Can Fisheries Co-exist with Offshore Wind in the Race to Carbon Net Zero?

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The Government’s Net Zero ambition signals a massive expansion in the scale and extent of offshore wind farms, but it also supercharges concerns over the spatial squeeze now being experienced by fishers who face losing access to their fishing grounds. NFFO Assistant Chief Executive, Dale Rodmell, who recently presented the issues to the All Party Parliamentary Group on Fisheries(1), makes the case for the need for a planning system that can deliver on co-existence.

Net Zero, the Blue Economy and MPAs

The 2019 Offshore Wind Sector Deal, the government’s industrial strategy for offshore wind, and a succession of ever more ambitious announcements that have followed places offshore wind front and centre in meeting the government’s Net Zero commitments.  The present target is for 40GW of generating capacity of full commercial-scale offshore wind by 2030 and a further 1GW for the development of pre-full commercial-scale floating wind projects.  But that is just a start.  The Climate Change Committee has planning scenarios to meet Net Zero with up to 140GW of offshore wind by 2050, implying an acceleration of deployment beyond 2030.  If that scenario is realised it would translate to more than a 13-fold increase over the current operational generating capacity of 10.5GW.  And the expansion of offshore wind is not only in the UK; the EU has ambitions for 60GW of generating capacity by 2030 and 300GW by 2050, with the largest proportion of this foreseen for deployment in the North Sea.

The colossal scale of this ambition is hard to comprehend.  There is, as yet no clearly defined analysis on what it means in terms of the proportion of our seas that would host wind farms, but undoubtedly its scale would mean a complete transformation in the use of marine space that inevitably will encroach extensively on customary fishing grounds.

And of course, it is not only the wind farm structures themselves that present an issue for fisheries.  At least as important is the network of inter-array and export cables necessary to convey their output to the electricity grid or to electrolysers to produce hydrogen – another significant strand in the drive to net zero – and also the expansion of cable interconnectors to link national grids more extensively.

Fishing activity is already obliged to operate in an increasingly crowded marine space, encompassing existing constructed wind farms, the oil and gas and aggregates sectors, the telecoms cables sector, which is also presently undergoing a large expansion, and other fledging but growing sectors such as mariculture and potentially other types of marine energy.  To top it off, this unprecedented expansion in the blue economy is taking place within the context of the network of MPAs that now cover 38% of UK seas.

But in contrast to the support given by the government to the various blue economy marine sectors, strategic attention to the spatial needs of commercial fisheries have received close to no attention.  In fact, in the wake of Brexit it has been quite the reverse, with a signalling of a hardening stance against accommodating fisheries within existing MPAs, to be followed with an expected announcement of plans for highly protected marine areas that will be no-take zones.

An Agenda for Co-existence

Setting aside, for the moment, the squeeze on fishing grounds from other industries and MPAs, if the government is to avoid mass displacement of fishing activities from a rapidly expanding offshore wind sector, the planning system will need to be a lot smarter and agile than it currently is.  Most English waters still await the formal adoption of draft marine plans, expected later this year, but it is already clear that on their own they are not up to the task of guiding marine development on this scale.  Forward planning is needed with a sufficiently long-term view.

So far, this has been limited.  Scotland has recently developed a new wind sectoral plan, but this is limited to 10GW generating capacity, with the expectation that future iterations will earmark further development.   Outside of Scotland, there is no sectoral planning system, with the void occupied by a piecemeal seabed leasing system administered by the Crown Estate.  The latest Round 4 for nearly 8GW of seabed rights was the least inclusive to date, focussed on a market-facing competitive tendering process with other marine stakeholders excluded from decisions on site selection.

An Agenda for Co-existence

Crucially, the planning system needs to give much greater prioritisation to co-existence and be savvier in delivering on it.  Although the issue is referred to in the Marine Policy Statement and covered in all marine plans in some way, implementation is largely passive and limited solely to the planning application/marine licencing processes.

One development in the last few years has been requirements for Fisheries Liaison and Co-existence plans in England or Fisheries Management and Mitigation Strategies in Scotland.  While these are useful, they are concerned principally with the coordination of day­-to-day operational activities in the vicinity of the wind farm, prepared late in the planning process or even post-consent.  This is too late to address fundamental issues about wind farm design and location.

Windfarm Design

Wind farm design, including turbine spacing and layout, are more fundamental determinants of whether fishing activities can co-exist with offshore wind.  Relative to an open sea state, a wind farm sited on fishing grounds will inevitably impede fisheries to some degree, as will associated installation and maintenance activities.  Under current fixed wind farm turbine spacings, fishing methods that require wide areas in order to deploy gear such as large seine netting and pair trawling are incompatible.  On the other hand, pot fisheries have been found to be able to operate in some constructed projects.  For other fishing methods, such as single trawling and static nets, the jury is still out.  There is presently a lack of evidence demonstrating significant numbers of vessels operating these gears within projects.

While the Maritime and Coastguard Agency (MCA) requires two lines of orientation to assist navigation through wind farms sites, turbine spacing is predominantly driven by the technology, not by an inherent objective to promote co-existence.  Nonetheless, as the capacity rating of turbine technology continues to grow, turbine spacing is increasing, which potentially could provide more opportunities for co-existence.

Cable routing is a feature of offshore wind development where the planning system could provide more and better direction.  The fishing industry could usefully feed into evidence on seabed conditions, whilst designs limiting the number of crossings between consecutive rows of turbines and/or bundling them could be prioritised.  This would minimise the potential for bottom towed fishing gears from potentially interacting with an exposed cable.  Due to the application of the Rochdale Envelope approach that provides post-consent flexibility to a developer over the design of the wind farm, such decisions are not presently given direction by the planning authority, even though they may impinge on co-existence.

Compared to fixed wind, where the question of co-existence is influenced by many factors, the advent of floating wind technologies threatens total fisheries exclusion, an issue that has not yet been recognised in government policy.  This is because current commercial designs (left and right examples in the figure) use anchored catenary mooring lines extending out from the turbine platforms that would conflict with fishing gears.  So-called “tension-leg” designs (figure, centre) with the mooring lines attached vertically to the platforms offer greater co-existence potential, but these are not yet commercially proven.  The selection of the Celtic Sea for the build-out of the first generation of early commercial-scale floating wind projects is one of the most diverse and dense regions of fishing activity in the UK and will pose significant challenges.

Cable Interactions

If there are few planning constraints on cable routing, that is partly due to policies on burial and protection, which in theory should place cables out of harm’s way from interactions with fishing gears.  Delivering on this policy is ultimately down to delivering good engineering practice.  In areas where physical processes acting on the seabed routinely shift sediments, like in much of the southern North Sea, burial needs to account for topographic changes to the seabed that would over time lead to cables becoming exposed.  Given the occurrence of cable exposures in recently constructed projects, it is questionable whether current target burial depths, especially for inter-array cables that have shallower target burial depths, are adequately accounting for this issue.

Beyond cable installation, ongoing management of cable exposure risk is fundamental to ensuring safe fishing practice.  This can be achieved through monitoring and the timely communication of marine hazards to the fishing fleet.  Warning systems are in place for this through the Kingfisher Bulletin, but improvements are possible in the future with the expansion of in-wheelhouse warning systems such as the FishSafe unit, which is currently used to alert of marine hazards associated with the oil and gas sector.  The communication to the fishing industry of information on “as laid” depths of cables and changes following monitoring surveys would also help to better manage any emerging risks.

Good risk management should provide the means to minimise the potential for incidents occurring.  However, the legal position on fishing in the vicinity of cables in the context of co-existence lacks clarity.  Cables are protected in law against damage resulting from willful intent or culpable negligence.   However, the underpinning legislation, the Telegraph Act (extended to other types of cables under the Continental Shelf Act) dates back to the nineteenth century when telegraph cables were first installed.  It was not designed for the circumstances of the wide-ranging and growing networks of cables that are now in our seas.

Interpreting this archaic legislation, and failing to account for co-existence matters, the MCA advises that in order to minimise risk as much as possible, vessel operators should avoid fishing at a minimum distance of 0.25NM from submarine cables.  In practice, this would effectively preclude fishing in the vicinity of all wind farms and the wide-ranging networks of cables beyond them.  It serves to highlight that arrangements for governing cables-fisheries co-existence need significant refinement if the fishing industry is to have the assurance that is needed when returning to fishing grounds once turbine arrays are installed.   Similarly, there is a need to ensure there is a system for managing liabilities and insurance indemnity that will be fit for purpose for the scale of projects and the density of cabling in our seas in the future.

A Vital Piece of the Marine Planning Jigsaw

Co-existence should not be left as an afterthought reserved only for consideration as part of the planning application process.  It needs to be more purposefully built into forward and sectoral planning functions to work out what can and cannot successfully co-locate so that marine space may be allocated more efficiently for different purposes.

For fisheries, this means developing a better understanding of the use of marine space by fishing activities at micro and macro scales.   At the micro-scale, this is about the space needed to operate different types of fishing activities practically and safely.  To skippers of fishing vessels, the spatial patterns and requirements of their fishing activities are second nature, but for marine planners, these matters are not yet documented to inform decision-making.  For offshore wind farm planning purposes, expert knowledge on the spatial operating requirements of different fishing types needs to be documented, whilst understanding of spatial use in the vicinity of wind farms can be enhanced over time through monitoring data.

At the macro scale, the challenge is to improve understanding of the sensitivity of different fisheries to the loss of access to fishing grounds.  Presently, the examination of such issues occurs only as part of planning applications’ commercial fisheries and cumulative impact assessments.  This is too late to influence project siting decisions and assessment methodologies are based on a relatively subjective and superficial examination of the issues.  These essentially are based on a visual comparison of the scale of the footprint of current projects in the planning process with that of affected fishing grounds as defined by vessel monitoring system data of a particular gear group or piecemeal information on fishing grounds for the <12m fleet.   The approach discounts projects and proposals that have been completed, assuming any impacts from these to be reflected in the baseline data (an approach that is endorsed by planning guidance).  The result is the setting up of a shifting baseline problem where the analyst really does not understand the significance of the successive loss of access to fishing grounds that may have occurred up to that point.

A more thorough and focussed examination of the use of fishing grounds by different fleet segments would help to improve understanding of their sensitivity to loss.  It would also provide vital information to be then used to identify persistent and sensitive fisheries and areas of importance.  These areas may then be elevated within the marine planning system and assigned specific safeguarding policies; an approach examined by the Marine Management Organisation in 2014, but not yet progressed.  The combination of this micro and macro-scale evidence on fisheries sensitivity can then be applied to sectoral planning, and cascade through to planning application processes.  This should be supported by forward planning exercises that are inclusive of other marine stakeholders, not just the wind sector, to help inform site identification.

There is scope for applying this approach beyond fisheries, to other marine uses.  Given the scale of the MPA network, if impacts to other marine users are to be minimised, then the potential to co-locate wind farms in areas within MPAs, where other activities such as fisheries are precluded, is essential.  As a pre-requisite is for wind farm projects to be compatible with MPA conservation objectives, there is, therefore, a need for evidence-based guidance that can help to identify the areas and types of projects that are likely to fit the bill.

In the final analysis, if ultimately there is a failure to achieve co-existence, affected fishing communities should not be expected to bear the resulting costs and losses.  However, for compensation for permanent and temporary loss of access to fishing grounds, there is no overall national framework that addresses the issues or provides for a dispute resolution mechanism.  Unlike in other countries such as Denmark, these matters are left to be typically handled in an ad-hoc and relatively haphazard fashion where developers and the impacted fishers are left to sort things out locally.  There is a growing need for this unsatisfactory state of arrangements to be formally addressed by the government.

Since the climate emergency has turbocharged offshore wind policy with the adoption in 2019 of the 2050 net zero commitment by the government, a flurry of policy initiatives to identify the changes needed and to chart paths to get there are now emerging.  It is essential that our fishing communities see comparable leadership and change at the marine planning end of the equation so that these ambitions do not turn into an emergency for fishing livelihoods.