Moving from one energy source to another, Massachusetts coast will prioritize wind and fishing industries to survive

The Massachusetts Statehouse. Photo Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

By Joyce Doherty
Boston University Statehouse Program

BOSTON – The South Coast has powered Massachusetts for what seems like forever. While the whaling port was not developed until the mid-17th century, the height of the industry attracted people from all over, for a job whose only pre-existing requirement was facing the largest mammal on the planet. 

The whale inspired a culture and heritage that enriched denizens’ pockets with profits from an oil made out of whale blubber that created popular lamps and soap. The Massachusetts coastal communities have long benefitted from its history of taking advantage of what the sea has to offer. From whales, to fish, to sea scallops, coastal cities like New Bedford have profited.

New Bedford has long prided itself on its fishing tradition. Today, it is home to the most valuable commercial fishing industry in the country and one of New England’s few marine industrial working waterfronts that offers a multitude of shoreside services to support diverse industries, according to the Port of New Bedford

The commercial fishing industry in the New Bedford area generated over 6,000 direct jobs and supported nearly 40,000 jobs, according to a 2019 report by the Port of New Bedford. 

Similar to the fishing industry that has created an influx of jobs to support the commercial fishing industry, the South Coast – or the Saudi Arabia of wind, as Sen. Marc Pacheco, D-Taunton, referred to it – is investing in preserving the region’s economic future and the commonwealth’s energy future with offshore wind. 

From the signing of the 2016 Act to Promote Energy Diversity to the governor’s proposed bill this past October that would remove the price cap for offshore wind bids, Massachusetts has been transitioning away from fossil fuel reliance in favor of offshore wind energy.

“We’re at an exciting time in our history, as a region of the commonwealth and what is happening in the world today,” Pacheco said during a phone interview on his way back from attending the groundbreaking of the new 806 megawatt Vineyard Wind project in Barnstable. “We are creating an economy that is healthier in terms of public health and also protecting our infrastructure.” 

The transition to renewable wind energy will save consumers over $1.4 billion over the first 20 years and cut greenhouse gas emissions by 1.6 million metric tons, according to Pacheco. 

But many worry about the coexistence of the offshore wind and fishing industries, citing the need to catch up on renewable energy resources to adapt to changing climate conditions. 

“An obvious challenge between offshore wind and fisheries is one of space,” said Christopher McGuire, Marine Program Director at the Nature Conservancy. “And I think one of the big problems is that there is a lot of unknown and people fear change.”

The first commercial-scale offshore wind project in the commonwealth, Vineyard I, began construction last month and is the first of this size nationwide. The first turbines along the New England coast are in Block Island, Rhode Island. 

After decades of having a near-monopoly of the Massachusetts coast, fisheries will have to learn to work alongside the turbines and an industry that will bring hundreds of jobs to the area, as well as help in the adaptation to climate change. 

The consequences of climate change on Massachusetts coastal communities include rising sea levels, severe storms, flooding, ocean acidification, nutrient pollution and disruption to fishing and aquaculture practices, according to the United States Environmental Protection Agency

“Fishermen know more about climate change than just about anybody else. I can’t think of a time that I’ve talked to a fisherman who doesn’t see the impact of climate change on their own fishing business,” McGuire said. “And so recognizing that trying to move towards technology that is going to reduce the worst impacts of climate change is really important. It’s something that in general, fishermen recognize that the ocean is changing really fast, because they’re out there every day and see it probably much more than most people do.”

Given what is at stake, the careful investment offshore is being reviewed and studied to see what impact is placed on Massachusetts fishing communities. But that is easier said than done. 

“Offshore is a public resource where we all collaboratively have a stake in it and we need to think creatively and thoughtfully about where these things are done and how they’re done,” said Robert Griffin, an environmental economist and professor at University of Massachusetts Dartmouth. “It’s easier to measure fish, to measure fish revenue or harvests, but it’s difficult to measure the impact it will have on fishing communities.” 

In the hopes of starting a peaceful process between the two industries, McGuire hoped that more mitigation measures are discussed in impacting either industry. 

“One of the biggest policy gaps right now is that there is a conversation about mitigation, particularly compensatory mitigation, that is sort of like the Wild West,” McGuire said, citing the need for more structured conversations. “I think there is a real opportunity for the government to step in and help moderate that discussion in a way that everybody accepts the terms and conditions.”

These discussions regarding offshore wind, developers who support and fishermen who vehemently oppose, rarely talk about the compromise in-between, with added benefits and potential risks to both sides, according to McGuire. 

Like a group of whalers looking out onto the horizon as they start their expedition, lawmakers, scientists and fishermen look to the sea for the future of their survival, a survival dependent on the coexistence of the wind and fishing industries. 

“We have all the tools in the toolbox to fix what we need in order to improve the situation relative to our climate,” Pacheco said. “I think it’s imperative to have every aspect available for use in the clean energy economy.”

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