By Doreen Leggett
The waters off the Cape have long been popular for tuna, marlin and sharks, as well as the fishermen that chase them. Recently, those waters have proved attractive for wind energy companies as well, and it’s unclear what that means for the fisheries.
“If you put in hundreds of turbines, what is the cumulative impact?” asked Michael Pierdinock, who serves on the U.S. International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas Advisory Committee.
Pierdinock wondered if turbine arrays up and down the coast would change tuna migration.
“We need the science,” said Pierdinock, who also is president of the Stellwagen Bank Charter Boat Association and a member of the New England Fishery Management Council.
Jeff Kneebone, a researcher at the New England Aquarium, thought so too and pushed to get funding to see if wind farms spread over a million acres would impact highly migratory pelagic species-or ‘HMS’- such as tuna, sharks, and marlin.
“Our goal is to monitor whether offshore wind development affects the presence and movements of HMS in southern New England,” he said of the research objectives.
The biggest fishery for HMS in the wind energy area is recreational and is comprised of private recreational and for-hire charter vessels. There are around 7,000 active private and 1,500 charter permit holders in the New England region.
But to help get the answers he needed for the recreational fishery, Kneebone reached out to the commercial fleet.
“The project can’t happen without commercial fishermen’s help,” Kneebone said. “They are an essential piece of the puzzle.”
Kneebone started the work in 2020, and it has grown over the last few years with funding support from the Massachusetts Clean Energy Center, Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management, and the energy companies who will build the wind farms: Avangrid Renewables, Equinor Wind, Ørsted, Mayflower Wind, and Vineyard Wind.
He has been aided by Willy Hatch, a charter and commercial fisherman and owner of Machaca Charters, lobsterman Mark Leach, and others who help get his research gear in the water.
Trips with Hatch involved catching target species to install a tagging device.
“I am a fish surgeon,” Kneebone joked.
Kneebone’s trips with Leach set static acoustic receivers on the seafloor to track tagged fish.
With over 125 fish tagged, Kneebone will continue to collect data through the pre-construction phase, during construction, and after installation.
“We need to conduct monitoring throughout all phases to be able to identify any impacts,” he said.
Hatch said the research should have begun 10 years ago.
“(Kneebone is) trying to find out the long-term effects,” Hatch said. “It’s important not just for the industry, but ecologically.”
Hatch said electromagnetic radiation and noise are just some effects of turbines.
“Our data have already shown that tagged bluefin tuna, blue sharks, and shortfin makos return to southern New England year after year. The question is, will offshore wind change that?” said Kneebone.
Kneebone’s interest isn’t surprising; he’s a fisherman. He says he “became a scientist because I love to fish and I care about the fishery.”
One of his best friends owns a dayboat dragger out of Gloucester and he goes out as crew whenever he can.
He has fished for groundfish, bluefin tuna, herring, “pretty much every species (my friend) targets.”
Working with fishermen and fishery liaisons from the wind companies, he tried to place the acoustic receivers in spots that cause minimal disruption to commercial fisheries.
“We need to do our research in a place they’ve fished for decades. Their feedback is key to our success,” Kneebone said.
Kneebone worked with the dragger fleet to site receivers on known “hang ups,” places fishermen tend to avoid.
“It could be rocks, a wreck or just debris,” he said.
Leach will take Kneebone about 15 to 20 miles off Martha’s Vineyard in November to pick up those receivers.
Although he has only worked with Kneebone for a few years, Leach has been involved in scientific research on F/V Sea Holly for more than a decade.
“I love it,” he said. One reason: 15-20 hours in a boat with researchers gives him a lot of time to ask questions.