By Richard Gaines
The Obama administration has asked wind energy companies for notices of interest in leasing blocks in a 2,200-nautical-square-mile sector of rich fishing waters south of Martha's Vineyard and Nantucket, a move that further threatens New England's fishing fleet.
The area of interest was determined in consultation with the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, according to the U.S. Department of Interior's Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, Regulation and Enforcement.
The bureau is the successor to the Mineral Management Service that drew extensive fire for lax regulation of oil and gas exploration in the Gulf of Mexico after BP's Deepwater Horizon well imploded last April.
The Habitat Committee of the New England Fishery Management Council was briefed on the project for the first time last Thursday by Chris Boelke, a habitat resources specialist assigned to the Gloucester regional office of the National Marine Fisheries Service.
Boelke was said to be traveling and could not be reached.
But the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Fisheries service has been unsuccessful in having the Interior Department formally involve the New England Fishery Management Council in off-shore wind turbine development, according to the Habitat Committee meeting summary.
The report on the meeting in an East Boston/airport hotel said the ocean energy agency had cited "Federal Advisory Committee Act concerns" to explain keeping the federal fisheries service out of the formal process for launching what would be one of the most expansive ocean wind farms in U.S. waters.
The Advisory Committee Act attempts to minimize bureaucratic complications by limiting the creation and authority of advisory committees.
But the invitation for submissions of interest was published Dec. 29, just as the long and intensively fought Cape Wind project — the first in Massachusetts waters, covering a light-bulb shaped 25 square mile sector between Cape Cod, the Vineyard and Nantucket — was receiving its final permits and go-ahead.
The deadline for the filing of notices or interest and comments is Feb. 28. According to participants in the briefing, the Habitat Committee agreed to draft at least one letter to the leasing bureau and possibily another to the National Ocean Council, created by presidential executive order last summer to begin, organize and coordinate the process of marine spacial planning of the oceans, a project akin to zoning.
The area of interest in the wind power leasing proposal coming from the Department of Interior begins about 12 nautical miles south of the islands and extends some 31 nautical miles south to the 60-meter depth contour. The area then extends east approximately 65 nautical miles, and north about 41 nautical miles, according to dimensions stated in the Federal Register filing.
"A half billion dollars worth of seafood comes out of this area," said New Hampshire commercial fisherman David Goethel, who attended the meeting as a member of the New England Fishery Manatgement Council's Habitat Committee.
He said he believed "the clear intent of the government is to lease this out out with minimum involvement."
The leasing bureau declined to discuss the matter with the Times, and did not respond to written questions.
The commonwealth, during the administrations of Gov. Mitt Romney and now Deval Patrick, has moved aggressively to make Massachusetts a leading East Coast wind power producer.
"There are a number of stakeholders, including (NOAA Fisheries) included in this process and there will continue to be opportunities for input as proposals come in," said Catherine Williams, a spokeswoman for the governor and the Executive Office of Energy and Environmental Affairs.
"This was sprung on us," said David Prebble, a member of the New England Fishery Management Council.
Chairman of the council's Habitat Committee, Prebble said the area being offered for wind turbine development runs from Cox Ledge south of Block Island to include a part of the Great South Channel into Georges Bank with its rich beds of scallops.
He said wind farms and fishing can be compatible, but probably will not be allowed to coexist together due to national security concerns. He also said the pilings for the turbines will have habitat implications due to the powerful tides and currents in the region.
Richard Gaines can be reached at 978-283-7000, x3464, or at firstname.lastname@example.org.