Fisheries, the environment and offshore wind farms: Location, location, location.



The invisible industry

There is a general misconception that mare liberum (the Freedom of the Seas) applies in particular to fishers working in coastal waters. The common view is that access to the sea is homogenously distributed and all fishers can and do work anywhere and everywhere. So when a new structure or restriction is introduced to the coastal environment, people believe that fishermen can simply fish elsewhere. This view is not restricted to those that have a remote and often romantic view of the small boat rural fishing industry either. In a desk-based environmental impact assessment carried out prior to the installation of underground gas storage caverns on the Yorkshire coast the consultant remarked:

“No fishing takes place in this area, though one cannot discount some small scale exploitation” (a consultant cited in Hart & Johnson, 2005).

This observation was made in a region of the coast where there are numerous small inshore fishing boats and one of the biggest crab/lobster fisheries in Europe netting around £4 million a year for a community with few other industries. If the consultant had bothered to look carefully from just about any point along the coast he/she could have counted over 100 buoys, each attached to 20-30 creels on the sea bed. Fishing occurs everywhere along this coast. But it is transient and the degree of activity is not always immediately obvious, so it can be invisible to planners – unlike the physical structure of an oil rig or sewage outfall that can be marked on a chart.

Under-represented and misunderstood

Coastal, or inshore fishers work in a complex environment fraught with hazards, complex regulation, patchy distributions of their target species, exclusion zones and informal territories. These problems are exacerbated by the fact that the distance that an inshore fishing vessel can travel from their home port is limited by the speed, size and capacity of their vessels. The cumulative impacts of these factors on fishers are often poorly understood by those outside the industry. The regulators and proponents of coastal developments are comfortable in the be-suited, jargonistic and bureaucratic worlds of legal negotiation, planning legislation and public relations.

But it’s a world alien to most fishers, who as hunters earn their living by their wits, often at night and in harsh environmental conditions. They are typically highly independent individuals and naturally protective over their way of life. Unused to communicating their opinions and needs to institutions and the public, they do not always represent themselves very well in board rooms, and historically there has been no fishing equivalent of the “landed gentry” to argue their case in the upper circles of UK society. This is not an excuse to view them as “poor, backward, marginal and problematic, but as important contributors to the rural economy and potential focal points for market development in areas otherwise remote from the cash economy” (Hart & Johnson, 2005). A study of rural inshore fishers in Ireland demonstrated that one fisher at sea supports about 7 people ashore and that each fisher was worth an aggregated £34 000 per annum to the community (Meredith, 1999).

A rush to renewables

Offshore wind electricity generation is at the forefront of the UK’s drive to source 15% of energy supplies from renewables by 2020 (BERR, 2008). As renewables contributed only 1.5% to the UK’s energy demands in 2006 the scale of the task is substantial, and is leading to the designation of large areas of the sea for wind farm development. There has been a lack of precision with regard to how different stakeholders are involved in the process. The greatest challenge for developers is engaging with fishers at the local level who do not have someone in an office with the expertise, time and inclination to review the substantial documentation associated with marine development/construction projects. This is not helped by the fact that regulators such as DEFRA have generally been much more focussed on biology and economics than the most important area of science relevant to engaging and understanding stakeholders – social science (SAC Secreteriat, 2007). Early decisions on wind farm locations were made using a broad brush approach and with little stakeholder engagement. It was common in the second round of planning to see consultation only lasting 4 weeks (Gray et al, 2005). And yet location is the key issue that determines impact upon fishing communities, so these time restrictions instantly reduce the scope for useful and positive negotiations with fishers. Environmental Impact Assessments (EIAs) undertaken once the sites are allocated become inherently biased towards justifying the location. This is not helped by the fact that EIAs are carried out by consultants under contract to the developer, who in practice may lack fisheries expertise or the necessary investigative resources.


The documentation associated with a single EIA, produced by a team of administrators, consultants and scientists.  This particular EIA was delivered to a fishermen’s association office on a pallet.

Consequently, developers face an uphill struggle trying to convince the stakeholders with local ecological knowledge of the validity of their own reports, often based on desk-studies authored by what the fishers regard as pet scientists. Consultation meetings with fishers can often be little more than last minute box ticking exercises where frustrated and poorly informed fishers vent their fury. This allows the developer to adhere only to minimum statutory requirements, citing unreasonable behaviour on the part of fishers. In fact, fishers are sometimes viewed by developers as little more than obstacles with no real rights of tenure who can be bought off, no matter whether payment of compensation is in the interests of the community and environment or not. In contrast, developers are often viewed by fishers as arrogant, devious and well connected with the institutions and regulators responsible for control of their resource (Hart & Johnson, 2005).

Environmental arguments

In an arena increasingly peppered with constraints and tensions, the development of wind farms will unavoidably result in displacement of fishing activity in different ways depending on location. At worst, livelihoods and fishing communities are at stake if fishing opportunities are removed or additional costs are incurred to divert to alternative fishing grounds that undermine the viability of fishing businesses. Developers sometimes cite declining fish stocks and the potential conservation benefits of exclosures as additional reasons to press ahead with wind farms, whether or not the local community objects. It is easy for developers and those that support wind farms to cite claims by environmental NGOs that all fished stocks are in decline. In reality, there is a recognised lack of data at appropriate scales for inshore fisheries to fully determine impact, and to be effective, restrictions on fishing activity for conservation purposes need to be set within the context of a coherent conservation strategy. Presently there is no such integration between wind farm and conservation planning processes. The initial disturbance of an area during the construction phase and ensuing noise pollution caused by pile driving are of concern with regard to fish and marine mammal populations (Hart & Johnson, 2005). The possibility that shark species may be adversely affected by electromagnetic interference is something that scientists have also been investigating. There are, nevertheless, ways that good wind farm design could mitigate impact upon fisheries. Construction activities can be planned to avoid sensitive migratory or reproductive periods and cables can be buried or shielded to limit exposure to electromagnetic fields. In the right location and with careful design, wind farms may be able to act as artificial reefs or fish aggregation devices.

Fisher safety
A wind farm array inevitably poses an increased safety risk to mariners. Fishing among turbines may seem more practical if working a limited number of lobster pots from a small boat, when compared to towing a trawl from a larger one. But there are no hard and fast conclusions on the types of fishing activity that would be compatible from a safety point of view. Sensible safety criteria must, therefore, be agreed on a case by case basis. Outside of any safety exclusion zone that is designated, it is down to skippers to assess their exposure to risk according to the local circumstances, weather conditions and fishing method employed. Some developers prefer to automatically excluding fishers from wind farms completely on safety grounds. That is understandably not something that fishers favour! However, even when fishing activity is not possible, consideration should be given to assess whether it is safe to allow passage to access fishing grounds that would otherwise be blocked. Lessons can be learned from the interactions of the fishing and oil and gas industries. Decommissioning (or recommissioning) in particular needs to be carefully considered now rather than in 20 years time. The stakes for the environment and fishing industry are likely to be higher as the ecological and spatial footprint of wind farms is so much larger. The key issues for all concerned with wind farms, which were less significant with the oil and gas industry, are location and access, and it is these that require real stakeholder involvement and proactive decision-making which takes effective account of the sensitivities and needs of fishing communities.

Originally published: Johnson, ML & Rodmell, DP (2009). Fisheries, the environment and offshore wind farms: Location, location, location. Food Ethics, 4(1): 23-24

Magnus L Johnson (Lecturer in Environmental Marine Biology, Centre for Environmental and Marine Sciences, University of Hull)

Dale P Rodmell (Assistant Chief Executive, National Federation of Fishermen’s Organisations)


BERR (2008) UK Renewable Energy Strategy: Consultation Document. Department for Business, Enterprise & Regulatory Reform

Bratton S, Hinz S (2002) Ethical responses to commercial fisheries decline in the Republic of Ireland. Ethics and the Environment 7: 54-91

Gray T, Haggett C, Bell E (2005) Offshore wind farms and commercial fisheries in the UK: A study in stakeholder consultation. Ethics, Place & Environment 8: 127-140

Hart PJB, Johnson ML (2005) Who Owns the Sea? Workshop Proceedings., University of Hull

Meredith D (1999) The strategic importance of the fishing sector to rural communities and Ireland: a case study of the Rossaveal Region, Co. Galway. Irish Fisheries Investigations (New Series), No. 4

SAC Secreteriat (2007) Social Research in DEFRA. Department for Environment Food and Rural Affairs, SAC (07) 33