Offshore wind farms could reduce Atlantic City’s surfclam fishery revenue up to 25%, Rutgers study suggests

A 2,000-pound crate of clams is lifted out of the Mary B. Each at Dockside Packing in Atlantic City

A 2,000-pound crate of clams is lifted out of the Mary B. Each at Dockside Packing in Atlantic City, N.J. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

New research from Rutgers University shows Mid-Atlantic surfclam fisheries could see revenue losses from planned offshore wind farms, at least in the short- to medium-term after the development takes place.

The data is sure to fuel opposition from the fishing industry to the Biden administration’s rapid offshore wind development along the New York, New Jersey, and Delaware coasts. President Joe Biden has a goal of generating 30 gigawatts of wind energy by 2030 as part of his effort to tackle climate change.

Clammers and scallop fishermen fear a shrinking patch of fishable ocean will lead to the collapse of the industry.

Surfclam harvests stretching from Maine to Virginia generate about $30 million in annual revenue. The Rutgers study, “The Atlantic Surfclam Fishery and Offshore Wind Energy Development,” published in the ICES Journal of Marine Science, used a newly-developed model to determine average revenue reductions between 3 and 15% overall.

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But the damage would be even greater for the industry based out of Atlantic City, which could see between 8 to 25% losses, according to the study.

“We are not sustainable with a 25% loss,” said Captain Tom Dameron, government relations and fishery science liaison with Atlantic City’s Surfside Foods. “Mitigation will be important for the survival of the surfclam fishery out of Atlantic City.”

Dameron says about 20% of the average yearly catch comes from the areas now slated to be wind farms by the federal government. In a 12-year period, he says, that adds up to more than $39 million in revenue for the surfclams alone.

The study looked at the more than 2 million acres of ocean already leased to wind energy companies and researchers worked closely with the fishing industry to develop the models. Dameron says more research is needed to assess new lease areas announced in April that include areas off the coasts of Delaware, Maryland, Virginia, and North Carolina. The Bureau of Ocean and Energy Management, which oversees leasing, is studying how to compensate the fishing industry.

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Rutgers University professor Daphne Munroe is co-author of two studies, one that developed a new modeling system, and the second that used the model to determine economic impacts. The model, termed the “Spatially-Explicit Fishery Economics Simulator” or SEFES, simulates fishing conditions as well as decisions made by ship captains in response to those conditions.

“SEFES is basically a virtual world that allows us to simulate the dynamics of the fishery — from how captains navigate their boats to how weather impacts the catch,” Munroe said. “But the model also has a layer of biology, which accounts for the clam populations and how they change over time and in space.”

Munroe says the losses in revenue would stem from the difficulty and, in some cases, dangerous conditions wind farms pose to fishing boats that have to steer through rows of turbines, which would stretch more than 80 stories tall, one nautical mile apart, and be bolstered by beds of rock in the seabed. Electric power lines would be buried beneath the seabed, risking contact with the mechanisms used to trawl for surfclams.

Munroe says the clamming boats will seek other areas to trawl, which could mean making longer trips out to sea.

“And the time they spend going from the port to the fishing grounds and back is actually pretty important in this fishery because of product spoilage, especially in the summers,” she said.

The Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, or BOEM, which funded the research, has already awarded 21 lease areas between Massachusetts and North Carolina.

New Jersey was awarded the largest leasing area yet. Gov. Phil Murphy has committed the state to developing 7,500 megawatts of offshore wind by 2035. It’s part of the state’s overall goal of 100% clean energy by 2050.

“This is a pretty big shift in how we’re using our marine resources,” said Munroe. “So I think it’s really important for us to think about how [the wind industry and the fishing industry] will work well with one another, and how we can do our best to maintain and support all of the user groups.”

Only two small wind farms now exist in the United States: the five-turbine farm off the coast of Block Island, Rhode Island, operated by a unit of the Danish energy company Orsted, and a small pilot project in Virginia operated by Dominion Energy.

Munroe says there are no good comparisons to existing European wind energy projects. She plans to use the model to assess impacts from other stressors like climate change, which is already shifting the surfclam population northward.

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