Fishermen are denying allegations that they intentionally blocked a vessel conducting a survey for an offshore wind development project from doing its work earlier this week.
The survey vessel, Go Liberty, reported to marine law enforcement Monday that fishermen were blocking its path, preventing the ship from conducting a survey of a proposed cable path for the New England Aqua Ventus project, a one-turbine wind development project slated for the waters off Monhegan.
Maine Marine Patrol responded to the complaint but did not observe fishing boats blocking the vessel’s path, according to a Department of Marine Resources spokesperson.
On Wednesday, fishermen in the area received a notice that if they did not voluntarily remove their gear from the survey route, Marine Patrol will move the gear.
At least two lobstermen who crossed paths with the Go Liberty Monday said that while they are frustrated with the survey process, they were not trying to block the vessel Monday and were just trying to protect traps in the water.
“They’re making us out like we’re a bunch of bad people. But we just need to make a living,” Friendship lobsterman Chad Burns said. “People are trying to get gear away from [the vessel] when they see it coming.”
Another lobsterman, Larry Reed of South Bristol, said he passed the Go Liberty from a safe distance Monday morning to make sure the vessel wasn’t towing up the traps of family and friends that were near the ship. He then went on to tend to traps he had in the area, and claims the Go Liberty came within 30 yards of his boat, causing him to move his traps to make sure they weren’t towed up by the vessel.
“I passed the vessel just to make sure they weren’t towing up my fellow fishermen’s gear and I proceeded. I did not stop, I did not harass, I made no gestures to them whatsoever,” Reed said. “I was doing my job which I am licensed to do and they have no right to tell me otherwise.”
While it’s hard to determine exactly what transpired on the water Monday, “whether it was unintentional or not, the fact remains the vessel had to stop for safety concerns,” New England Aqua Ventus Spokesperson Dave Wilby said.
The alleged interference was the latest point of contention between the local fishing industry and the prospect of offshore wind development, which fishermen have been critical of in terms of how it could change the Gulf of Maine and potentially impact their livelihoods.
Need for the survey
New England Aqua Ventus has contracted with two vessels to conduct a survey of the route that would bring a cable ashore from the turbine site near Monhegan. The survey includes an assessment of the seabed floor which will help New England Aqua Ventus determine where the cable can be buried so it will have the least impact on fishing practices in the area.
In order to conduct the survey, New England Aqua Ventus and the Maine Department of Marine Resources have asked fishermen to remove their gear from a 23-mile long path off the coast of Lincoln County for about four weeks. Since the Go Liberty drags sonar equipment, if it comes in contact with fishing gear ― like lobster traps ― damage can be caused to both the equipment and the gear.
“[New England Aqua Ventus] made very extensive efforts to communicate the survey timing and location to the fishing community and other marine stakeholders weeks in advance of the start of survey activities,” said Wilby.
While numerous notices were given to fishermen in the region leading up to the survey, which began earlier this month, about 254 lobster buoys were still in the path as of Monday, according to the Department of Marine Resources.
Both New England Aqua Ventus and state marine officials say too much gear remains in the route for the survey to be completed. On Wednesday morning, the Department of Marine Resources sent out a notice to fishermen with gear in the area reiterating the need for temporary removal.
“We’re asking for voluntary cooperation in terms of gear in the survey route,” Maine Department of Resources spokesman Jeff Nichols said. “We need cooperation from the industry.”
However, if fishermen don’t voluntarily move their gear, Marine Patrol will begin moving gear outside of the route so the survey can be completed within the next two weeks, according to the notice.
Why gear remains
While many fishermen have moved their gear out of the path, Reed and others feel that it is unfair for New England Aqua Ventus to ask them to move out of their traditional fishing grounds for a project they do not agree with.
“I don’t feel that any fishermen should have to move for them to perform a demonstration that benefits only them. We have nothing to gain and a lot to lose from this project,” Reed said.
New England Aqua Ventus has said it chose March to conduct the month long survey since there is less fishing activity this time of year. However, Reed said spring is traditionally the time of year when fishermen look to move their gear into this region.
“That’s traditional spring fishing ground, and the rest of the year really, except for the heart of winter,” Reed said.
With nice weather setting in earlier than normal this year, and lobster prices currently around $10 a pound, leaving traps in the path can be enticing to fishermen, especially if their traps are producing good hauls. “Right now every pound counts,” Reed said.
Since the survey vessel was scheduled to be in certain parts of the path at different times during the month-long period, fishermen might be taking the risk of leaving traps in their traditional spots until they think the vessel will actually be in the area, Maine Coast Fishermen’s Association Executive Director Ben Martens said.
However, because of weather delays early on in the survey and the gear density the vessel has encountered, the survey timeline has been delayed, Wilby said.
“Right now the price of lobster is really good and the last year was a tough one,” Martens said. “I know a lot of guys who are trying to make up for some of the losses they experienced last year. With the good price, if they’re catching lobster, I wouldn’t be surprised if some [fishermen] are [cutting] it a little closer than they normally would some of these decisions.”
Martens said he has also heard from fishermen who didn’t know the survey was going on, despite the multiple notices. “With COVID and everything else communication is really hard right now. I think we missed a lot of people,” he said.
Burns, 51, has fished in the area since he was 17 years old. While he said he tried to move his gear out of the pathway, he isn’t confident he’s been able to do so in keeping with the survey-path chart provided to fishermen, which he said is confusing.
Fishermen have also alleged that the survey ship is not staying within the pathway when it is dragging its gear. Wilby, the project’s spokesperson, said the vessels do not drag their gear outside of the survey route because it could damage the equipment. However, the vessels do travel outside of the route when not towing gear.
This is not the first time that lobstermen have been asked to move their gear. The state conducts annual trawl surveys to assess fishery stocks and gear must be temporarily moved. Compliance with removal for these reasons is typically excellent, according to the Department of Marine Services.