NC fishermen concerned about uncertain impacts of offshore wind
On a sunny, windy May morning, John Dosher rides down the Intracoastal Waterway from Holden Beach to Southport on a small boat. He points over to the left side of the shore and talks loudly over the waves.
"I grew up literally behind the red roof house right there," Dosher said. "My mom still lives there."
He points to another house a few blocks down.
"My grandmother’s fish house [is] right here. My mom still owns that. She’s one of the only people that still has that, where those benches are and stuff – that’s one of ours," Dosher said.
Dosher is a fishing charter captain from Southport. He's also the vice president of the North Carolina For Hire Captain’s Association.
For generations, Dosher’s family has lived and fished along the coast. But after centuries of open waters, there’s a big change coming. In the next 15 years, massive wind farms are expected to be constructed off of North Carolina's waters.
Recreational and commercial fishermen alike have a lot of questions about these projects. The main ones: how much access will fishermen have to wind farms, and how will the wind farms impact the fish? Unfortunately, information is limited because offshore wind is still new in the United States.
There are currently two offshore wind farms in various planning stages off North Carolina’s coast. One is off Kitty Hawk along the Outer Banks; the other, called Wilmington East, is off Wilmington.
Avangrid Renewables is developing the wind farm off Kitty Hawk. Construction there is expected to start in 2026.
Dewey Hemilright, a commercial fisherman based in Wanchese for over 30 years, worked with Avangrid as a fishing representative for the Kitty Hawk project.
"I'm here to answer their call [about] the landscape," Hemilright said. "What's been known there to be fishing? Who's fishing there? If they got transmission lines going somewhere, what fisheries would it affect, possibly?"
While aboard his boat 'Tar Baby,' Hemilright explained that the wind farm off Kitty Hawk will be in a pass-due area, meaning boats pass through there to reach fishing grounds. Because of that, fishermen in the area have had few worries.
"To date... I haven't heard [any concerns]," Hemilright said. "They might have opinion on windmills. But no concerns."
The oceanic geography near Wilmington East is very dynamic.
The Cape Fear River empties into the Atlantic Ocean. The Gulf Stream, which carries warm waters, flows about 20 miles off the coast. Some areas are potentially dangerous for ships, like the Frying Pan Shoals, where built up sand is constantly moving. There’s also the Outer Shelf Reefs.
Cane Faircloth, president of the North Carolina For Hire Captain’s Association, explained that because of all these different factors, fishermen around Wilmington can only fish in certain areas.
He and other fishermen said they feel like state and federal officials are unaware of these dynamics, and that lawmakers are moving too fast.
"[Offshore wind] is not the type of thing that we need to be rushing to," Faircloth said. "We need to have really good environmental and economic impact studies done of how this is going to affect the coast and the coastal communities. And that is not being performed."
In truth, these studies are being performed. This misunderstanding speaks to the lack of communication that’s taking place.
Faircloth, who lives in Holden Beach and works as a fishing charter captain and local realtor, also points out that while politicians may talk about how offshore wind could generate billions of dollars, North Carolina’s fishing industry is already extremely successful. In 2019, the statewide sales impact of commercial fishing was over $300 million.
According to a recent article from the Wall Street Journal, officials with the U.S. Department of Interior said they’re aware of fishermen’s concerns about offshore wind impacting their businesses. Officials claim they’re working on guidance for "how wind farm developers can minimize harm to commercial and recreational fishing, while compensating businesses for losses."
A skeptic of man-made climate change, Faircloth also said he doesn’t understand why or how the area for Wilmington East was picked. He feels excluded from conversations leading up to the area being leased out.
"Let's get the people involved that know the ocean [and] know the water. Not somebody who's sitting behind a desk at UNC Chapel Hill or Duke University," Faircloth said. "Why don't we talk to the people who actually live there? [Who] know the area and have an intimate relationship with it for a long time. And that's not what's going on."
Politics of offshore wind
Offshore wind, like many other issues, has become a political hot potato. Under Former President Barack Obama, the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM) moved forward quickly with several projects. BOEM is the federal agency that oversees offshore wind development in the U.S.
We don't know. And I think that the fact that we don't know is what gets people so up in arms. People are just scared of how it's going to impact them.
But that momentum stopped under Former President Donald Trump, who has repeatedly made misleading statements about offshore wind. Most recently, Trump greatly inflated the threat wind turbines have against birds while talking on Sean Hannity.
"[Turbines are] killing the bald eagle and other eagles and other birds. And we have these windmills all over the place, and the environmentalists pretend they love them, but they’re really hurting our country," Trump said.
Now that President Biden and Gov. Roy Cooper are in office, both of whom are Democrats, offshore wind is once again moving forward. Plus, in North Carolina there is growing bipartisan support.
In June 2021, Cooper issued an executive order that establishes offshore wind development goals of 2.8 gigawatts (GW) off the North Carolina coast by 2030 and 8 GW by 2040.
Then last October, Cooper and the Republican controlled General Assembly passed bipartisan legislation to lower carbon emissions in North Carolina. The law requires the state to lower emissions by 70% by 2030 and to reach carbon neutrality by 2050. Energy powered from offshore wind is expected to help reach these goals.
In 2009, UNC Chapel Hill released a study looking at the feasibility of offshore wind in the state. This study was ordered by state lawmakers and found that
"North Carolina is well positioned to develop utility scale wind energy production." The study also suggested preliminary areas for wind farms.
Jess Hawkins, a retired marine biologist in Morehead City, helped research this study.
"What happened is UNC looked at the whole coast [and] at all the physical factors," Hawkins said. "Like where is wind the best? Where would you have access... to transfer the power from the wind to the grid? They combined all those factors, and recommended a series of sites to the General Assembly."
This information was forwarded to BOEM. Hakwins said he made sure to include input from all sorts of stakeholders when he was working on this 2009 study.
"Not just hook and line fishermen, but draggers, gill netters, commercial bottom fishermen, charter fishermen," Hakwins said.
Since that study was published, BOEM has held dozens of in person or online public meetings, and asked for public comments on several documents and studies related to offshore wind in North Carolina.
Despite these opportunities, Glenn Skinner, executive director of the North Carolina Fisheries Association, said he feels like so far, fishermen have only had some input.
"You hear talks about wind energy, but we've heard this for years. Nothing ever happened," Skinner said. "I think it's human nature [to get] complacent until you hear 'lease.' I think… we're starting to realize [we] should have been engaged prior.
"But there was nothing imminent. You just kind of put it to the side [and] deal with more important issues- your everyday life, your work, and then you hear there's going to be a lease, and people start to panic. We've had to assure fishermen just because this area is going to be leased, that doesn’t mean the windmill is going to be there next year. This is still an ongoing thing. Now we need to get engaged and give our input."
Last month, BOEM held an auction for two leases in the Wilmington East area. Duke Energy and French company Total Energies each won those leases for a combined $315 million. Both companies are expected to appoint a fishing liaison soon.
This will help fishermen get information more easily, because right now, there’s not a specific point person for them to go to.
There’s two main questions many fishermen are asking: how much access will they have to the wind farms, and what will the wind farms do to the fish?
"We don't know. And I think that the fact that we don't know is what gets people so up in arms. Your knee jerk reaction is to oppose it because you don't know how it's going to impact you ," Skinner said. "If you had some substantial studies done that... specifies and lays it out, you can prepare for it. But without that, it just scares people."
The U.S. Coast Guard has repeatedly said they will not restrict access to the wind farms, only during construction. However, Hawkins argues this access should be guaranteed by law.
As far as potential impacts to fish, there are some studies available that provide an idea for how the wind farms could impact Wilmington East. In 2015, BOEM released an environmental assessment specific to Kitty Hawk and Wilmington East. The report found that wind farms in these areas will likely have little effect on the environment and on birds, bats, and fish.
In 2018 researchers at Cranfield University in the United Kingdom found that offshore wind turbines in Europe essentially acted as artificial reefs, increasing local biomass and promoting biodiversity. However, the study also notes that "whether changes in biodiversity will have positive, negative or neutral effects on ecosystem services is unclear."
Additionally, in July 2020, a 6-year study conducted by the Holderness Fishing Industry showed that offshore wind farms had no significant negative impact on the ecology of European lobsters. Lobster is not a prominent stock for North Carolina fishermen, and the waters and ecology in the U.K are different than off North Carolina’s water.
An industry funded study published in March of this year found that the Block Island Wind Farm in Rhode Island has had no significant negative effect on fish populations during construction and operation. The Block Island Wind Farm is only 5 wind turbines.
Last year BOEM released a report comparing the environmental effects from various offshore wind turbine foundations.
“Beneficial effects from offshore wind project installation and operations include creating habitat comparable to artificial reefs, with increased biodiversity, abundance, and biomass,” the report states.
However, the report also says that “underwater noise, particularly noise caused by foundation installation activities, may cause mortality or injury to marine mammals, fishes, invertebrates, and sea turtles.”
Karly Lohan with the Southeastern Wind Coalition, a group that advocates for offshore wind energy, said construction and installation will happen with carefully.
“Part of the benefit of not being the first commercial wind farm in the United States is there are technologies that did not exist 10 years ago,” Lohan said. “There are going to be technologies that exist in 10 years that don't exist now to mitigate noise.”
One noise mitigation measure that is used now is called a bubble curtain. Devices generate air bubbles underwater around the base of a turbine where installation is happening. The "curtain" of air bubbles absorbs some of the construction noise.
Fishermen also have questions about how wind turbines will withstand hurricanes.
“[Operators are] going to turn off the turbines if there's a severe hurricane coming. They'll pause the use of the turbines. Also, they're able to feather the direction of the blades,” Lohan said. “The wind is obviously going to be coming in one direction when there's a hurricane. They can feather at the direction of the blade, so there's less surface area into the wind, so you're not going to have a blade ripping off.”
Lohan sympathizes with the difficulties fishermen are facing.
"It's challenging, because offshore wind is in its infancy in the United States," said Lohan. "But the good news about turbines being put in federal waters is we have that four step BOEM regulatory process. So we're not putting turbines in the water overnight. It is many years down the road. There's a very extensive environmental review process that's going to happen."
Lohan conducts community outreach and public engagement in New Hanover and Brunswick counties.
Lohan is advocating for the state to create an environmental technical working group. Ideally, this group would serve as a dedicated assembly to hear concerns and answer questions about any potential impacts to wildlife.
She’s also working on establishing a forum to talk to fishermen in southeastern North Carolina.
"I've been working closely with both commercial and recreational groups to create a structure for that meeting. We want to talk about economic development and any economic opportunities that exist for fisheries," Lohan said. "We want to talk about the regulatory process and provide clarity on how that works and what has been done so far in terms of environmental review, and the opportunities to still be involved."
Overall, fishermen in North Carolina want more collaboration, transparency, and engagement with officials working on offshore wind. They feel like they haven’t seen enough of that so far.
Skinner said he’s looking forward to learning more and having more conversations in the future.
"What I'd like to see for the folks I represent and myself is a dedicated, focused fisheries stakeholder process," Skinner said. "Something that's defined just as a fisheries process. We need education. We need to have input. [We need to] have regular meetings, discussions, updates on what's occurring, what could occur and new studies that are coming out. And that's what I'd love to see come out of it."