By RACHAEL PACELLA
ANNAPOLIS—If a wind farm is ever built off the coast of Ocean City, it could enhance recreational fishing by creating artificial reefs, but hurt commercial fishermen who dredge in the area by taking up valuable bottom with cables and lines.
A number of steps still need to be taken before the offshore farm, which could include between 50 and 100 wind turbines, becomes a reality.
Still, Catherine McCall, of the Maryland Department of Natural Resources, said the department is taking steps now to minimize impacts on the fishing community.
"The largest impact could occur to gear types that tend to make contact with the bottom, so your trolls or your dredges. The connections between each of the turbines require cables or lines and you don't want people dredging or trolling over that," McCall said.
McCall said where dredging would be prohibited would be decided during the siting process. Depending on who installs the project, all fishing near the turbines could be prohibited for safety reasons.
Gov. Martin O'Malley's Maryland Offshore Wind Energy Act of 2012 passed through the House of Delegates, but never came to a vote in the Senate. The bill is not necessary to build a farm, but would encourage construction by requiring that Maryland power suppliers get a certain amount of power from wind. Similar legislation is expected in 2013 as proponents continue to try to jumpstart wind farming in Maryland.
In the past, old subway cars have been sunk off the coast of Ocean City to create artificial reefs that benefit aquatic life. If built, the turbines would create a similar artificial reef.
"The base of every turbine you install, or at least the ones that are anchored into seafloor, have a rock scour, so that can almost act as an artificial reef," McCall said. "And folks like to fish off of artificial reef structures because there is quite a unique fish community and invertebrate community," McCall said.
Charter captain Jeremy Blunt, who has fished in the area for 16 years, agrees.
"Anything that creates more habitat is good for us," Blunt said.
Blunt said additional habitat could help extend the season, and he thinks the turbines are large enough that fishermen wouldn't run into them.
Captain Mark Sampson of the charter boat Fish Finder has worked in Ocean City fishing for 25 years. Sampson said he thought the turbines themselves could help business if people on charter trips want to go out and see the farm.
He said the turbines wouldn't affect the scenery.
"We have plenty of empty ocean to look at, so anywhere there will be a wind farm would be a plus," Sampson said.
But charter captain Mark Radcliffe, who has worked fishing in Ocean City for 30 years, is opposed to an offshore wind farm.
"I hate to see the ocean peppered with stuff like that," Radcliffe said.
Radcliffe said he is concerned about the impacts electric current moving underwater could have on fish, and would like to see some studies done.
Tracey Moriarty, a spokeswoman for the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, said her agency and the Department of Energy are conducting studies to determine the potential effects of electromagnetic fields on fish and lobsters. Another study is under way to develop best management practices for the offshore wind industry to offset impacts on recreational and commercial fishermen.
McCall, of the Department of Natural Resources, said when they first started looking into offshore wind they reached out to the fishing community in order to better understand how the two can work together.
"We really didn't have a significant amount of data about where people were fishing, what kind of fishing gear they were using in certain areas, about how much of their catch was coming from particular areas," McCall said.
To fill in those gaps the department started talking with the community. They held meetings and sent out mailers so fishermen could circle which waters they used. They asked what gear type they used, and what species they were after.
"We took a lot of the information we collected from these groups and made recommendations to the Federal Offshore Wind Energy Task Force to reduce a portion of the wind energy area to avoid some of the most significant conflicts that we knew about," McCall said.
John R. Martin, president of the Martin Fish Company in Ocean City, said they had done a good job of involving the fishing community so far.
"Rather than being an opponent of something that's good change, we'd rather be a part of it," Martin said.