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Lobstermen Circle Survey Vessel As Wind Protests Escalate

Protests over wind energy development off the coast of Maine changed course today. Several fishing boats reportedly circled a survey vessel off Monhegan Island, and federal and state law enforcement responded.

Lobsterman Larry Reed posted video on Facebook Monday morning of the Go Liberty, a 150-foot survey vessel, as it appeared to draw near lobster buoys in the water.

“He’s gonna tow right though that lobster gear with no concern. He’s got gear out towing, no concern whatsoever for our livelihoods,” Reed said in the video.

The U.S. Coast Guard says it sent boats from its Boothbay Harbor station to assist the state Marine Patrol on the scene, which is in state-administered waters. Company officials say the survey vessel was forced to stop operations to ensure safety. Fishermen say that Coast Guard and Marine Patrol boats monitored the situation, and by afternoon the vessel continued its work.

The flashpoint is a single-turbine, floating platform wind project under development by New England Aqua Ventus, in a collaboration between private industry and the University of Maine. The Go Liberty was contracted to survey potential routes for an electricity cable between the turbine and the coast.

On Sunday, several dozen fishing boats formed a protest flotilla off Monhegan, when the survey vessel was not active nearby.

“The peaceful protest that occurred yesterday is very different from the event that occurred today. Today is a risk to public safety, and really has crossed the line,” says state Rep. Genevieve McDonald, a Stonington lobsterman who works as a liaison between the New England Aqua Ventus ocean wind project and area fishermen.

McDonald says that between their concerns about pending gear rules that will aim to protect endangered North Atlantic right whales, the Monhegan wind project and a more recent state initiative to develop a 12-turbine wind array farther offshore, fishermen are scared for their future.

“So when you combine them, it’s sort of adding fuel to a fire that was already raging because of the issues with whale rules, and so people are very upset about this and we’re seeing that play out on the water,” she says.

An emerging bone of contention may be the placement of lobster traps and buoys within the survey area. For weeks, state marine regulators and company officials have been working to inform area fishermen about the pending survey and asking that gear be cleared temporarily from the ship’s track.

Aqua Ventus spokesman David Wilby says the Go Liberty documented some 220 buoys in the zone in mid-March, and found twice that number there a week later.

“The facts seem to suggest that may not be an accident,” he says.

Credit New England Aqua Ventus slide
New England Aqua Ventus slide
New England Aqua Ventus officials say buoys the number of buoys has increased in the survey route, shown here in a close-up of one section.

Hampering the effort, Wilby says, will only make it harder to gather data that can be used to reduce potential harms by the growing offshore wind industry.

Lobstermen are skeptical of that argument. And they are seeking ways to halt the industry’s growth off Maine. But they say they have been reducing gear in the survey area.

“It’s a lot of money to put gear in the way of a vessel that’s just going to end up destroying it. No one wants to lose it; we cant afford to do that,” says Friendship lobsterman Dustin Delano, vice president of the Maine Lobstermen’s Association.

Another area lobsterman, Chad Burns, says the survey boat could easily have undercounted the buoys present during its first assessment due to rough weather and tides. He says he and other fishermen tended traps about 100 yards away from the Go Liberty on Monday and — as far as he could tell — it was continuing its work while federal and state patrol boats monitored the situation.

“We tried to move what we could but they’re not staying in the survey area. They’re going everywhere and anywhere. And it’s like a guessing game,” Burns says.

Wilby says as of late afternoon, the survey work was still on hold, with several fishing boats nearby and one deploying gear.

The state Department of Marine Resources said it was “assessing” the situation but declined further comment. Members of Gov. Janet Mills’ administration did not respond to requests for comment.

A Columbia University graduate, Fred began his journalism career as a print reporter in Vermont, then came to Maine Public in 2001 as its political reporter, as well as serving as a host for a variety of Maine Public Radio and Maine Public Television programs. Fred later went on to become news director for New England Public Radio in Western Massachusetts and worked as a freelancer for National Public Radio and a number of regional public radio stations, including WBUR in Boston and NHPR in New Hampshire.