Acting on direction from Gov. Janet Mills, Maine’s marine resources commissioner on Wednesday asked captains who fish along a planned wind turbine cable survey route to haul their gear or face having it moved out of the way by the Marine Patrol.

Patrick Keliher, commissioner of the Maine Department of Marine Resources. Joe Phelan/Kennebec Journal

In a notice addressed to “Lobster harvesters who fish in or near the Monhegan survey route,” Patrick Keliher sympathized with fishermen upset about the prospects of floating offshore wind projects coming to the Gulf of Maine. And he told them that a gear count done over the past day by the Marine Patrol found far fewer buoys in the survey path than a survey vessel had reported on Saturday.

But there’s still too much gear inside the route for the survey vessel to do its work, Keliher said, noting that it is in everyone’s interest to complete the survey to determine if the cable can be buried so it won’t interfere with fishing. He asked fishermen to cooperate and remove any remaining gear for the next two weeks.

“The developer has committed to working with the department to ensure that fishing will be allowed around and over the cable route,” Keliher wrote to the lobstermen. “I hope that we can find a way forward to complete this survey and achieve that goal.”

In a statement to the Portland Press Herald, Mills’ office said that the governor would like to see the issue resolved and directed Keliher’s department to mediate the dispute.

“The governor firmly believes that offshore wind and fishing are not mutually exclusive,” the statement said, “and that this pilot project and the research accompanying it are vital in protecting the fishing industry as well as expanding the economic base of our coastal counties and reducing our dependency on expensive and harmful fossil fuels.”

Mills’ involvement and Keliher’s notice was the most-recent attempt by state government to balance conflicting aspirations: supporting one of Maine’s traditional, iconic industries and testing the waters for an offshore wind power sector that could help reach climate-change goals and anchor a planned transition to a clean energy economy.

A spokesman for fishing interests, Ben Martens of the Maine Coast Fishermen’s Association, said he had been in contact with fishermen who plan to move their traps and buoys. But it’s possible, he said, that the Marine Patrol will wind up hauling some gear owned by captains who for one reason or another can’t get offshore this week or just aren’t getting the message.

Keliher didn’t say in his letter when the Marine Patrol would begin removing gear that remained in the survey route.

Martens noted that many fishermen were angry over news reports of higher gear counts and accusations that fishermen were placing gear in the way to disrupt the survey.

“I think Pat did a pretty good job of clearing the air on what may have or not transpired over the past few days,” he said.

EVENTS MOVING QUICKLY

Wednesday’s development was the latest in a series of events that underscore the uneasy relationship between fishing interests and wind power advocates.

On Monday, the seabed survey for a cable that would connect a planned offshore wind turbine near Monhegan Island to the mainland was disrupted by three fishing boats that circled the survey vessel, according to New England Aqua Ventus, the project’s developer.

That action led the crew of the 144-foot R/V Go Liberty to suspend operations, New England Aqua Ventus said.

That incident followed a protest Sunday by more than 80 lobster boats that lined up between Monhegan and Boothbay Harbor to call attention to their concerns about potential wind power development off the Maine coast.

Lobstermen fear that the ongoing survey project and the test turbine that would follow it will disrupt fisheries.

After years of planning, a collaboration between the University of Maine and New England Aqua Ventus would link a turbine south of Monhegan to the mainland power grid in South Boothbay via a 23-mile underwater cable. The 12-megawatt test turbine would be the first commercial-scale project in the nation and help demonstrate the viability of floating offshore wind energy.

CONFLICTING VIEWS PRESENTED

Fishermen and New England Aqua Ventus have presented conflicting views about the presence of lobster gear along the survey route for the cable. Gear in the water could get tangled in the survey equipment, damaging both traps and expensive electronics.

Starting last month, the Department of Marine Resources and New England Aqua Ventus began reaching out to area fishermen with the route coordinates and requests that gear owners remove their equipment before the survey start date.

According to a gear density survey conducted by the survey vessel on March 13, a total of 221 buoys were recorded, concentrated near a conservation area off Monhegan, Moser Ledge and the mouth of the Damariscotta River. The survey company then sent an email update to fishermen and posted a list of coordinates on the Aqua Ventus website, with a request to remove the gear.

On Saturday, the survey company ran a second reconnaissance and found 453 buoys, roughly double the number from a week earlier.

Lobstermen allege that the survey vessel hasn’t been staying precisely on its route, a charge denied by Aqua Ventus.

Dave Wilby, a project spokesman, was asked Monday if the proliferation of gear along the survey route indicated that lobstermen were deliberately adding buoys to disrupt the survey.

“The facts speak for themselves,” he said.

But on Wednesday, Keliher attempted to mediate the gear-count dispute after directing the Marine Patrol to perform its on reconnaissance. It found 254 buoys. That’s far fewer than what the developer had reported, but still too many for a clear path.

“Now that we have an understanding of the amount of gear, it is clear they will not be able to complete the survey unless gear is moved,” he wrote in his notice.

Reacting to the notice, Wilby said the project developer was pleased the department is taking steps to allow the survey work to continue.

“New England Aqua Ventus and DMR are in agreement that there is too much gear in the survey area for the work to be completed,” Wilby said in a statement, “and we are very hopeful that short-term relocation of the gear as per the commissioner’s request will allow for timely completion of this survey.”

In his notice, Keliher said the survey vessel had agreed to avoid “jogging” while outside the route, as well as limiting the amount of test-equipment cable deployed while turning in areas where lobster gear is present.

He also noted that two other survey vessels would be on site and do work that will involve deploying test gear to the seafloor while remaining stationary.

“Again, I do not underestimate the depth of your concerns around the future of offshore wind,” Keliher concluded. “Please let me know if I can come to your harbor and talk directly with you about these concerns. I will continue to work with you in good faith to represent those issues, and advocate for the research that is necessary to understand the ramifications of these projects.”

Project developers plan to begin construction in 2022 and have the turbine on line in 2023. The developers say the turbine will generate $125 million in economic activity and provide hundreds of jobs while the construction takes place.

The project has received $47 million in grants from the U.S. Department of Energy, which was augmented by another $100 million last August when it was joined by Diamond Offshore Wind, a subsidiary of Mitsubishi Corp., and RWE Renewables, an international wind company.

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