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A dozen-turbine wind farms are slotted for our local waters. (Photo courtesy of the office of Gov. Kathy Hochul)

In the months ahead, engineers and construction crews are expected to complete construction at a dozen-turbine wind farm about 35 miles off Montauk, marking the first utility-scale wind farm in U.S. federal waters. 

The project, South Fork Wind, aims to generate enough energy to power some 70,000 Long Island homes, which itself is part of broader state strategy to create enough renewable energy by 2030 to power 450,000 homes in New York. 

Late last year, Gov. Kathy Hochul called South Fork Wind — which is projected to eliminate hundreds of millions of tons of carbon emissions annually — a “major milestone” in the state’s “nation-leading effort to generate reliable, renewable clean energy.” 

But at least one East End community remains staunchly opposed to wind farms: commercial fishermen — who say that the massive, 50-story turbines could irreparably damage the local marine ecosystem and displace them from areas they’ve fished for decades or even generations. 

Members of Long Island’s commercial fishing industry also contend that the Department of the Interior’s Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, which oversees federal wind farm projects, is failing to heed the warnings.

For their part, wind farm industry representatives  say they’ve worked with federal fisheries experts and commercial fishermen for years to develop and fine-tune the development of  South Fork Wind. 

They note that substantial changes have been made to  the project’s  plans at the behest of the fishermen and that they are continuing to fund numerous studies to measure the impact the turbines might have on the marine environment. 

A map showing the planned areas for New York’s wind turbines. (Image courtesy of the Office of Gov. Kathy Hochul)

The companies behind South Fork Wind have created a $12 million fund to compensate Rhode Island fishermen for any damaged gear. The fund was a requirement of the regulatory process in Rhode Island and is specifically designed around equipment, for example trawlers that could lose a $20,000 net if it gets caught on construction or some other non-native impediment, according to a project spokesperson.  

Although there  is no such requirement  in place in New York, the state is working with a coalition of other state and federal agencies to develop a plan that would make such compensation available regionally.

“That’s actually something that the industry and federal regulators are taking a hard look at now, because it’s very much state by state, and I think everybody’s on the same page that it needs to be regional,” says Ross Pearsall, a fisheries relations manager at Orsted, one of the two companies behind South Fork Wind. Orsted, which is majority-owned by the Danish government, partnered with the New England-based utility Eversource, though the latter is in the process of divesting its interests in the industry.

Wind farm advocates have compiled a dossier of studies supporting their contention that the power generating facilities won’t inflict environmental or financial damage on the North Atlantic ecosystem. 

“In terms of fisheries, I think we’ve done a pretty good job talking with people and getting to understand their concerns and reflecting those in how we build our projects,” Pearsall says.

At the heart of the dispute is a problem facing any sort of innovation: wind farms have never been built in the North Atlantic anywhere near the scope of the projects — including South Fork Wind — that are planned up and down the Eastern seaboard. So questions remain regarding their impact on the marine environment surrounding them. 

In the spring of 2021, the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management acknowledged in a decision about a project off Massachusetts called Vineyard Wind that “it is likely that the entire 75,614-acre area will be abandoned by commercial fisheries due to difficulties with navigation.” 

Six months later, facing federal lawsuits from a group of fishing companies, the agency walked back that prediction, saying it was not based on any “separate or independent evaluation or study,” but “solely upon comments of interested parties submitted to BOEM during public comment period about a draft environmental impact statement” — essentially conceding that their initial assessment is a prediction fishermen, not the government.

Experts on both sides of the wind farm debate said in interviews that while some European nations are decades ahead of the U.S. in the development of offshore wind farms, those countries did not conduct sufficiently extensive studies of the impacts to marine life to be useful to U.S. scientists. What’s more, they said, the European wind farms tend to consist of much smaller turbines and are often positioned much closer to shore compared to the projects underway and being planned for waters off the U.S. East Coast.

Wind turbines are expected to power 70,000 Long Island homes, but many fishermen fear it will disrupt their way of life. (Photo courtesy of the office of Gov. Kathy Hochul)


Last spring, two federal agencies and a commercial fishing industry group completed a joint 2-1/2-year study on the impacts of the turbines on the ocean ecosystem. The study essentially concluded that the turbines could both attract and repel fish and marine life, according to an Associated Press report.

The study found that the underwater sections of the turbines can rapidly attract colonies of smaller marine life, which in turn can draw larger predators. But noise, vibrations, electromagnetic fields and water cloudiness could also drive the marine life away. 

The report concluded that sound and vibrations from pile-driving the turbines into the sea floor “can be severe, resulting in mortality or injury of other hearing tissues” in marine life. Long-term exposure to the elevated noise levels “are not associated with direct physical injury, [but] long-term exposures may have negative effects on communication, foraging and predator detection.” 

In almost every category measured, the AP reported, the study calls for further research. 

Bonnie Brady, executive director of the Long Island Commercial Fishing Association and a longtime advocate for the industry, said that commercial fishermen know the seas off the East Coast better than anyone, since they “practically live out there,” while wind farm advocates are land-bound academics espousing theory who fail to fully comprehend the unpredictable nature of commercial fishing, where anything can — and often does — go wrong.

“These are people that, for the most part, have not spent any time at sea,” Brady says of the scientists and engineers involved in wind farm projects. “They don’t have any knowledge of what is actually out there. They don’t know how to come into your 70-foot boat. They don’t know what happens when your radar goes out, or you get rope in the wheel, and suddenly, you’re careening towards something and you can’t stop.”

Commercial fishing is one of the most dangerous jobs in the nation. In 2019, the industry suffered work-related deaths at a rate 40 times that of the average worker, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention — second only to logging as the nation’s deadliest profession. 

Brady contends that the South Fork Wind project is going to ruin what’s left of the East End’s dwindling commercial fishing industry and that the construction of the wind farms is antithetical to the unpredictable nature of fishing on the open sea.

“My husband fishes 300 days a year,” she says. “He’s been on the water since forever. He’s not going to go in the [wind farm] areas because stuff happens. People think somehow that fishermen are this sluggish, you know, loutish bunch that are uneducated and they fish because they can’t do anything else. No,” she says emphatically. “You’ve got 15 plates spinning at once. You have to remember tides, currents and historic catch — where it was, what’s the temperature? What’s moving, what isn’t moving? These things are constant.”

Wind farm advocates say the industry has gone a long way to assuage commercial fishermen’s concerns. 

“Climate change is an existential threat to the biodiversity of the natural world, and one of the best ways to protect that biodiversity is the development of clean energy,” a South Fork Wind spokesperson said in a statement in response to questions about the fishermen’s concerns. 

“Northeast fisheries scientists have identified the warming ocean as one of the major factors in the decline of certain fish species,” the statement continued. “We take great care to ensure that offshore wind and wildlife coexist and thrive. We’ve taken a number of steps to ensure the coexistence of the commercial fishing industry with offshore wind, often by being directly responsive to requests from the fishing community.”

Mark Phillips, who has been a commercial fishermen for 59 years, sees wind farms as a direct threat to the waters off the East Coast. In his long career, Mr. Phillips said, “I’ve done everything under the sun, fishing-wise, but the last 20 years has been primarily squid.” He says that “one of the big problems is that low-frequency vibrations … have a detrimental effect on the brain in squid. And if the squid don’t come to the beach, because they won’t go through all these wind mills, then the fluke don’t come to the beach because they feed on squid, then there goes my whole summer fishery.” 

Phillips says he feels like his industry is fighting a battle that’s impossible to win. 

“People hear, you know, ‘climate change,’ ‘we need green energy,’ and then they think wind farms that you’re never going to see. In theory, it sounds like a good idea. But these are people who don’t know much about the ocean, don’t know much about the sea,” he says. “I probably only got less than 10 years left in my fishing career, and I’m glad. I believe these [turbines] will go on to really do a job on us.”