Local Startup Aims to Expand Offshore Wind Business into New Jersey, Maryland

NEW LONDON — Sea Services North America has begun hiring fishermen to provide marine services and safe navigation for offshore wind projects, including the joint ventures of Ørsted and Eversource in the Northeast. 

“Our mission is to increase fishermen safety, provide opportunity to the fishermen, while supplying scouts and safety vessels to offshore developers,” said Gordon Videll, chief executive officer and co-founder of Sea Services North America, based in Waterford. 

The company’s collaboration with Ørsted and Eversource brings together fishermen from Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Connecticut and New York to provide monitoring services and support vessels during the construction of offshore wind farms.

The agreement marks the first time an offshore wind developer and a commercial fishing consortium have signed a “substantial commercial contract in the history of U.S. offshore wind,” according to a release from Ørsted and Eversource on May 19.

Ørsted and Eversource are developing the 704 megawatt Revolution Wind project for electricity in Connecticut and Rhode Island, 132 megawatt South Fork Wind for Long Island and 924 megawatt Sunrise Wind project for New York.

Fishermen working for Sea Services provided monitoring services and scouting vessels that assisted the Revolution Wind research vessels in identifying fishing gear during pre-construction marine surveys, according to the Ørsted and Eversource release.

Videll, who co-founded the company with Michael Thieler, operations manager, and Gary Yerman, fleet manager, said Sea Services has a “stable” of boats that have signed up and the company is currently vetting more fishermen. 

“We’re looking for people who are committed to increasing safety and providing quality services and being part of the offshore conversation,” he said. “This offers a supplemental income for fishermen so that there’s steady work, which will stabilize their lives and provide greater opportunity.”

He said the focus was on increasing safety for fishermen as well as diversifying their skills to support offshore energy developers. 

“What we find is that our more profitable boats are safer boats, and by keeping the boats busy, they will be able to become the safest boats on the water.”

Coexistence

Thieler, who has been a commercial fisherman for 33 years, said the coexistence between the fishing industry and wind energy is a key part of the conversation during interviews with prospective fishermen. 

“It’s being able to work together. We’re not looking to polarize fishermen. We’re looking for fishermen who will co-exist and work with the developers and the wind farms.”

The first step, Thieler said, is to bring the fishing vessel up to international standards and to provide higher standards of training in an effort to raise the safety standards across the industry. 

He said Ørsted has committed resources toward enhanced training programs for captains and crew and equipment including life saving appliances, or LSAs, and survival gear. The cost of the equipment upgrades is shared between Ørsted and the fishing vessel owner. 

“We have international standards that we’re trying to achieve and this is not easy to do. Not every crew, every boat, every owner will want to do this,” said Theiler. “It does take some commitment to get a boat ready and crews trained. It’s a certain amount of resources in energy, time and money.” 

The idea is to hire a fishing vessel in its offseason, Theiler said. Lobstering is active in the summer, leaving the boat available in the winter. Dragger or trawling vessels are more productive in the winter and could be available in the summer. 

“We don’t want anyone to stop fishing. We’re just trying to get them to diversify a little bit, so they’re not relying on one source of income,” said Theiler.

Thieler said a profitable boat is a safe boat because the owner has money to perform maintenance, buy new equipment and electronics and spend time in the shipyard. Boats that are not profitable do not send their crew for training or spend money in the shipyard every year.

“We’re hoping this provides a secondary source of revenue for the boats and allows them to maybe upgrade their certifications and training.” 

The knowledge of experienced fishermen and their professional seamanship skills are invaluable in helping with local marine projects, he said. 

“No one knows the waters better than us. No one spends more time on the water than commercial fishermen. The model has been proven in Europe and we’re using the same model.”

Theiler said he could not disclose the financial compensation fishermen receive when working for Sea Services.

Navigation

In the federal Record of Decision for Vineyard Wind I by the Bureau of Ocean and Energy Management, the Army Corps of Engineers said that navigation difficulties could cause fishermen to cease working the commercial fishing grounds beneath the turbines, which will be spaced one nautical mile apart in an east-west grid. 

“While Vineyard Wind is not authorized to prevent free access to the entire wind development area, due to the placement of the turbines it is likely that the entire 75,614 acre area will be abandoned by commercial fisheries due to difficulties with navigation. The extent of impact to commercial fisheries and loss of economic income is estimated to total $14 million over the expected 30-year lifetime of the Project.”

Videll told CT Examiner that the statement was disingenuous and that navigation between the turbines will not be problematic. 

“I was on the phone just last week with a fisherman who was fishing in the middle of a wind farm in Europe where the turbines are spaced half the distance they’re going to be here,” Videll said. “Just to put that into perspective, from my house I can look out my window on any given day and see the other side of the Thames river which is .7 miles away. I  see boats passing, I see ferries passing, I see submarines in the middle of the river, and pleasure craft traffic. So, that is a red herring that suggests that you can’t navigate through a one mile spread.”

He said Ørsted has created a simulator in Rhode Island that lets fishermen experience the exact spacing that is being proposed. 

“Every fisherman I’ve been there with has done it with no problem,” he said. 

More wind farms

Videll said Sea Services is negotiating with offshore wind developers along the eastern seaboard and is working to expand its fleet into New Jersey and, eventually, Maryland. 

Ørsted has also begun conversations with Sea Services about its Ocean Wind and Skipjack Wind Farms, serving New Jersey and Maryland respectively, according to the release. 

Kenneth Bowes, vice president of siting and permitting at Eversource, said the collaboration with Sea Services North America reflected Eversource’s commitment to engage local partners, including commercial fishermen, throughout the entire cycle of the company’s projects. 

David Hardy, chief executive Officer of Ørsted Offshore North America, said in the release that he believed offshore wind can coexist with all ocean users, including the region’s commercial and recreational fishing fleets. 

“Our expanded collaboration with Sea Services will help us as we strive to achieve that coexistence, with the valuable support from fishermen who know the area’s waters best.”

European model

Thieler said that when he visited Kilkeel, Northern Ireland, a few years ago with Videll and Yerman, they saw a town that could be a model for New London, showing how to increase economic development by engaging fishermen in offshore wind. 

“It was a fishing town that had been on hard times,” Thieler said. “On one side of the port, boats were brightly painted and equipped with high tech gear. On the other side of the port were rusty and tired looking boats.”

Thieler said his group immediately asked what was different about the nicer, well-maintained boats, and what had happened to the older boats. 

“The answer was, ‘Those are the guys that fish and then also act as safety vessels for wind farms. On the other side are guys that just fish.’”

Videll said the experience and knowledge of fishermen are invaluable in the development and construction of offshore wind farms. 

“We need the native knowledge of the fishermen. These developers could have gone out and gotten work boats that aren’t fishermen but they’d lose out on the hundreds of years of knowledge that these fishermen have.”

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