NEW BEDFORD — With about 20 years of experience on the seas, Crista Bank has worked in academia as a fisheries biologist, conducted research with commercial fishermen, earned her 100-ton U.S. Coast Guard captain’s license, journeyed across the globe aboard traditional sailing vessels and taught marine science in New England, Southern California and the Florida Keys.
In May 2018, she became a fisheries liaison for Vineyard Wind, an offshore wind developer based in New Bedford where she grew up and now lives. The company has two projects in the works — Vineyard Wind I, a 800-megawatt project off the coast of Massachusetts and Park City Wind, an 804-megawatt project for the Bridgeport region.
According to Bank, the “big objective” is communication between fishermen and Vineyard Wind.
“Some of it is teaching two industries about [each other] because the fishermen don’t totally understand offshore wind and developers don’t understand the fishing industry, so my job is to try to have both industries understand the other a little bit better,” she said.
The main purpose of her job is to make sure the developers at Vineyard Wind are receiving accurate information about the fishermen’s concerns and how the fishing industry might be impacted by offshore wind. She also relays information to the fishermen about offshore wind projects and Vineyard Wind’s work “to make sure that the fishermen are not going to be pushed out of their industry,” which she said has been beleaguered by multiple challenges.
“The developers are going to want to work with the fishermen to do everything they can to make sure they can work together, that the fishing industry can still be prosperous [while] understanding that it’s another challenge on the fishing industry that already faces significant challenges from other areas — climate change, regulations, fish stocks and the nature of fishing itself is challenging, forget all the other things we throw on top of it,” she said.
Bank explained that fishermen are already restricted from specific ocean areas during certain times, making the prospect of offshore wind a concern, she said.
“The way the ocean is already already carved up, there are areas the fishermen cannot fish in, whether it’s from seasonal closures that have to do with spawning times of year, whether it’s habitat management areas closures, whether it’s just wide-sweeping ocean national monument closures, so there’s already a lot of restrictions on where fishermen can and can’t fish,” she said. “So when a big footprint of the ocean space is now dedicated for offshore wind, right off the bat that is another challenge and another ocean user that is making the available space to fish even smaller, so it’s continually shrinking.”
Bank said that the goal is to have fishermen fish within the offshore turbines grid, but with all of the industry regulations, “it’s still met with some skepticism because of areas that have been opened before and then closed.”
Fishermen are concerned about the difficulty and safety of fishing around the turbines, she said.
“The goal from the developers’ side is to try to make spacing as wide as possible to still maximize the wind potential but still allow the fishermen to fish safely around them,” Bank said, adding that developers have agreed the grid will be one-mile-by-one-mile in the footprints off of Rhode Island and Massachusetts.
These wind projects are regulated by the Bureau of Ocean and Energy Management, but Bank said that the issue of turbine spacing has been left for the developers, the fishing community and other users to try to figure out.
“There’s been a lot of conversations about what the appropriate layout is and even the direction and orientation of the grid and back-and-forth meetings and discussions about the appropriate layout and spacing and again there’s a lot of different input from the different fishing groups for what the appropriate spacing is and it’s from all over the board,” she said.
A dragger fisherman might want more spacing between turbines, while a fixed-gear fisherman might not require as much space because they are setting their gear in the water and coming back to it at a later time, she explained.
“There’s a lot of different information from different fishing groups, from regulators, from what the best wind capacity for the developers at that site is. So there’s a lot of different information going into what the correct layout is,” she said. “The short answer is there are no definitive regulations about it.”
According to Bank — who previously worked as a UMass field biologist and who holds a master’s degree in fisheries oceanography from UMass Dartmouth — fishery science is the big issue now for the fishing community.
“The fishermen as a group, no matter what type of gear type [they use], are very concerned with collecting better data for their fishery because data is what drives management decisions,” she said. “That means collecting better information on spawning cod species, on the halibut population, on monkfish age and growth.”
Bank acknowledged that long before offshore wind entered the market, there was mistrust between fishermen and scientists, but her past experience working with fishermen on fisheries research projects has helped her build trust with the fishing community.
“Are the scientists doing the right studies? Are they sampling in the right places? Working together with the fishermen on answering those questions is the best way to have the data believed or accepted by the fishing community and that’s how I became involved with the fishing industry, so I take that with me to offshore wind,” she said. “And I explained to the developers, that fishery science data is very important to the fishing community so any way that the developers can help to support better research and fisheries data collection…’
The idea is to make the collected data available to regulators, both state and federal, who make the decisions on how healthy the fish stocks are, she said.
“We really need to support fisheries research and, again, I come from academia where the whole point of research is to share it, to publish it and to share it with everybody,” she said. “In the corporate world, that’s not really how they approach research. They approach it to get the data to do their permits or do what they need to do, but Vineyard Wind has been very receptive to sharing this data publicly.”
Bank said that with offshore wind entering the market, she hopes that her role will build a better bridge between the two industries.
“I knew I was walking into a very difficult job. I knew exactly what I was getting into,” she admitted. “There’s a lot of unknowns and a lot of change that’s coming with offshore wind and as they say, ‘hope for the best,’ but I have to prepare for the worst and [the fishermen] have already had some pretty tough challenges thrown at them that they’ve had to recover from, so their skepticism is not surprising.”