‘Tragedy of the Commons’ Will be the Fate of Marine Environment in Atlantic Wind Farms


TwitterFacebookCopy LinkPrintEmail

Fisheries regulators have for well more than a century bumped head on into the tragedy of the commons’ economic theory.

And acknowledging it without acting on it has cost them dearly time and again.

Such is beginning to show its harmful self again in the marine environment—this time in the 5,000 square nautical miles of Atlantic Ocean waters the federal agency, Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, has given over to the highest foreign investment fund bidder intent on erecting electricity generating wind farms.

For starters just what is the ‘tragedy of the commons’?

The concept originated in an essay written in 1833 by the British economist William Forster Lloyd, who used a hypothetical example of the effects of unregulated grazing on common land (also known as a” common”) in Great Britain and Ireland.

In fisheries it is recognized that fish in the ocean are entirely in the public domain belonging to the public at large.  And more particularly the waters in which they swim and over the bottom they travel.

In years past fishermen sailed to location they knew, set their nets, and took what they could catch.  In the 20th century-actually even before them as observed by John Cabot and others, fishing grounds could actually be fished out. Browns Bank of Nova Scotia held enough cod to feed the world.  And the worlds fleets attempted to prove that.

Like the English commons, the Atlantic waters could take just so much ‘grazing’.  The Canadian government finally recognized the cod fishery had crashed and closed it; it has been 30 years in just beginning to rebuild.

In the US the cod fishery is less than 4 percent of its productivity even 20 years ago.  The Canastra Brothers have found other species to sell.

Recognizing that fish could not be owned, until they were caught, governmental regulators attempted to at least partially privatize fishing rights.  So too, the waters in which they swim (Hague Line dividing CN and US waters in the Gulf of Maine and on Georges Bank.)

As well as the bottom over which they swam.  It was that bottom and those waters that wind farm builders wanted “rights”.  

ITQs or individual transferable quotas at least partially solved the threatened crash of the Pacific halibut fishery.  Limited entry, boat assigned quotas, a generous season in which to decide when and where to fish, saved the fishery for the US and Canada.

So how and where does the tragedy of the commons relate to wind farms?

The first major commercial windfarm in US waters is Vineyard Wind which potentially will encompass over 1,000 square nautical miles into which Denmark and its private investors plan to erect close to 200 six-hundred-foot-tall wind turbines each weighing over 300 tons.  That geography represents a mass slightly larger than the entire size of Rhode Island.

The BOEM regulations under which the wind farms will operate (construction and operations plans COP) recognizes that such marine construction will damage the environment, and the fisheries that operate in there—to some extent.

But these waters already support multiple users regulated by the government, especially the fisheries.  Tugboats and commercial traffic, the U. S. Coast Guard and U. S. Navy, commercial air traffic, marine scientific research done by universities, the governments, and fishing organizations.

In college we would describe this as a cluster #@#$%^&*!

These waters are further complicated by the Endangered Species Act attempting to stem the demise of right whales which annually spawn IN THIS CONSTRUCTION AREA.

The federal government would protect the whales in this wind leased area by removing over 10,000 lobster traps and their buoy lines.  But it would approve construction of the largest marine structure in the world here?  

In these commons the sheep are told to leave and not graze here.  But the goats and cows can have at it at will.  

More than 3,000 miles of ocean bottom will have to be dug up to bury electric cables run among the towers and to the shore stations.  These bottoms are sensitive habitat.  And the cable industry experience with wind projects is that there will be breaks—expensive and complicated to repair—closing off large areas to all other legitimate established users.

The five turbines in the test wind field off Block Island, failing to follow good engineering practice, are now faced with a $50 million plus repair bill to re-route cables to the island and separately to the mainland. 

The problem here is that no one has any ownership interest to protect (worse, the federal government law requires the wind interests to secure a formal letter giving them permission to kill whales and sea turtles in the course of building the wind farms.)

So, the question arises “why don’t the fishing interests move to protect these sensitive marine habitats?”

They have tried without much success.  Their $500,000 funded operation in Washington, D. C., called Responsible Offshore Development Alliance, has accepted thousands of dollars from the federal government and foreign governments so its political power to protect the American ocean bottom and the fisheries in toto is clearly compromised and limited, according to a spokesman not authorized `to speak.

One attorney advised that they best seek only to protect the sea scallop fishery, less than 5% of the total grounds and waters, all species included, threatened by the wind construction projects. 

Jeff Kaelin, an officer with Lunds Fisheries and a RODA manager, a major sea scallop harvester and processor, has made it clear through third parties, at best they can only protect their business against the billions wielded by Avanigrid and Orsted, the wind farm builders.

What is there in the Atlantic Ocean, as a “commons” that is left without an “owner” to protect that resource? As a matter of law, nothing.  But in actuality quite a bit of that entire ocean, now given over to wind development.

On both the federal and state levels there are numerous agencies, as well as clear private sector interests, who, while “getting”, should say there are marine resources to be protected and 

superintended.  Possibly the high-water mark for such a recognition was BOEMs withholding approval of Avangrid’s COP and decision to permit construction, because it realized approval as such needed to take into consideration the fact sixteen other wind farms proposed would-given approval-represent a substantial and quite different view of impact on environmental resources.

In plain English, what might be entirely tolerable, and capable of working with other existing ocean users, in one small windfarm would cumulatively in sixteen be significantly harmful and so NOT TOLERABLE.  To that end the Trump Department of the Interior took another six months to make such review, ending with the issuance of a Supplement to the draft environmental impact statement.

The Supplement was reviewed by the National Marine Fisheries Service for its thoroughness and competence to examine the cumulative impact Vineyard Wind I and sixteen others might make on the environment and the many fisheries. 

The news was not good.  BOEMs Supplement was woefully inadequate and incomplete. Thirteen thousand comments to the Interior Department said so.  It did not even contain the legally required Biological Opinion from the NMFS.

This was the same formal critical document BOEM had refused to solicit from NMFS before, saying they would grant the wind farm lessees approval to build without it.

RODA had issued a 187-page response to the BOEM Supplement identifying in clear English more than 18 separate significant errors and omissions.  The deficiencies largely remained outstanding in December 2020, a mere week before BOEM was finally set to approve in whole or in part the COP for Vineyard Wind I to begin building its farm.

Trump lost the election—Biden won; and Avangrid viewed getting far wider and more accommodating approval from the new administration, So, it abruptly withdrew its application to build.  Once Biden was sworn in Avangrid “had a change of heart” and said it would resubmit its COP again seeking approval.

The impact of readily approving Vineyard Wind I and any number of other lease applications, on the fisheries and the environment is patently obvious given the existing record.

Fish will be killed or driven away; fisheries (squid, whiting, lobster and others) will potentially be significantly altered.  And the dotting of thousands of square miles of ocean with turbines set 1 mile apart will radically alter transit and navigation.

And while there are laws and widely recognized standards for environmental protection in these thousands of square miles of ocean, there is no one who will claim “ownership” of these “commons”.  Not even RODA who took their money and climbed into their boat.

The price.  A few sea scallop beds.  Are these their pieces of silver?