fisherman’s Energy that tried to install five turbines a few miles off the coast of Atlantic City. He said that project, had it succeeded, might have generated data that could have shown potential impact on marine life.

“Today, the wind industry likes to say we’ve met with everyone, and we’ve talked to everyone,” Reichle said. “And yes, there’s been meetings and yes, we have talked about things, but ... we’re completely powerless.”

Wayne Reichle, his son and company president, said the industry has worked hard to get to the current state of fisheries management and worries wind farms will upset that.

“It’s taken 40 years of management to get to the point where we have sustainable fisheries, to now creating just this completely unknown factor,” Wayne Reichle said.

A ‘temporary’ disruption

Ørsted has filed a fish habitat assessment with the federal Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM), which carved out the lease areas for wind farms, since they are in federal, not state, waters. The company acknowledges that fisheries could be disrupted beginning in 2023 but says the impact “will be short-term and temporary, such as pile driving noise during construction activities.”

John O’Keeffe, head of marine affairs at Ørsted North America, said that he is a former ship captain and has attended the meetings, and that there has been an extensive public engagement process under the BOEM that included the fishing industry. He said meetings and conversations with stakeholders are continuing.

He said Ørsted configured the wind-farm array while trying to balance “input from all the different stakeholders” including the fishing industry. He said the company has learned from both its extensive European operations and from its Block Island site off Rhode Island, the first offshore wind farm in the United States.

O’Keeffe said there is a misperception that there will be only one boat lane through Ocean Wind. Rather, he said, the layout of the wind farm allows for “dozens and dozens” of lanes. He said the spacing between the turbines of one nautical mile by 0.8 nautical mile is unheard of globally, and that wind farms in Europe operate with much less space, and more random spacing.

“I think that gets overlooked,” O’Keeffe said. “... It’s a game-changer.”

O’Keeffe said anglers won’t be shut out of the entire wind-farm area during construction, as some believe. Rather, he said there will likely be a 500-yard safety zone enacted during the installation of each turbine; areas outside that will remain open.

Ørsted will bury insulated power cables under the seafloor. The cables will link the turbines to three substations in the water, and from there to land.

O’Keeffe said that although he is not a scientist, boaters shouldn’t fear submarine power cables, which have been around for decades. The cables will be buried, he said, and their electromagnetic fields would dissipate, having “very limited negligible impacts.”

“I’m not saying there won’t be any impacts at all,” O’Keeffe said of the wind farms. “But I think it would be very minimal.”

Paul Eidman, who runs Reel Therapy Fishing & Wildlife Charters in Tinton Falls, Monmouth County, supports offshore wind for both business and environmental reasons. Eidman is a member of Anglers for Offshore Wind, which was organized by the nonprofit National Wildlife Federation.

He doesn’t believe that underwater cables present a problem or that most vessels will have a difficult time navigating. But, he does believe that a warming ocean will force fish, such as black sea bass and summer flounder, farther north in search of cooler water and “out of New Jersey anglers’ reach.”

Offshore wind, he said, will be a step in addressing that.

“As a fisherman, I want to see the future saved for me and my children,” Eidman said. “I don’t want to see fish migrating off our waters.”