Make no mistake — there is already a lot of development in our coastal waters. Pipelines from Canada bring natural gas. At sea, liquid natural gas terminals hook into the pipeline system. There are some efforts at mineral extraction, and even a whisper of oil and gas drilling. But perhaps the biggest ocean development issue currently facing southern New England is the prospect of renewable energy in the form of offshore wind farms. For years, it was Cape Wind’s effort to develop Nantucket Sound that sucked up all the attention. But with that project now seemingly moribund, the prospect of DONG Energy (a confounding acronym for Dutch Oil & Natural Gas) building a substantial wind farm 15 miles south of the Island looms just over the horizon.

The first wind farm development to the south of the Vineyard will be in the northwest corner of the Massachusetts lease area. DONG Energy acquired area OCS-A 0500, which is 187,523 acres, approximately a quarter of the size of Rhode Island. That is a lot of sea bottom. I do not know how many turbines that could represent, but one for every 100 acres would mean almost 2,000. Maybe the good news is that only the northern tiers will be barely visible from the Gay Head area and could be blocked by holding up two fingers horizontally. While they do have the leases in hand, they still have a bunch of hoops to jump through. That is where the Northeast Ocean Plan comes into play.

For many of us, traditional ocean uses such as recreational fishing, commercial fishing, sailing, and general water recreation seem like big business. But those players are tiny in comparison to some of the energy companies that are eyeing our corner of the Atlantic, armed with huge economic power and substantial political clout. For example does anyone remember Oceans 21? Hint, it was not the sequel to Oceans 11. It was very comprehensive legislation back in 2009 intended to rationalize and guide the development of our oceans. Not surprisingly, perhaps, a lot of powerful ocean developers convinced Congress that it should not be enacted.

Subsequent to the failure of Oceans 21, in 2010 President Obama signed an executive order that cherry picked some of the ocean planning and ecosystem management portions of the bill and created the Northeast Regional Planning Body (NERPB) to coordinate state and federal efforts. Massachusetts and Rhode Island, meanwhile, developed their own Ocean Plans to address the same issues on the state level. I don’t support the idea of building more bureaucracy, but I do think that where common property resources are involved, there should be some managing authority that is not driven by profiting from those resources. As the former chairman of the New England Fisheries Management Council, my colleagues and I pushed hard to get a seat at the regional planning body table, and we were successful. Some merely looked at this planning effort as a back-door enactment of what they disliked about Oceans 21. To be fair, among the naysayers who helped doom the legislation were some in both the recreational and commercial fishing industry who thought it was a disguised effort by conservationists put in place a lot of no-fishing zones. It really wasn’t, but the facts have never been good at displacing perception. And for many, the perception lives on.

After several years of collecting data on how and where various users access and utilize ocean resources, the NERPB recently issued its Draft Ocean Plan and in my opinion, fishing interests and concerns have been heard. No, the draft plan does not purport to terminate every potential development, but it does reflect a concerted and coordinated effort to address all the concerns of those potentially affected by ocean development of all kinds. Most importantly, the plan outlines how all potentially affected parties can give input when developments are proposed.

Looking to the future, will the NERPB’s Draft Ocean Plan impede the development by DONG Energy, as some commercial and recreational fishing interests would like to see? Not likely, but that was never the intent of the plan. Its main purpose was to give all those potentially and actually affected by the development a venue to make sure that their concerns are heard and hopefully acted on. An example of how this should work was demonstrated not far south of Martha’s Vineyard. Off Block Island, work is underway to build the first U.S. offshore wind farm, which will supply that island with renewable energy. There, using the best-available science and a robust stakeholder engagement process, the siting of the turbine towers was eventually tweaked to address concerns of lobster fishermen. The final outcome is that the developer and fishermen are still talking after the project has been approved.

As for the bigger question of should the Ocean Plan process stop or significantly curtail the development of big wind off the southwest coast of the Vineyard, not surprisingly that depends entirely upon who you talk to. It is also a balancing act between mitigating the impacts of fossil fuel energy generation with the restriction of use of and potential impacts on a public resource.

For many, wind farms are unsightly intrusions on what they see as an otherwise pristine ocean and view. I do not have that kind of visceral reaction to their physical presence. I tend to feel that they have a serenely artistic presence. My argument against their placement in the ocean is slightly more basic — it centers on the additional costs of ocean placement and the increased cost of getting the power from 20 miles out in the ocean into the power grid. Here again, we are faced with a balancing act of visual intrusion, cost of construction and maintenance, and overall efficiency of placement where there is a steadier supply of wind energy.

From the standpoint of fishermen, both recreational and commercial, the concern centers on impacts to the habitat and the resources. There are also strong concerns about access to the areas. The construction of the towers and the interconnection of transmission cables between towers and the shore will have some impact on the benthic habitat. There is no way around that. Again, the plan process is designed to bring out these concerns and to mitigate them to the greatest extent possible. Access into the area is a big question. For some commercial activities, such as mobile bottom-tending gear, access will be problematic due to the physical constraints of towing nets between the towers. Hook-and-line access should not present the same problems, although during the construction phase there may be restrictions placed by the U.S. Coast Guard.

While this is a somewhat self-centered thought, I am also cautiously optimistic about the beneficial impacts of hard structure created by the subsurface portion of the wind farm towers. I have fished near the drilling rigs in the Gulf of Mexico, and the sea life living around the artificial reefs created by the rig structure is truly beyond comprehension. I believe there may be some of the same benefits off New England’s coast. It is possible that hook-and-line fishermen will actually benefit. It is also possible that some resources will benefit in the long run from the new structural habitat and the restriction of highly efficient mobile gear. There may be no empirical evidence to support that sense, but all the anecdotal evidence points in that direction.

On the other hand, we are in a period of environmental change that is having some measureable impacts on the ocean we have all known and enjoyed for many years. Temperature change is having impacts on the types of species that reside in or seasonally visit the waters south of Cape Cod. Some of that is good news, and some bad. It also affects the timing of some spawning, which historically had happened to coincide with other events beneficial to juveniles; that may no longer be the case. There is the problem of ocean acidification from the absorption of increased levels of carbon dioxide. Over a longer period, this will affect the entire food chain in the ocean. Adults may see less impact from low pH than juveniles, although from aquaculture experience we do know that higher levels of carbon dioxide cause cataracts in fish. For an animal that is primarily a visual feeder, that is nothing but trouble.

So from my perspective, anything we can do to produce our energy sustainably and with minimal tangential impacts is going in the right direction. The alternative is unthinkable. To put the size of our atmosphere in perspective, I once heard it described as the same proportion to earth as a coat of varnish on the average size classroom globe. So, yes we can affect it.

In a perfect world, we would have developed a way to sustainably produce all the energy we need on land and there would not be any need to disturb the ocean floor to help with this. We do not live in a perfect world and we do need to use all possible means to cost effectively create energy without using fossil fuels.

So where does this leave us? Some may say that the process set forth in the Northeast Ocean Plan is just a feel-good diversion and companies such as DONG will simply do what they want in the end. There may be some truth to that, but I am cautiously sanguine about the positive aspects of the push toward collaborative planning. I believe that it does give all users and those potentially affected a process to get involved. I know from long experience that it is a better way to proceed than having a diverse group of federal and state agencies doing their own thing in the ocean management process. And yes, by having a coordinated management plan there are benefits to the developer as well as the users. That is not necessarily a bad thing.

We have to understand that ocean development is happening whether we support it or want to stop it. Development will have some impact. The good news is that there is now a coordinated process to manage this development and to make sure that the ocean environment remains as sustainable and productive as possible. However, the process requires public participation. Some are complaining that there has been little or no participation by recreational or commercial fishermen. We can and need to change that.

The NERPB that crafted this plan has also spent a number of years collecting data on how and where various users access and utilize ocean resources. All this information is available to the public in a layered GIS format at All the information about the regional planning board and its efforts is posted at

Rip Cunningham is former editor in chief and publisher of Salt Water Sportsman magazine. He spent nine years on the New England Fishery Management Council, seven as chairman and vice chairman. Currently he consults on fishery and ocean issues.