Video and text by TIM FAULKNER/ecoRI News staff
SOUTH KINGSTOWN, R.I. — A deal between fishermen and Vineyard Wind is nearly approved, but the revised agreement won’t give fishermen much more than what was originally offered by the developer.
Lanny Dellinger, chairman of the Fishermen’s Advisory Board (FAB), and Grover Fugate, executive director of the Coastal Resources Management Council (CRMC), admitted that Vineyard Wind had the leverage in negotiations and that agreeing to a slightly improved compensation offer is better than no deal at all.
“Just open your eyes and see what you are up against,” Dellinger told the fishermen crowded in a hotel banquet hall on Feb. 23. “That’s the bottom line. That's what we had to weigh and look at as a group. There is no choice here.”
Dellinger explained that federal agencies such as the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, nongovernmental organizations, and environmental groups were pushing for the approval of the Vineyard Wind project.
“It’s this (fishing) industry against the world,” Dellinger said.
Fugate elaborated, saying President Trump accelerated the approval process for energy development so that decisions on proposals must be reached within a year of the filling of an environmental impact statement. All other permits must be issued within two years.
“Never been done before, but we are all scrambling to try to do this at this point,” Fugate said. “So these are the limitations that we’re operating under and why the process has not been able to go in a much more relaxed and thoughtful process. We’re under these time constraints where if we don't make these decisions they escape us.”
FAB member Chris Brown blamed the federal Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM).
“We have so much invested in our fisheries and none of that matters to BOEM,” Brown said. “They are in an inexhaustible search for the next energy source. Years ago it was ‘drill baby drill.’ Now it’s ‘spin baby spin.’ It’s the same thing. They value nothing and we have no way to rein them in.”
FAB member Mike Marchetti said much more research is needed on fisheries impacts caused by the proposed 92-square-mile wind project other planned offshore wind facilities.
“We have five more projects coming at us, at least,” Marchetti said. “You wanna talk squid? You wanna talk scallop? You wanna talk ocean quahog? We have a lot coming at us. So I think, unfortunately, this is the best we are gong to get, and we worked hard on your behalf. I have zero self-interest in this other than to keep the ship afloat for all of us.”
In the end, the six-member FAB unanimously approved a financial package that is about the same as the original $30 million offer made Jan. 16. In the new agreement some of the money will be dispersed upfront. Instead of $6.2 million paid over 30 years, a fishermen’s compensation fund will receive $2.3 million over 30 years but with a $1 million initial payout.
A second payment stream goes to a new RI Fishermen’s Future Viability Trust. In the first offer, this fund was controlled by the state and paid for fisheries-related research. The new fund will receive $2.5 million annually for five years and will be controlled by an independent board of trustees. The board and CRMC staff will determine how the money will be spent.
FAB member Rick Bellevance noted that giving the fishermen control over the money instead of the state was a big benefit, even though the amount of money might be inadequate.
“The FAB feels strongly that this agreement is not precedent setting in the way that we determine the value of the fisheries in this area,” he said.
Many of the commercial fishermen gathered at the Holiday Inn on Route 1 were displeased with the agreement. Dockside buyers of seafood felt excluded from the process and wanted compensation for the loss of squid and other seafood moving through their fish houses.
Meghan Lapp, fisheries liaison for Seafreeze Ltd., which owns four fishing boats and two processors at Davisville Pier in North Kingstown, said the new offer was only made known two days earlier and the fishing industry needs to comment.
“There has been no public meeting that has heard public comment on the proposal that is before the FAB today,” Lapp said before Dellinger cut her off.
Dellinger told her the meeting was public but that comments would only be taken at the CRMC meeting on Feb. 26.
At that meeting, the agreement will go before the CRMC board as it decides whether the proposed 84-turbine offshore wind project is consistent with regulations. The meeting is scheduled for 6 p.m. at the University of Rhode Island Bay Campus in Narragansett.