Jerry Leeman III, of Harpswell, is founder and CEO of the New England Fishermen’s Stewardship Association. The group launched in May and is a staunch opponent of floating offshore wind power. (J. Craig Anderson photo)

Harpswell resident Jerry Leeman III sits in an office chair at a dining room table with his father, Jerry Leeman Jr., on a nearby couch watching TV. In front of Leeman III is a laptop and a stack of studies and reports on a range of issues that could threaten the New England fishing industry.

Leeman, like his father, used to be a commercial fisherman. Now he spends his days reading reports and constructing arguments against what he sees as challenges to the industry, while advocating for his fellow New England fishermen and their interests.

Having recently harpooned the whale conservationists in court, the New England fishing industry’s current biggest threat, in Leeman’s view, is the advent of floating offshore wind power and its planned deployment along the New England coast.

For example, the state of Maine has proposed building a research array in partnership with developer New England Aqua Ventus that would include up to 12 floating wind turbines on 10,000 acres about 44 miles southeast of Portland.

“This should not be allowed,” said Leeman, founder and CEO of the New England Fishermen’s Stewardship Association.

The association launched in May with a widely distributed press release. It has created a website and in July held a fundraising event at Cook’s Lobster & Ale House on Bailey Island. The group’s formation made national headlines, particularly among conservative media, with stories by outlets such as Fox News and National Review.

In addition to Leeman, a former groundfisherman out of Massachusetts, the advocacy group’s staff includes lobsterman Dustin Delano as chief operating officer and videographer Andrew Joyce as director of media content and research. Joyce runs a YouTube channel called “The Maine Reset,” which hosts videos railing against offshore wind and regulators.

Harpswell resident and wharf owner Alison Hawkes is the organization’s secretary, while lobster and halibut fisherman Ronnie Musetti serves as treasurer. The board of directors includes Jerry Leeman Jr. and several other current and former fishermen, including Linda Greenlaw, who was featured in the book and movie, “The Perfect Storm.”

Leeman’s group has been welcomed by other fishing industry and heritage organizations in Maine, including the Maine Coast Fishermen’s Association. Those organizations generally view Leeman as an ally regardless of whether they share his particular approach.

But in its few short months of life, Leeman’s group already has drawn some criticism online for its rhetoric, which tends toward broad, sweeping generalizations. Its vehement denial of any potential societal benefits to floating offshore wind power has even led one anonymous conspiracy theorist to accuse it of being a mouthpiece for the fossil fuel industry.

But one doesn’t get the sense that Leeman cares or even thinks much about the problems of Big Oil. He’s a fisherman from a fishing family, and he lives in a fishing community. No college kid who just vomited over the side of a boat is going to school him on what will or will not harm the New England coast and the people who earn their living from it.

“They’re making fishermen take these kids to sea that don’t even know if they get seasick, they don’t tell you what medications they’re on, and you’re trapped on a steel can for 10 days at a time with (them),” Leeman said about federal fishing monitors in an interview. “And the data they’re accumulating is just garbage.”

Help or hindrance?

When presenting his case against offshore wind, Leeman favors the shotgun approach. He can rattle off dozens of facts and figures to support his position, and if you push back against one of his arguments, he has several more ready to go.

One of the toughest to refute is that scientists don’t actually know what will happen to the surrounding sea life if we install a wide array of massive, floating wind turbines out in the Gulf of Maine.

Leeman is basically right. The handful of countries that have floating turbines, including the United Kingdom and Norway, don’t have very many. It’s an emerging technology that researchers haven’t had time or opportunity to build a robust body of research around. There could indeed be unforeseen negative effects on sea life.

Aside from bird strikes, there are two major environmental concerns with offshore wind: the underwater acoustics generated by the turbines, and the electromagnetic fields that emanate from the cables carrying their power ashore. Either or both of those phenomena could potentially disrupt the surrounding ecosystem, and scientists don’t really know by how much. It could depend heavily on how a particular project is designed and built. 

A 2022 research brief, “Electromagnetic Field Effects on Marine Life,” by the U.S. Offshore Wind Synthesis of Environmental Effects Research program, states, “When in close proximity to subsea cables, some animals have demonstrated behavioral responses in a few studies, such as increased foraging and exploratory movements. So far, behavioral responses of individuals have not been determined to negatively affect a species’ population, but further research is needed to refine our understanding of the effects of EMFs on wildlife.”

But in Leeman’s view, society should just abandon offshore wind, or build it somewhere else and do the research over there. He doesn’t acknowledge that man-made climate change is also a potentially serious problem for sea life in the Gulf of Maine, one of the fastest-warming bodies of water on the planet.

And Leeman insists that floating offshore wind power wouldn’t help solve the climate crisis anyway, despite an army of politicians, environmentalists, scientists, inventors, executives and investors expressing confidence that it would.

“It does zero to combat global warming, and if anything, these wind turbines need fossil fuels to create them,” Leeman said, adding that the ships carrying the turbines out to sea also would burn an enormous amount of fuel. “It’s a charade.”

That opinion stands in stark contrast to those expressed by a range of New England interests. For example, the advocacy group New England for Offshore Wind says the technology is essential for addressing the region’s future clean energy needs.

“We believe that offshore wind is the single biggest lever we can pull to address the climate crisis while also strengthening our regional economy, protecting ratepayers, improving public health by reducing pollution, and creating high-quality jobs and equitable access to economic opportunity,” the group’s website says.

New England for Offshore Wind has more than 50 named partners, including the Natural Resources Council of Maine, Environmental League of Massachusetts, New England Aquarium, National Wildlife Federation, Sierra Club, Maine Audubon, Tufts University, University of Massachusetts (at Boston, Lowell and Amherst), and the Union of Concerned Scientists.

The group is also endorsed by a wide swath of commercial interests, including banks, power utilities, manufacturers, business councils and labor unions.

Taking concerns seriously?

Tony Ronzio, spokesperson for the Governor’s Energy Office, said Gov. Janet Mills’ administration is taking the fishing industry’s concerns about floating offshore wind power very seriously.

Ronzio noted that new installations of the technology are already prohibited in Maine state waters, so all permits would need to be granted by federal officials for federal waters farther offshore. In July 2021, Mills signed L.D. 1619, which barred any new wind projects in state waters, where “up to 75 percent of Maine’s commercial lobster harvesting occurs,” the bill says.

Still, the state has developed an extensive roadmap for its embrace of offshore wind power, making it clear that Maine plans to rely heavily on the technology in the coming decades.

The roadmap’s executive summary states: “In the years ahead, offshore wind will be an essential tool in efforts to accomplish Maine’s ambitious statutory climate and clean energy targets: Using 80 percent renewable energy by 2030 with an intention of 100 percent by 2040, cutting emissions by 45 percent by 2030 and 80 percent by 2050, achieving carbon neutrality as a state by 2045, and doubling our clean energy jobs to 30,000 by 2030.”

The governor’s office has amassed a diverse advisory group on wind power that includes representatives of groups such as the Maine Lobstermen’s Association, Gulf of Maine Research Institute, Biodiversity Research Institute, Maine Conservation Voters, and the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife.

“We’ve really tried to make sure in every way possible that the voices and the concerns of Maine fishermen are heard (by) those that are the key decision-maker in this, which is the federal government,” Ronzio said in an interview.

Still, Leeman isn’t the only representative of fishing interests sounding the alarm about Maine’s future plans to depend on floating offshore wind power.

Monique Coombs, director of community programs for the Maine Coast Fishermen’s Association, said that while different groups may disagree on certain issues and approaches to protecting Maine’s commercial fishing legacy and future, they all pretty much agree that floating offshore wind power is a threat.

“The bottom line is you won’t find any fishermen or industry advocacy group (including hers) that think offshore wind development in the Gulf of Maine is a good idea,” Coombs said. “That should really be more alarming to people.”

Leeman said offshore wind has the potential to devastate Maine’s commercial fishing industry, and that proponents of the technology aren’t taking the industry’s concerns seriously enough. Those concerns include potential changes in the migration patterns of groundfish species and new restrictions on where fishermen are allowed to fish.

He said commercial fishermen have a long history of conservationism and do not object to green energy initiatives in principle, but that the lack of research on offshore wind’s potential economic and environmental harms should make it a nonstarter.

“We have 5,600 lobstermen just in this state alone,” Leeman said, adding that local economies depend heavily on the income those lobstermen generate. “We’re going to be Third World poor before long. It will be like what they did to the lumberyards, except now it will be all along the coast.”

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