Illegal Trawlers Fishing Right Off New Jersey Coastline…NOT!

by Capt. Paul Eidman, Forage Fish & Habitat Committee Chairman
(from Jersey Coast Anglers Association November 2021 Newsletter)

The amount of fishing misinformation out there on social media is enough to make me crazy and inspired this blog post. Take a deeper dive into the world of offshore wind power with me and learn more about what these weird looking ships are and why they are there.

These ships may be big and weird looking, but I assure you they aren’t “Chinese trawlers” or “Omega Bunker boats” netting up millions of pounds of fish. In fact, there isn’t a single fishhook or net on board. They are Research vessels hired by offshore wind developers to perform surveys of the ocean floor on the coming windfarms. This is all part of the planning process to explore not only the actual turbine locations, but all the cable routes.

Those tall structures (A-Frames) that you see on deck tow the sonar arrays behind the vessel and map the seafloor. The other tall towers on some ships are for doing the core sampling. Some of the larger vessels even have a helicopter landing pad on the bow giving the ship an odd profile when see offshore. They are working 24-hour days providing sea conditions allow them to get clear data from the sonar gear.

The offshore wind developers in our area, Equinor, Orsted, Atlantic Shores, etc. bid on lease areas that are put out to bid by BOEM. When they win the bid, that gives them the rights to explore the lease area. Know that the lease areas are very large looking on charts, but only smaller sections or parcels will have turbines on them. Right now, there are an additional 8 areas pending bidding in the NYNJ Bight.

The survey methods used in offshore wind are far different than for oil and gas exploration. Most of the survey data is collected to image the seabed surface to determine texture and sediment properties as well as a few yards below the seabed for planning cable burial. The seismic surveying for offshore wind involves far less power and sound simply because the data is used for designing the foundations. Therefore, these surveys don't exceed 200 feet or so. In comparison, the high-power seismic surveys used for oil and gas exploration often exceed 7 miles below the seabed and at incredibly higher sound levels to find the fossil fuel reserves.

Offshore wind turbines are sited in areas free from shipwrecks, reefs or environmentally sensitive areas and these surveys provide that detailed data so that developers can alter the turbine layouts accordingly.

The turbines are connected to each other via what is called inter array cables and these all ultimately go into the substation. There are usually 2 or 3 substations per windfarm. These substation platforms collect the turbine energy and then via what is called an export cable is sent ashore and directed to the onshore substation and then into the electrical grid. Chances are you won’t see these vessels while they are working out there on the wind farm areas more than 10 miles off the beach, but when it comes time to do the export cable into or along shore you will get a better view of the ship.

Usually there are 25 to 30 people on board with a variety of backgrounds ranging from deckhands, engineers, to protected species observers. There is a considerable effort to look and hire local people first and there are many job opportunities for those with the right skill set in addition to the willingness to stay out at sea for a month or so. There may also be scouting or security boats that are called upon to inspect the areas ahead of the survey vessel and report any fishing gear that may be in the path. Commercial fishermen are then notified so the gear is removed and unharmed before the ship arrives. These scout boats are usually local hires of recreational or commercial fishermen that are familiar with the area and gear in the water.

As you can imagine, there are a lot of rules and regulations that apply here along with the dozens of acronyms used to communicate quickly in the industry. You have BOEM which is the Bureau of Offshore Energy management, basically the landlords of federal waters (3 to 200 miles) and NOAA National Oceanographic and Atmospheric administration and NMFS which is the National Marine Fisheries Service.

On each vessel there are 4-6 protected species observers (PSO’s) that are on constant watch around the clock for all types of whales, dolphins, and turtles as all of these are protected species. During daylight they watch visually, but at night they use a variety of instruments to acoustically detect them. When one of these creatures is detected, there are specific mitigation procedures that are followed and reported to the above entities. A single turtle present in the survey area could shut them down and prevent the gathering of data for hours. This is done at great time and expense to all parties involved, and once all clear is sounded they get back to work.

The survey vessels are good stewards of our coastal waters. They spend countless hours at sea. This means they come across many things from reporting and retrieving abandoned fishing gear and if possible, returning to the owner, to balloon & plastic debris removal, or even assisting vessels in distress. The survey vessels also collect valuable data for scientific research. The entire effort is aimed at improving our environment both above and below the waves.

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