Two local fishermen groups sue developers, the California Coastal Commission, and the California State Lands Commission over offshore wind projects


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Offshore wind farms could harm local fish species and the SLO County fishing community's way of life, according to a spokesperson for two local groups of fishermen. Those groups recently sued several state agencies and wind farm developers over planned projects in federal waters.

"Fishermen don't want offshore wind, especially now that it's grown to this monstrosity. It's not going to be good for our fisheries," Morro Bay resident and spokesperson for the fishermen's groups Sheri Hafer said. "This would just harm our whole culture; it's just going to change the whole face of Morro Bay and Port San Luis if they industrialize it."

In January 2023, the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management identified 15 ports that could support wind energy projects, including Port San Luis, much to the dismay of local fishermen, represented by the Morro Bay Commercial Fishermen's Organization and the Port San Luis Commercial Fisherman's Association.

In May 2022, the U.S. Department of Interior auctioned off California's first two wind energy leasing areas off the coast of Humboldt and Morro Bay for a total of $757 million, according to previous New Times reporting. The wind energy areas are located roughly 20 miles offshore, and the projects are expected to take between 12 and 15 years to complete, requiring support facilities from an eligible port.

SEA CHANGE Two fishermen's groups are suing to halt development of floating wind turbines in federal waters off the Morro Bay coast. - FILE RENDERING COURTESY OF BOEM
  • File Rendering Courtesy Of Boem
  • SEA CHANGE Two fishermen's groups are suing to halt development of floating wind turbines in federal waters off the Morro Bay coast.

Those ports must have facilities that can perform major maintenance on a fully assembled turbine system, such as replacing a blade; are located in a navigable waterway able to receive raw materials via road, rail, or waterborne transport; and can create larger components for the offshore wind supply chain.

Port San Luis Harbor District Director Suzy Watkins told New Times in previous reporting that this project could bring much-needed investments to the port, including upgrading facilities.

"This would lead to improvements on facilities and infrastructure that benefits all users, as well as help generate revenue that helps support our public facilities," she said. "Piers are very, very expensive to maintain, and it would help us improve our maintenance of what we already have as well as provide new access for people."

Hafer said despite the cash benefit, the fishing community and the environment will feel the effects of the project far before it's completed.

"On the East Coast, they had several whales die, right in the area and location and time of all their survey work that was going on. We had over 85 whales die last year," she said. "So all of a sudden Equinor sends us a notice that they're going to start their survey work in March, and that's when we decided to file our lawsuit."

Altas Wind, also known as Equinor, is an international energy company present in 30 countries worldwide, including off the coast of the U.K., and was awarded one of the leases off Morro Bay in 2022.

Hafer said fishermen across the U.K. have reported devasting effects to the sea life due to the use of sonar to survey the areas where windfarms were eventually built.

"The fishermen there say it's like a dead zone; it's just killing everything. It deforms [fish] eggs, and nobody wants to be around the noise," she said.

Joseph Street, senior environmental scientist for the California Coastal Commission, previously told New Times that when it comes to low-energy sonar, it has few environmental impacts and is often routinely used in oceanographic research and fishing.

"Low-energy sonar surveys occurring on a large scale could have some potential to disrupt marine mammals and sea turtles if appropriate precautions aren't taken, so federal and state agencies—including the Coastal Commission—are requiring protection measures like the use of marine mammal monitors and safe-shutdown zones, to avoid and minimize impacts to marine life," he said.

In addition to sonar concerns, the Morro Bay Commercial Fishermen's Organization and Port San Luis Commercial Fisherman's Association claim that the California Coastal Commission, California State Lands Commission, Altas Wind, CSA Ocean Sciences Incorporated, Golden State Wind, and Even Keel Wind are breaching the California public trust doctrine and the 1850 Act of Statehood, and are in violation of the California Coastal Act.

"Petitioners and their members will be irreparably harmed by the ensuing damage to commercial fishing, access to fishing grounds, and the viability of fishing grounds within the proposed project areas and site surveys, which would cris-cross [sic] large areas of California public trust submerged land and tidelands," the lawsuit reads.

The public trust policy is the public's right to use California's waterways for navigation, fishing, boating, natural habitat protection, and other water-oriented activities that are protected by common law doctrine in the public trust, according to the California State Lands Commission. More recently, the doctrine was broadened to include the right to swim, boat, and engage in other forms of water recreation and to preserve land in its natural state in order to protect scenic and wildlife habitat values.

Hafer said it was important to include the California Coastal Commission in the lawsuit because it's trying to speed through the permitting process without acknowledging the environmental and community impacts.

"They want to expedite this whole thing," she said. "They streamlined all the permits together and gave the Coastal Commission the ultimate authority to finalize."

California Coastal Commission Legislative Director Sarah Christie told New Times that it can't make a statement about the lawsuit at this time.

"The commission's legal department is evaluating the lawsuit and will be responding pursuant to court deadlines," she said.

The lawsuit also states that the California Coastal Commission is violating the Coastal Act, which guides how the state's coastal land is developed or protected from development.

"It emphasizes the importance of the public being able to access the coast, and the preservation of sensitive coastal and marine habitat and biodiversity," according to the Coastal Commission. "It prioritizes coastal recreation as well as commercial and industrial uses that need a waterfront location."

According to the lawsuit, the public trust requires wind developers to mitigate for and monitor the impacts of industrial scale ocean wind energy on commercial fishing and fish habitats before starting surveys or any other phase of the project.

"While offshore wind energy generation can provide significant climate and economic benefits, industrial scale development and deployment of offshore wind energy will also have impacts on coastal and ocean resources, fisheries, and coastal communities that are not yet fully understood," the lawsuit states.

A Dec. 20, 2023, notice of intent to prepare a programmatic environmental impact statement from the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management states that offshore wind energy could impact air quality, animals, wetlands, coastal habitats, and commercial and recreational fishing.

"Project structures above the water could affect the visual character defining historic properties, properties of traditional religious and cultural significance, and recreational and tourism areas," the study states. "Additionally, the project could create space-use conflicts with military activities, air traffic, land-based radar services, cables, and scientific surveys."

The parties' next scheduled hearing is April 24. Δ

Reach Staff Writer Samantha Herrera at [email protected].



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