The ocean’s winds, central to those centuries dominated by sail ships, are about to play two new historical roles: helping to save us from fossil fuels and making habitats safe for marine life.
H. Bruce Franklin December 4, 2021 by E-The Environmental Magazine
Winds rarely break into the news except when they disrupt daily life. But many sports—including all boating, most hunting, archery, surfing, casting—keep us mindful of wind. Here in San Francisco, two of the most thrilling sports depend on ocean wind. From the cliffs of Fort Funston, hang gliders use the coming wind to rise as they launch over the Pacific. Homeward bound after fishing the Pacific, our party boat is usually intercepted near the Golden Gate Bridge by a kiteboard, whose rider has one arm steering his kite, flying high above and buffeted there by that potent incoming wind, while the other arm works a line steering his board. He rides our turbulent wake, zigzagging madly because his wind-driven speed is faster than our boat’s.
Our gigantic offshore wind turbines are also bringing fish and shellfish and even crustaceans back to the seas.
For thousands of years, those ocean winds drove human history. Think about sails. Beginning sometime between 3000 and 1500 BCE, the sailing ships of the Austronesian people used the wind to explore and settle most of the islands of the south Pacific. By 1200 BCE, the sailing ships of Phoenicia and other maritime civilizations used the wind to turn the Mediterranean into a marketplace. Wind powered the ships that “discovered” and looted the “New World ” from the 15th century through most of the 19th century. All the people stolen from Africa were driven by wind into slavery. Massed formations of wind-powered European warships fought to divide the world. Sails kept the sun from ever setting on the British Empire. Can we even imagine world history without sail ships?
Wind also drove the ships that slaughtered the world’s whales until there were so few that hunting them was no longer profitable. But the wind-powered fishing vessels posed no existential threat to the fish that filled the seas. Unlike whales, fish seemed “inexhaustible,” as scientist Thomas Henry Huxley wrote in 1883, “Nothing we do seriously affects the number of the fish.” Back then, most commercial fishing was done by sail ships that launched row boats manned by anglers using hook and line. Huxley failed to reckon with fossil fuels. Coal-powered steam vessels were already fishing with huge nets amid the sail boats, as can be seen in this 1877 picture of a menhaden fishery:
And already in the 1880s, experimental inboard and outboard engines burning petroleum-based liquids were being designed for boats and ships. Soon vessels powered by fossil fuels would turn the oceans, first the Atlantic and then all the seas, into colossal slaughterhouses.
Fossil fuels made us forget the power of ocean winds. And who cared as long as the fossil fuels were just annihilating fish? But when lots of us awoke to the fact that fossil fuels are threatening many terrestrial species—including Homo sapiens!—we were forced to remember ocean winds. So we turn to this forgotten mighty force to help us stop global warming. And lo and behold, we discover that our gigantic offshore wind turbines are also bringing fish and shellfish and even crustaceans back to the seas. And so the ocean’s winds, central to those centuries dominated by sail ships, are about to play two new historical roles: helping to save us from fossil fuels and making habitats safe for marine life.
Today, land-based wind is one of our main sources of green energy, thanks mainly to vast arrays of turbines in China, India, Europe and the United States. Wind farms tiptoed into the ocean only twenty years ago. The nations that took the plunge discovered—surprise—that ocean wind can be a colossal source of green energy. So offshore wind farms soared:
Why? Everyone who has done much ocean fishing or sailing or whale watching knows the answer. No matter how calm weather is on shore, if you are wise, when you board the boat bring along some wind clothes, including a hat that can’t blow off. Who can remember a single day when the land was windier than the sea? Wind over most land is limited by buildings, trees, hills, and other obstacles. Even wind blowing across the largest terrestrial wind farm, China’s Gansu, built on the edge of the Gobi desert, encounters friction from the surface of the desert itself. But the ocean is fluid, always in motion from tides and currents and internal temperature differentials. It is the ocean that generates hurricanes and typhoons—along with strong winds as a normal, routine part of its being.
This is not a contest between land-based and sea-based wind farms, nor between wind power and solar, hydro, tidal, geothermal power. Our choice is between green energy and the fossil fuels that are pouring carbon into our atmosphere and oceans, melting glaciers, raising sea levels, spawning record-breaking storms and temperatures, bringing droughts and forest fires to some parts of the world and floods to others, wiping out more and more animal species, and threatening to make the global climate inhospitable to our own species. European and Asian nations understand this:
This explosive growth is startling, because an offshore wind farm is an industrial wonder. Giant turbines, far larger than their land-based older siblings, built to withstand ocean forces and the corrosive effects of seawater and salt spray, must be constructed and then transported on special ships. Each wind tower must be embedded in the ocean bottom (or in the deeper waters where the tower has to float, anchored to the bottom). Then there is maintenance. On land, all that takes is a couple of people driving out to each turbine in a pickup truck. The maintenance crew for the ocean’s turbines has to voyage miles of sea or take a helicopter.
But the proven value of offshore wind power has spurred the nations that have tried it to ramp up the construction. China is adding an enormous amount of new offshore energy. The UK is going all out. Vietnam is constructing ten new wind farms (second in number to China). Already there are 200 wind farms. The big mystery is the missing nation: the United States of America.
The U.S. has by far the greatest potential for offshore power. Most Americans live in coastal states. What other nation has long shorelines on three seas—Atlantic, Pacific, and Gulf of Mexico—and five Great Lakes? Yet all we have is one tiny wind farm, off Rhode Island’s Block Island. And that one, with a mere five turbines putting out just 30 megawatts, is all that has survived the opposition to the planned farm, which was supposed to have one hundred turbines putting out 385 megawatts. The opposition had no shortage of funds: one of its main sponsors was billionaire fossil fuel magnate William L. Koch.
The Block Island farm, now referred to as a “demonstration” project, has in fact demonstrated the value of offshore power. It allowed Block Island to ditch the one million gallons of diesel fuel it had been burning every year. Marveling at its turbines standing “like sentinels off the coast of this tiny island, each rising twice as high as the Statue of Liberty,” Pulitzer-Prize winner reporter Brady Dennis wrote in 2016, when the farm opened, and this marked “the birth of a promising industry.” But that same year, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie vetoed two bills that would have created a major wind farm off the New Jersey coast. And in November of that year, Donald Trump was elected to the White House, which for four years became a fortress for the fossil fuel industry and a launch pad for attacks on clean energy. So now all we have are those five Block Island turbines and two lonely research turbines 27 miles off the Virginia coast.
The White House, however, is now occupied by the self-declared friend of green energy. President Biden has announced ambitious plans for seven new offshore wind farms off the three U.S. coastlines, producing 300 gigawatts of energy by 2030. Construction has started for Vineyard Wind 1, south of Martha’s Vineyard, Massachusetts, with a planned output of 800 megawatts. Others include South Fork Wind, off the east tip of New York’s Long Island, with an output of 132 MW; Revolution Wind, off Rhode Island and Massachusetts, output 400 MW; and the biggest, Ocean Wind off New Jersey, output of 1,100 MW. (Leases and plans for the others are listed in the indispensable Offshore Wind Market Report: 2021 Edition, published by the Department of Energy.) The Biden administration has promised the wind farms will be created “with care for the surrounding ecosystem,” and will not harm endangered species, conflict with military activity, nor interfere with local industries or tourism.
Offshore wind is expected to create tens of thousands of new jobs, including many for skilled workers. The economic benefits are already beginning to kick in. Many giant turbine installation vessels will have to be built to transport and imbed the new generation of enormous turbines. The keel of the first, the Charybdis—472 feet long and 184 feet wide, costing half a billion dollars—was laid in Brownsville, Texas, in 2020. It has already chartered and will be based in Hampton Roads, Virginia, from which it will sail to work on the Revolution Wind and Sunrise Wind projects. Ports are already being prepared to support construction and materials in Paulsboro, New Jersey; Albany, New York; Brayton Point, Massachusetts; New London, Connecticut; and several other states including Maryland and Virginia. As these support facilities expand, they will help revitalize the Atlantic waterfront now sinking into terminal decay due to the collapse of fish stocks (as eloquently described in Mark Kurlansky’s The Last Fish Tale).
The only undeniable negative about offshore wind farming is that, like land-based wind farms, it kills birds. So, of course, do power lines; buildings, especially tall buildings; and cats. The National Audubon Society, the nation’s great advocate for birds, strongly supports offshore wind farms, while also pressing for precautions against collisions. As Audubon’s Director of Clean Energy Initiative Garry George wrote on February 22, 2021, “Wind energy can be a powerful factor in protecting the birds we love” from climate warming, which is threatening “389 species of birds in North America” with “extinction.”
Opposition is active and potent. Offshore wind, together with other forms of green energy, poses an existential threat to the fossil fuel industries. Their responses range wildly. There is overt (and covert) opposition, as well as financial support of senators from states heavily invested in fossil fuels, and House representatives from oil and gas producing districts. Some fossil fuel insiders, such as West Virginia Senator Joe Machin, have been able to block some of Biden’s plans for green energy. But some major fossil fuel companies, such as Shell Oil, are hedging their bets by investing in offshore wind and other renewable energy projects.
Some fossil fuel companies are actually converting themselves into leaders of green energy. The most dramatic example is Orsted. Once the Danish state-owned oil and gas company, and then the huge DONG Energy (Danish Oil and Natural Gas), Orsted has divested most of its fossil fuel and produces 88 percent of its energy from renewable sources. Amazingly, Orsted is today the world’s main sponsor and developer of offshore wind.
Some of the loudest opposition to wind farms comes from people who want the ocean to remain in its most natural state. This includes nimbies who regard the ocean as part of their back yard and wish to preserve their view of it, as well as those environmentalists who consider all artificial reefs as industrial trash that tur the ocean into a junkyard. Do moral issues lurk behind these apparently aesthetic questions? Some people see an unbroken ocean skyline as beautiful, even sublime. Others see beauty in the stately lines of turbines turning wind into renewable energy, helping us replace the fossil fuels that are destroying the very environment that made us possible.
Some last-ditch legal opposition comes from commercial fishing. RODA (Responsible Offshore Development Alliance), a coalition of commercial fishing companies, in September 2021 filed suit to stop the Vineyard Wind 1, just as construction was about to begin. Annie Hawkins, RODA’s executive director, raised many issues in a two-hour interview. RODA’s official position, as articulated by Hawkins, is “not trying to throw a wrench into the works,” but rather trying to prevent the U.S. from “recklessly” rushing into wind farming without adequate study of its dangers to the marine environment and commercial fishing. She expressed concerns about the introduction of “invasive species” and “junk species” and loss of long stretches of sand, essential to clam fishing. When pushed, she could not cite evidence of damage to the marine environment from the Block Island farm or any of the European and Asian farms beyond the construction stage. Of course long-line fishing, in which boats trail miles-long lines with hundreds or even thousands of baited hooks, might be difficult within a wind farm because those long lines could become entangled with the turbine towers. RODA is concerned about hindrance to scallop fishing, in which boats drag the bottom with heavy dredges on the end of two hundred feet of line, and squid fishing, which Hawkins stated “needs a lot of room.” One of RODA’s main public objections is that navigation would be hazardous in and through a wind farm, and radar would be unable to detect the turbine towers. As a former tugboat mate in the crowded New York Harbor of the 1950s, and a former Air Force navigator who operated several kinds of radar, I found these claims bizarre.
Is navigation through and within wind farm indeed hazardous? The answer comes from piloting a vessel within the stunningly realistic simulation at the US Maritime Resource Center in Middletown, Rhode Island. Like the flight simulators used to train airplane pilots, this computer-generated simulation creates the experience of piloting within the Revolution Wind Farm, with its 88 turbines, scheduled for construction off the Rhode Island coast. Developed with Orsted, the simulation generates a multitude of conditions and hazards, including deep darkness, sudden storms, a ship heading straight for your vessel, and the dreaded following sea, which threatens to lift your rudder out the water. New Jersey charter Captain Paul Eidman, who had piloted an 80-foot trawler through the simulated wind farm, is convinced that anyone who could not handle a boat safely within a wind farm should not be piloting any boat in any sea. Eidman said the radar worked fine, pinpointing each turbine, and noted that commercial fishing captains are expert pilots.
RODA’s main objection to Biden’s ambitious plan for offshore wind farms strung along the east coast is that they would effectively block commercial fishing in many miles of the Atlantic. Hmm. Let’s think about the other side of this argument. It means that the wind farms would interfere with the most destructive forms of commercial fishing, the very forms that are strip mining the sea: long-line fishing, which is taking a dreadful toll of marine mammals, sea turtles, sharks, and rays; bottom dredging, which strips the bottom of life and habitat; mid-water trawling, which indiscriminately captures all living animals. Thus the wind farms might mitigate the ongoing slaughter of marine life whose abundance once upon a time astounded the Europeans, such as Captain John Smith, as they explored the Atlantic coast. Reverend Francis Higginson put it this way in 1630: “The abundance of Sea-Fish are almost beyond beleeving, and sure I should scarce have beleeved it except that I had seene it with mine own Eyes.”
This is just ancient history. In the late 1940s there were forty party boats berthed in Brooklyn’s Sheepshead Bay. To fish one of these boats, I rode the subway with my fishing tackle. When we returned in the late afternoon, I had two potato sacks filled with fish, most of which I sold to the throng awaiting the arrival of the boats.
Offshore wind power of course also has lots of supporters, eager for renewable energy and economic benefits. But the general public has not heard the voice of recreational fishers, who have a huge stake in wind farms. Anglers for Offshore Wind Power, in a campaign sponsored by the National Wildlife Federation, is trying to change that. Recognizing that support from recreational fishers should not be taken for granted and that access is indeed crucial, Anglers for Offshore Wind Power insists that recreational anglers must be able to fish up to the base of turbine foundations and be engaged in the planning process for offshore wind farms.
Saltwater recreational anglers share knowledge of the ocean foreign to most of the rest of the population. One of their favorite terms here is: “structure.” As in “reef.” Or “wreck.” Or “oil platform.” Saltwater fishers know if you want to catch lots of fish, you fish structure. Why?
Because most of the ocean floor resembles a desert. This is especially true when the sea’s margin is a lovely beach. Imagine that beach extending the edge of a continental shelf. Any structure out in the ocean is an oasis in the desert. Ocean structures tend to swarm with life, thus becoming ecological communities. Want to catch lots of fish? In New Jersey and New York, fish a wreck, such as a ship sunk by a World War II Nazi U-boat. In Florida, fish a natural reef. On the Gulf Coast, fish around an oil platform. The ocean off San Francisco presents a striking educational case. If you fish for salmon, that just swim around following bait fish, on a full day of very good fishing you may catch two. If you fish for halibut, ambush predators that hide in the sandy bottom, on a full day of very good fishing you may catch two. But if you voyage out thirty miles to the Farallon Islands you will, in a few hours, catch your limit of ten of various species of nice-size (12-inch minimum) aptly named rockfish and probably also catch your limit of two big lingcod (22-inch minimum), that dine on rockfish and octopus.
Why the difference? Structure. The Farallons, sometimes known as the “Devil’s Teeth Islands,” are a string of rock formations rising from the deep bottom. There is no other fishable structure between them and the mainland. The Farallons swarm with 376 species of fish as well as a host of marine mammals such as humpback whales, sea lions, elephant and harbor seals, porpoises, and dolphins, all preying on the fish, and orcas preying on the seals and sea lions.
Think about the barren deserts and teaming reefs of the ocean in comparison with the deserts and jungles of the land. Our terrestrial deserts do contain flora and fauna, but with only a fraction of what lives in the dense structure of our rainforests. Coal and oil and gas companies do not dig out or tap into ancient deserts; they get out fossil fuels from that dense structure of ancient rainforests. Green energy—solar, wind, hydro, tidal, geothermal—allows the carbon of those buried rainforests to remain under ground or under the ocean’s bottoms. And offshore wind power actually helps the oceans to sequester carbon by encouraging dense growth of underwater plants and animals.
If offshore wind farms were not marvelous suppliers of green energy, nations would not be racing to build them. But each turbine is also an artificial reef, and thus a potential aid in restoring our depleted oceans. Evidence for this is abundant in both the scientific literature and the practical experience of recreational fishers.
A survey of the scientific literature, “Meta-Analysis of Finfish Abundance at Offshore Wind Farms,” (2019) found “greater abundance of fish inside wind farms” than in the sea outside them. A recent global study, “Offshore Wind Farm Artificial Reef Affect Ecosystem Structure and Functioning” (2020), found the wind farms are highly effective “artificial reefs.” The abundance of marine life in the North Sea wind farms has been documented on the other side of the planet. “Evaluating the Fish Aggregation Effect of Wind Turbine Facilities by Using Scientific Echo Sounder in Nanlong Wind Farm Area, Western Taiwan” (2021) concluded that “the wind turbines had relatively better fish aggregation than nearby wind towers and artificial reefs.” Every recreational angler I’ve talked to who has fished the only wind farm in our nation, Block Island, enthusiastically agrees with the scientists.
Our nation’s other operating wind turbines are the two built for Dominion Energy, mainly for research, 27 miles offshore from Virginia. Less than a year after the turbines went into action, each had become the center of a vibrant ecological community, as reported in “Virginia’s First Offshore Wind Turbines Have Become a Haven for Marine Life,” Virginian-Pilot, October 14, 2021. Schools of fish, including mahi-mahi, seabass, and assorted baitfish, congregate around the algae and mussel-covered base, and visitors include sea turtles and giant ocean sunfish. Encouragingly, microphones and video monitors have so far not recorded any bird strikes. Scott Lawton, a Dominion environment adviser, says the turbine’s “fish ecosystem” is “just amazing.”
Captain Paul Forsberg, part of a four-generation family of commercial and recreational fishing captains, shared with me his vision of the past, present, and future of America’s ocean waters, based on his five decades of fishing them. “Structure,” of course, was central. His years as a commercial captain in the Gulf convinced him that “a monkey would look like a genius just by fishing an oil rig.” As the former owner and operator of the Viking party boat fleet based in Freeport, New York, he finds the counterparts of the Gulf oil rigs in the Block Island turbines, which are swarming with “the hordes of fluke, porgies, sea bass, blackfish, and cod.” He explained the commercial fishers’ opposition to wind farms two ways. The “commercial guys think they own the ocean and want to keep for themselves,” and “they are in a fight for their life” thanks to their own looting of the seas. The worst are “the draggers with their killing machines” that are “ruining the bottom.” But Captain Forsberg sees a bright future, as the small fish living around the turbines attract marlin, swordfish, and tuna, turning some wind farms into “world class sport fishing” sites.
As recreational anglers learn wind turbines harbor these amazing fish ecosystems, they will be a powerful ally of offshore farms. One of the greatest environmental victories in recent years was spearheaded by saltwater recreational anglers. The Department of Commerce had to recognize “the role of menhaden in the marine environment” and to support “ecological reference points” for this most important fish in the sea. The Atlantic menhaden reduction industry was forced out of some prime waters, a major event almost invisible to the news media. But the media could not ignore one tangible result: the miraculous restoration of an astonishing whale population to New Jersey and New York waters, including New York Harbor.
Whale watching on these waters has become a tourist industry. Perhaps soon tour boats will be offering trips to the wind towers in these same waters. And perhaps recreational fishing boats, even from their now moribund former home in Sheepshead Bay, will once again find the fish that used to thrive in these waters.
So the ocean’s winds have started their two great new roles in human history. Will our drama end in tragedy, with seas and an atmosphere that we ruined for our species? Or will it go on, with restored seas and atmosphere, thanks to what our inventive minds have done with the power of the sun, rivers, tides, deep earth heat, and winds?
H. Bruce Franklin (John Cotton Dana Professor of English and American Studies, Rutgers-Newark, Emeritus) is the author of The Most Important Fish in the Sea, Crash Course: From the Good War to the Forever War, and many other books.