NEW BEDFORD â€” In 12 years, research biologist Crista Bank spent a lot of hours at sea aboard local fishing vessels, but never once heard wheelhouse chatter about the industrial-sized wind farms planned a dozen miles south of Martha’s Vineyard.
â€śIt wasnâ€™t really a topic of discussion,â€ť said Bank, the new fisheries liaison for offshore wind developer Vineyard Wind. â€śYou would think it would be, something this huge on the horizon.â€ť
Even for her, deep in research at the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth School for Marine Science & Technology, the magnitude of what will be Vineyard Windâ€™s $2 billion, 106-turbine offshore construction project didnâ€™t sink in until she happened to pass five turbines off Block Island two years ago.
â€śI saw them, and I was like, really?â€ť Bank said of her reaction.
It may be that head-down, focused attitude of a researcher that allows Bank to empathize with what she says is a similar attitude of many fishermen â€” scallopers, lobstermen, pot fishermen, gill-netters, squid fishermen, small-mesh draggers, large draggers, inshore and offshore boat captains, charter boat captains, recreational and pelagic anglers â€” she knows and hopes to meet.
â€śI sort of see the fishermenâ€™s perspective a lot more,â€ť Bank said â€śI believe in offshore energy. I believe we need to do it. I have solar panels on my house. Iâ€™m totally for renewable energy.” But, Bank said, those turbines will be placed squarely where people make a living.
Bank might be best known nowÂ in the region for herÂ fisheries research. But before that, sheÂ crewed aboard the tall ship ErnestinaÂ and was an onboardÂ fishing vessel observer for the National Marine Fisheries Service.Â Bank considers New Bedford her home.
â€śCrista has an excellent track record in cooperative research with the fishing industry,â€ť said Steven Lohrenz, dean of the UMass Dartmouth marine science school. Bank is knowledgeable about fisheries science and about the challenges being faced by fishermen, said Lohrenz, who first mentioned the Vineyard Wind job to Bank.Â Bank is also personable and a goodÂ communicator, he said.
Cape Cod Commercial Fishermenâ€™s Alliance staff member Seth Rolbein, who directs the Cape Cod Fisheries Trust,Â said Bank is well-known to that organization for her research on monkfish. â€śWe have always found her to be a credible person,â€ť Rolbein said. â€śSheâ€™s worked well with our fleet.â€ť
He said the alliance has not had any substantive talks with Bank about the Vineyard Wind project.
The Massachusetts Lobstermen’s Association is working directly with Bank, said Beth Casoni, the organization’s executive director.
“She’s doing a great job,” Casoni said. “She’s smart. She’s been on the water. She knows the ocean, and the diversity of it.”
After asking around about Vineyard Windâ€™s true intentions in reaching out to fishermen â€”and receiving satisfactory answersÂ â€” Bank said she considered the fisheries liaisonÂ job as a way to help.
â€śItâ€™s big,â€ť Bank said of the construction project and estimated 30-year operating timeline. â€śI donâ€™t know if (fishermen) realize the magnitude of what is coming.â€ť
After winning a state contract in MayÂ to sell wind energy to three electric distribution companies in Massachusetts, Vineyard Wind intends to build the first large-scale offshore wind farm in the U.S. Commercial fishing is the most common vessel traffic across the companyâ€™s lease area, with many boats heading to and from New Bedford, home to about 500 vessels, according to the companyâ€™s regulatory filings.
Starting in 2009, federal regulators began considering the lease areas 14 miles south of the Islands for offshore wind, and overÂ six years have narrowed the size of the areasÂ inÂ response to concerns by commercial and recreational fishermen. But more consideration is needed, Bank said.
Transit corridors are a big concern. Ideally, fishermen should be able to travel easily through the turbines in Vineyard Windâ€™s lease area, and in the future, through the contiguous lease areas as well, Bank said.
â€śTechnically, the transit corridors should probably have been decided before any areas were leased,â€ť she said. Given that Vineyard Wind alreadyÂ filed its construction and operations plan in December, and with deadlines now in place under the Massachusetts contract, “Some things are challenging for us,â€ť she said.
In August, Bay State Wind, a competitor of Vineyard Wind that did not win the Massachusetts bid, announced it intended to submit its construction and operations plan early next year, with an updated grid orientation for the wind turbines from east to west, spaced an average of 1 nautical mile apart, in response to fishermenâ€™s concerns.
Vineyard Wind’s grid layout runs northwest to southeast, aligning with fishing vessel traffic transiting through the lease areas, and the spacing averages 0.8 nautical miles apart, Bank said. The companyâ€™s chief development officer, Erich Stephens, said in August that the offshore windÂ project was designed â€śto be friendly to the industry,â€ť and to make transit between turbines and through corridors easier for fishing boats.
â€śWe remain committed to working with the commercial fishing sector as we advance in the permitting process,â€ť Stephens said.
Adding to the pressure, Vineyard Wind is developing a first-ever protocol in the U.S. for working with fishing industries, Bank said. In European models, fishing often was not allowed in the project areas, so guidance from those earlier wind farms is not available, she said.
The job of fishing liaison is one aspect of the companyâ€™s 16-pageÂ fishery communication plan, as describedÂ inÂ the filings. The plan is meant to ensure that fishermen operate safely in all project areas and phases and have access toÂ an open and transparent way to resolve problems such as inadvertent fishing gear damage. Two years of pre- and post-construction studies on the effects on fisheries is in the works as well, with the idea of preventing environmental changes that could negatively affect fishermen’s livelihoods, Bank said.
In addition to Bank, Nate Mayo is the company’s fishery liaison, specifically to scallopers and shellfish farmers in Lewis Bay in West Yarmouth, where the companyÂ wants toÂ bring itsÂ transmission cable ashore toÂ reach a substation in Barnstable.
â€śItâ€™s extra important,â€ť Bank said of the first-time initiatives underway. â€śIt weighs heavily on me.â€ť
TheÂ company is seeking paid representatives in each major port such as New Bedford, Chatham, Provincetown, Hyannis and in Rhode IslandÂ to better understand specific fisheries, Bank said.
â€śItâ€™s not going to be perfect, and there will be mistakes made, but we still need to keep that line of communication open,â€ť Bank said. â€śWe want to engage everybody.”
â€” Follow Mary Ann Bragg on Twitter: @maryannbraggCCT.