Commercial fishing fleets in Oregon are worried that two sites the state is considering for offshore wind energy production will reduce their catch and cause economic trouble for coastal communities.
“They’re locking up public areas in the ocean for a single-entity user and blocking out all the other users that have historically used that area,” said Chris Cooper, a third-generation fisherman who owns and operates a trawling vessel that travels up and down the Oregon coast.
The proposed locations for development, called “call areas,” are Coos Bay and Brookings on the south-central and southern Oregon coast. The Federal Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM) issued a call for information and nominations on April 29 to obtain public input and assess commercial interest in leasing the Coos Bay and Brookings areas for wind energy. The call initiates the official lease authorization process, and the deadline for public comment on the call areas is June 28, 2022.
Both call areas are 13.8 miles off the coast, which means the floating turbines would not be visible from land. The two areas combined cover over 1,800 square miles of the ocean surface. If developed, the commercial wind farms would produce 3 gigawatts of energy – roughly enough enough to power around 2 million homes – for use inside or outside Oregon, according to state officials.
Cooper said the areas are within zones he fishes and navigates, especially during Pacific whiting season, which extends from May 15 to November every year. While BOEM says the call areas avoid most of the fishing grounds for Dungeness crab and pink shrimp, Pacific whiting is a different story. “A lot of the time, [the southern coast] is the only spot we can find [whiting] in,” Cooper said.
The weather on the southern coast can be volatile, but the fishing is dependable, according to Cooper. “It’s great when the fish are there because it is very clean fishing and there’s typically a lot of fish, so it’s very efficient,” Cooper said. Clean fishing means there are fewer incidental catches outside the targeted species.
According to Heather Mann, executive director of Midwater Trawlers Cooperative, losing these areas will force fishermen to waste more resources. “Any displaced activity in that area will generally result in 20% to 30% more effort required to catch the same amount of fish, and increase the risk of encountering non-target species and waste more fuel and time and become less efficient,” Mann said.
It is yet unclear the navigation restrictions fishermen would face if the wind farms were developed. Mann worries that possible restrictions will hurt coastal communities.
“If we lose access to whiting and we can’t find it someplace else, the trickle effect that comes to Newport is less revenue for the vessels. Fish aren’t delivered to the plants that gear up with extra jobs during the whiting season. And people aren’t spending money in town.”
Midwater Trawlers Cooperative’s main office is in Newport, Oregon, where Cooper docks his boat.
“I guarantee that if we lose fishing access, there is going to be a painful economic downfall from that here in Newport,” Mann said.
Midwater Trawlers Cooperative and several other fishing groups have asked BOEM to move the call areas to waters outside of fishing grounds while keeping them invisible from the shoreline.
Fishing vessels catch Pacific whiting at some of the same depths as the call areas. The Coos Bay call area would be located in waters 120 to 220 meters deep, and the Brookings call area would be in waters 125 to 340 meters deep. Whiting are fished depths between 180 and 1,300 meters.
“We’ve told [BOEM] to put them outside 1,300 meters [deep] and then we’re fine, but they say it’s too expensive,” Mann said.
According to the call for information and nominations, BOEM and the state of Oregon focused on water depths shallower than 1,300 meters based on offshore wind cost modeling studies that measured the technological and economic feasibility of wind farms at different depths on the west coast.
“Knowing what I know now, in terms of the potential feasibility of development projects in deeper water, the next time that the state is asked to enter into a binding agreement with BOEM, I believe the state will really push towards consideration of other areas in deeper waters,” said Andy Lanier, marine affairs coordinator for Oregon’s Coastal Zone Management Program. “I think that that would reduce conflict with our fishing communities.”
Both the state of Oregon and BOEM invested several years gathering data and engaging with the public to inform the choices for the call areas. The agency does not have to do this type of data collection before considering an area to lease for offshore wind: in early April, BOEM received an unsolicited request for an offshore wind lease near the coast of the Olympic Peninsula in Washington. An unsolicited lease request triggers the lease-granting process without requiring the public call for information and nominations.
Northern California’s Humboldt Bay is also being considered for offshore wind and is further along in the leasing process. Fishermen in Oregon who travel up and down the west coast worry about the cumulative impact of offshore wind farms in California, Oregon, and Washington on their operations.
“One thing that’s really troubling is that BOEM doesn’t do cumulative impact studies,” Mann said. “And so they’re not going to look at how those three or more areas will impact the fishing industry.”
While it is possible that changes could be made to the locations of the offshore wind farms, Lanier with Oregon’s Coastal Zone Management Program said it’s unlikely that BOEM would go back a step in the lease authorization process.
“To reconsider other areas of the ocean, they would need to change the call and go back a step, and that’s kind of time-intensive,” Lanier said. “I think [BOEM] is hesitant to do that.”
The leasing and project development for offshore wind can take eight to 10 years, according to BOEM. After the call for information and nominations process is complete, BOEM’s next step is to identify wind energy areas within the call areas where development would actually take place. When the wind energy areas are designated, they will be subject to environmental review under the National Environmental Policy Act. BOEM has said it is committed to including public scoping, comment, and review periods for the environmental analysis.
The national drive to develop renewable energy resources is fueled by the Biden-Harris administration’s ambition to address climate change. The administration has incorporated offshore wind energy development into its plans to move the country toward renewable energy.
“That drive is kind of in conflict with going backwards and redoing the process,” Lanier said. “That’s not to say that it won’t happen or it’s not the right thing to happen, it’s just that we as a state have the initial agreement to move forward with this limited set of areas.”
Some proponents of offshore wind in Oregon feel BOEM’s leasing process could be sped up by completing different stages of authorization simultaneously.
“The years-long process for siting an offshore wind farm is driven by policy and regulations that were established long before this climate crisis arrived,” said David Petrie, senior advisor for Ocean Winds, an organization that explores the opportunities and challenges of offshore wind in Oregon. “It’s outdated in my opinion, and I advocate for managing this process concurrently.”
As an enrolled member of the Confederated Tribes of Coos, Lower Umpqua, and Siuslaw Indians, Petrie incorporates traditional Indigenous knowledge into his work advocating for offshore wind. He believes agencies pushing to adopt renewable energy must recognize the connection between every stakeholder and involved sector, including the fishing industry.
“I do my best to think, okay, what is the cumulative impact [of wind development] on our citizens, our environment, our economy?” Petrie said. “All of those factors need to be part of this discussion.”
It will be several more years before any wind infrastructure is on Oregon’s coast. Moving forward, Oregon’s fishing industry feels strongly that they need to be included in and listened to in the conversation on offshore wind.
“I should say that I’m not against offshore energy development,” Midwater Trawlers Cooperative’s Mann said. “I’m a mom, I want to leave a healthy planet. I think [offshore wind] is a part of moving forward, but the siting is so critical and having an authentic seat at the table is really important. And we just don’t feel like we have that.”