WILDWOOD — Typically, a warm, clear September day would mean boats in the water for the dozens of fisheries and anglers in South Jersey.
However, more than 50 members of the commercial and recreational fishing community filled a meeting hall inside the city’s convention center for a congressional subcommittee hearing on the impact offshore wind turbines may have on the area’s billion dollar industry.
The hearing, organized by U.S. Rep. Jeff Van Drew, D-2nd, brought House Subcommittee on Energy and Mineral Resources Chair U.S. Rep. Alan Lowenthal, D-California, to hear the concerns of the local fishing and tourism industries that may be affected by the state’s first offshore wind energy projects.
Van Drew, who supports wind energy, wanted to create an open dialogue between Danish power company Orsted and the area’s commercial and recreational fishing industries.
“We have to be mindful of the people who’ve worked in and around the water and our own economy for years, and as we went through the process of the hearing, no one could argue that fishermen and those industries don’t deserve a seat at the table,” Van Drew said.
Last year, Gov. Phil Murphy signed an executive order directing the Board of Public Utilities to develop 3,500 megawatts of wind energy off New Jersey’s coast. The Ocean Wind — a 1,100 megawatt project 15 miles off Atlantic City’s coast — was approved for development, with another project site between the New Jersey and Delaware coasts, the Garden State Offshore Energy, listed as under development in documents.
Three panels of local government officials, representatives from fishing and ecological groups gave five minute testimonies to Lowenthal, explaining how the burgeoning wind industry would affect the local fishing industry.
Panelists mentioned the Block Island Wind Farm, in Rhode Island, which they claimed had a positive impact on Rhode Island’s job economy and tourism.
Anne Hawkins, executive director of the Responsible Offshore Development Alliance, said there was a limited amount of data showing the effects offshore wind turbines will have on the coastline’s ecosystem.
“It is impossible to have zero impact,” Hawkins said.
RODA is working to form a coalition of fishing industry associations to collaborate with regulatory agencies and offshore energy developers to minimize conflicts.
As more data is collected on the environmental impact, other representatives were positive that the current plans for the projects would disrupt commercial fishing.
“Offshore wind development poses a serious threat to our achievements and the continued success of sustainable fisheries,” said Peter Hughes, director of sustainability for Atlantic Capes fisheries and a board member of RODA.
Hughes said the proposed area for the wind turbines would be in the direct path of commercial fishing areas and may affect the unique environment the local fishing industry depends on.
The most vocalized concern from all 13 panelists was the lack of communication Orsted and officials had with the local fishing industry.
Toward the end of the hearing, Van Drew asked the audience how many of them worked in the fishing industry, with all hands going up. The follow up question, asking if those fishers and anglers felt like they were informed by the actions of the prompted only three hands raised.
“They need to communicate better, I think,” said Carl Niemczura, 57, of North Cape May, a dock manager with Atlantic Cape Fisheries.
Niemczura became aware of the potential issues facing commercial fisheries last week and said he and his co-workers were unsure of the project happening just off the coast.
“If this impacts the industries, this will impact the guys who work below me and their families. I’d like to be in the industry for at least another 10 years before I retire,” he said.
“I’m hoping things change, so we’re a little more informed and we know more about what’s happening off the coast.” Niemczura said.
Frederick Zalcman, the head of government affairs for Orsted, said as the projects move forward in New Jersey, they plan to have groups working with the fishers.
“We are not simply paying lip service or checking off boxes with the fishing community,” he said. “We have worked collaboratively with fishing in Europe, and we intend to do so in the U.S.”
“There’s always a possibility of modifications,” said Van Drew, who was optimistic after the hearing. Though not overseeing the working groups himself, Van Drew said he would assist in any way he can to encourage communication between the two industries.
“They’re not in the water yet. This is good for the immediate projects and the future projects” he said.