Lobstermen protest an offshore wind project off Boothbay Harbor on Sunday. Credit: Courtesy of Sherrie Tucker / via Maine Public

Several fishing boats surrounded a vessel conducting survey work for an offshore wind project near Monhegan Monday, stopping the vessel from being able to do its work.

Monday’s pushback is an escalation of peaceful protests centered around offshore wind development, which occurred on the water in the region over the weekend, according to Rep. Genevieve McDonald, D-Stonington, who serves as a liaison between the project, New England Aqua Ventus, and local fishermen.

On Monday morning, McDonald received reports from the crew of the survey ship, Go Liberty, that at least three independent fishing vessels were following the ship and putting out fishing gear in its path, which is preventing the ship from conducting its survey of the seafloor.

“It’s not violent, but it is unlawful,” McDonald said.

As of 5 p.m. Monday, Maine Marine Patrol was assessing the situation, but could release no further details, according to Maine Department of Marine Resources spokesperson Jeff Nichols. More information will be released when it is available, he said.

Port Clyde lobsterman Gerry Cushman — who was in contact Monday with one of the fishing boats involved — said the fishermen were trying to move their traps out the survey vessel’s way.

“People were just trying to save their gear,” said Cushman, who sits on the Maine Lobstermen’s Association board of directors.

Lobsterman Larry Reed posted a video on Facebook Monday morning of the Go Liberty and several lobster buoys could be seen near the vessel. However, it is not clear if the Go Liberty was dragging equipment at the time.

“He’s gonna tow right through that lobster gear with no concern,” Reed is heard saying in the video.

The Go Liberty is conducting a survey of the proposed cable route that would allow the New England Aqua Ventus project to bring the power generated by an offshore wind turbine to the mainland.

To conduct the survey, the Go Liberty tows several pieces of sonar equipment that map the seabed floor. However, if there is too much fishing gear, such as lobster buoys and traps in its path, the vessel cannot do its work.

When the vessel approaches gear in the water, the crew is instructed to avoid it, according to New England Aqua Ventus spokesperson Dave Wilby said.

The Department of Marine Resources and New England Aqua Ventus sent out numerous notices to fishermen alerting them to move their gear out of the area where the Go Liberty is doing its work, McDonald said.

“The survey work has been slowed down by the amount of fishing gear,” McDonald said. “We believe that more gear has been put there after the work has started.”

The survey began on March 9 and will go through April 4 and fishermen have been instructed to keep their gear out of the affected for the duration of that period

However, additional delays — like the one experienced Monday — could prolong this timeline, Wilby said.

“There is disappointment that there is an attempt to delay the survey, and of course, slowing down or delaying the survey is also going to delay a return to normal activities for fishermen and all maritime activities,” Wilby said.

Gear in the survey path has almost doubled in recent weeks, Wilby said. The crew of the Go Liberty identified about 221 lobster buoys in the survey path on March 13. When they conducted the buoy count again on March 20, there were about 450 buoys in the path.

However, Cushman takes issue with that assertion. When he participated in an organized protest along the route over the weekend, he said he only saw between 20-30 buoys.

Maine’s fishing community has pushed back on Gov. Janet Mills’ plans for development of offshore wind in the Gulf of Maine. Cushman said the pushback from fishermen isn’t simply because they could lose fishing ground, but is also about potential impacts on the Gulf of Maine’s ecosystem.

“It’s bigger than that. It’s about fishermen doing what they’re supposed to do and protecting the Gulf of Maine because we just know that this is not good,” Cushman said.

The prospect of offshore wind development comes at a time when the state’s fishing industry is already feeling the pressure of the pandemic and newly proposed rules aimed at protecting right whales.

“People are under immense pressure in the fishing industry right now,” McDonald said. “It’s overwhelming to fishermen.”

Correction: a previous version of this story misstated the name of the project.