Tom Fote believed the Jersey Coast Anglers Association was doing the right thing about 15 years ago when it supported the idea of bringing wind power to New Jersey.
Fote has been the association’s legislative director since 1992, always on the front lines to protect the rights of the state’s recreational fishermen. He’s existed deep in the thorny thicket of meetings, business interests and political arm-twisting that come with discussions about renewable energy. Back when people started talking about wind farms off the Jersey Shore, he says, the top-of-mind concern among fishermen was coal-fired plants in Pennsylvania and Ohio. They were spewing pollution, contaminating New Jersey’s lakes and rivers with all the fish that lived in them. Renewable wind power sure sounded better than that.
It also sounded better than the talk at the time about building nuclear plants as an energy alternative to coal, Fote says. The folks pushing nuclear had a plan for preventing algal blooms in the pipework of their state-of-the-art facilities: using pesticides and chlorides as cleaning agents, and then flushing them into New Jersey’s waterways. Again, Fote says, renewable wind power seemed like a far better option for fishermen to support for the future.
Now that the future is here, though, Fote is no longer so sure.
In June, the New Jersey Board of Public Utilities backed a multinational corporation’s plans to build the largest offshore wind farm in the United States: a $1.6 billion project about 15 miles off the coast of Atlantic City. Called the Ocean Wind project, it will be a 1,110-megawatt farm with construction expected to start in 2022 or 2023, and power coming online in 2024. And it’s going to be smack in the middle of the migratory route that countless species of fish—including striped bass, bluefish, tuna, sea bass, summer flounder and menhaden—take up and down the East Coast every spring and summer.
“These are the consequences of good intentions,” Fote says. “Windmills are renewable power, and they won’t pollute our lakes and streams, and they won’t cause acidification. But are they going to impact the ecosystem? Yes.”
Just how much offshore wind farms will affect boaters, fishermen and the ecosystem that supports their recreation is an open-ended question being asked all along the Eastern Seaboard. Federal and state governments are ramping up the push toward renewable power with great public support, in an effort to mitigate climate change. Offshore wind farms are a major part of the plan to move America from dependence on fossil fuels into a greener future.
But the effects of warming oceans and other factors are already causing fish stocks to move out of their historical habitats, and adding offshore wind farms will create a large physical obstacle for the fisheries that already are overrun with existential threats. The New Jersey project is the biggest offshore wind farm moving forward in America to date, but the federal Bureau of Ocean Energy Management has set the boundaries for where more offshore wind farms can be built—in a lot of places where fish live and migrate up and down the East Coast.
The mapped-out sites are between Massachusetts and North Carolina, with at least one more expected to be approved off New York, according to Anthony Logan, senior analyst for wind power at Wood Mackenzie Power & Renewables. Each site has room to build about 200 turbines, Logan says. And those turbines can be what he calls “startlingly large” compared with older models; today’s turbines are more than 60 stories tall.
“One of the ways that people have been able to reduce costs is by making the single turbines larger and larger,” Logan says. “When you think about an onshore wind farm, a lot of stuff that goes alongside is easy and cheap to install. But when you have to do all of that out in the open, those costs increase exponentially, so the trend is bigger turbines.”
The turbines also need to be built on a fixed platform, Logan says, because floating platforms for the technology are still in their infancy. That’s why regulators created the construction sites along the East Coast at points no deeper than about 200 feet.
And, the turbines need to be built where at least one other condition is present: a lot of people living ashore, to buy the power that the wind farm will generate. The population density in the Boston to Baltimore corridor is ideal, as is the depth of the seafloor, which is why wind farms off Massachusetts, Maryland, Rhode Island and Connecticut are all likely to be built and start producing power before New Jersey’s behemoth one does, possibly as early as 2021, he says.
“It’s going to happen real fast,” Logan says. “Between 2021 and 2024, it’s going to be kind of a gold rush. I don’t see the sector slowing down after that.” But slowing down to think about the impact of wind farms on marine life is exactly what fishermen like Fote say needs to be done.
While numerous environmental organizations applauded New Jersey’s effort to push forward with the record-breaking development off Atlantic City, Fote and other fishermen were still trying to figure out what it would actually mean for the fish.
In New Jersey, he says, the only comprehensive study of recreational fisheries was done in 1952, by the state’s Division of Fish & Wildlife. Where the wind farm is going to be built off Atlantic City, nobody actually knows what’s on the bottom—a key data set that’s required to figure out what kind of impact the project will have, what kind of steps should be taken to protect the fish and other marine life, and what kind of accountability the corporate interests should have going forward.
“We haven’t mapped those areas,” Fote says. “I have maps that were printed in the 1970s. Now, they’re trying to update it. We want a baseline study in that whole zone so, five or 10 years from now, we’ll be able to tell you what you have to mitigate to undo the damage that you’ve done.”
The forces at play dwarf the size of the boating and fishing community. While Fote says New Jersey is home to some 800,000 fishermen—around 10 percent of the state’s population—and while recreational and commercial fishing, combined with the boating industry, are a $4 billion-a-year force in the state, they are tiny compared with the multinational corporations that dominate the industry of offshore wind farms. Ørsted, the company that just won the right to build out the site off Atlantic City, is based in Denmark and operates in Sweden, the United Kingdom, Germany, the Netherlands and Taiwan. As of May, Forbes listed the corporation’s value at $31.4 billion, with annual sales of $11.5 billion.
“The companies that are involved in it are international giants,” Logan says, adding that past projects—which had a lot of false starts up and down the Eastern Seaboard during the past decade—tended to involve smaller, U.S.-based companies that have now dropped out of the marketplace or been acquired. Today, the turbines are actually going to get built.
And, Logan adds, state and federal governments are adding their muscle to the corporate push. Elected officials are looking for ways to move toward more renewable power sources overall, and offshore wind farms are one of the only options in areas of high population density, where there’s no room left ashore to build acres upon acres of 60-story-tall wind turbines.
Fote agrees that the momentum behind offshore wind farms is unstoppable: “If we were building something in the Meadowlands, how many environmental impact studies would you have to do? People would be filing lawsuits. But this is the federal government coming in. Boom.”
What’s different on the East Coast compared with other parts of the world where offshore wind farms already exist, Logan says, is that the corporate and government forces are seeing resistance from fishermen. That’s something new, and it’s substantial. Earlier this year in Rhode Island, the chairman of the state’s fisheries advisory board called an incoming wind farm “the crucifier,” saying the way the turbines will be positioned is going to create a hazard so dangerous that fishermen are going to die.
“The Northern European recreational fishing scene is nothing like it is here,” Logan says. “This opposition is new to these companies. The developers are rapidly ramping up their U.S. presence. They’re on the ground and hiring workers, but they’re not coming in with a perfect understanding of how recreational fishing works in the U.S.”
Fote says fishermen already are on edge not only because of climate change and shifting fish habitats, but also because they lived through New Jersey’s project to replenish beaches—another good-intentioned effort with serious side effects. A lot of the sand that got moved from underwater to the coastline came from fishing habitats. “We destroyed almost every lump in New Jersey,” Fote says. “Every fish habitat that’s been around for 400 or 500 years. This is where the fish were, and now it’s all gone. These were historic fishing areas that shouldn’t have been touched, and they did away with them all. They flattened out the ocean, those sand companies.”
And the sand companies weren’t constructing 60-story turbines that will exist for decades. Fote says anglers’ concerns about the current project range from electrical current that could affect fish migration to basic rights to access the waters where families have fished for fun, or for a living, for generations.
“What they need to do is compensate these fishermen for what they’re going to lose—how many generations they’re going to lose,” Fote says. “Some people, their families have been fishing in these areas for 30, 40, 50 years.”
The effects of a wind farm the size of the one approved off Atlantic City will be felt all up and down the East Coast, he adds. The fish that head up to Long Island, New York, and Cape Cod each summer? They get there by swimming north along the coast of New Jersey. The fish that get caught in the Carolinas each autumn? They come right through New Jersey. “Everything, it all migrates up and down the coast,” Fote says. “New Jersey is the center of the migration. When we start affecting the population that’s off New Jersey, this can affect the whole food chain.”
And yet things might turn out OK, says Fote. The wind farm off Atlantic City will, at least in one way, be like any other structure that humans put into the water: It will attract fish. Which fish, though, is a question. And who will be able to get to them?
Understanding what in the ecosystem could be lost, Fote says, is just as important as making renewable-energy gains with wind farms like the one coming off Atlantic City. “It will cut down on the carbon dioxide, and that should help with global warming,” he says. “It also should help with acidification in the water. So, it will give us renewables—we’re not drilling off New Jersey for oil—but we are putting these things down. Once the base is there, maybe the sand will cover it and it will become a habitat. We just don’t know.”
This article originally appeared in the September 2019 issue.