Block Island Wind Farm Work Frustrates Fishermen

By TIM FAULKNER/ecoRI News staff

PROVIDENCE — Building the country’s first offshore wind farm hasn’t come without its glitches. Since construction began last summer off Block Island, there have been safety slip-ups and lapses with equipment. The latest issues relate to fishing and undersea cables.

Concerns about fishing access at the five-turbine site have persisted since last July. Fishermen were initially kept outside a 500-yard safety zone whenever workboats were stationed at any of the turbine foundations.

“We have a small contingent of fishermen that are really unhappy with the progress and the scheduling and delays of this project,” said David Beutel, an aquaculture specialist with the Coastal Resources Management Council (CRMC).

Beutel noted that the buffers are particularly inconvenient for fishermen using gillnets. Gillnets are sheets of nylon mesh that ensnare fish by entangling their gills. The nets are sometimes fixed on or near the sea floor to snare groundfish such as cod, haddock, pollock, flounder and hake.

Monkfish fishermen from three fishing boats are complaining because their permits only allow the use of gillnets in state waters. The wind farm is in Rhode Island waters at the boundary with federal waters.

“They want to set (their nets) in between the turbines and, when the jack-up vessels come and when the cable-laying vessels come, they need to move their gear. That is their issue,” Beutel told the CRMC governing board at its April 26 meeting.

The issue calmed somewhat after construction ceased between November and April and peak fishing season slowed. Construction, however, is expected to ramp up this month just as spring fish migration begins. The turbine site will be crowded with more boats, including vessels with overnight quarters. Now that the base structures have been installed, the 500-yard buffer has become less restrictive and only applies to the area around a single turbine when a workboat is at the structure.

The 25-mile cable-laying project between Block Island and Narragansett is causing similar concerns. National Grid is building and will own the underwater power line system that will deliver wind energy to the mainland.

In recent weeks, drilling the 4- to 8-foot deep trench in the seafloor has been slowed by poor weather and a stubborn substratum of granite off Scarborough Beach. The process requires dive teams and offshore boats. The trench digging frustrates fishermen because, unlike the immovable wind farm, the mobile trench boats require a 200-yard floating buffer. According to National Grid, the trench digging is about 85 percent complete and is expected to finish in two weeks.

The slowdown prompted National Grid to seek a 45-day extension for completing its trench and cable work. The request didn't go over well with the New Shoreham (Block Island) Town Council. After a meeting in executive session April 25, the council voted to reject National Grid’s terms for an extension and instead asked the utility to pay an unspecified fee. National Grid rejected the counteroffer, calling the payment a large sum that funds some purposes unrelated to the project.

“We’re committed to working with the town and other stakeholders as we continue to advance construction,” National Grid wrote in prepared statement.

A cable-laying vessel connecting the wind farm to the Block Island Power Co. also is having unspecified complications. Deepwater Wind, the developer of the wind farm and the cable from the turbines to Block Island, hasn't said if the complications will push back the launch of the 30-megawatt wind farm, which is expected to be operational in the last quarter of this year.