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Offshore wind farm plan prompting worries in east coast communities

Proposed Dublin Bay project faces opposition from fishers, as Shell pulls out of Ireland’s offshore wind market

At sunrise each morning, fisherman Peter Ryan heads out from Dún Laoghaire harbour, tossing a herring to his good luck charm, a grey seal bobbing in the water. If Mr Ryan returns with a good catch, he’ll throw his friend a few herring as a reward.

For almost a half a century, the Wicklow man has fished for whelk, lobster, shrimp and crab in the Irish Sea. His two sons, Sean and James, have followed in their father’s footsteps.

“Fishing is not a job, it’s a way of life,” says Mr Ryan. “We’re earning a good living doing what we want to do.”

But Mr Ryan and fishers like him along Ireland’s east coast are worried about their future with the development of several offshore wind farms. They said the noise from the geophysical surveys and construction of these projects would decimate fish stocks, and once operational, fishers fear they will be prevented from accessing the waters around the turbines.

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Theirs is a harder argument to sell these days, with Ireland’s energy security at risk as the economy transitions away from fossil fuels.

To combat global warming and meet increased electricity demand, Ireland aims to generate 80 per cent of renewable electricity by 2030, with seven gigawatts coming from offshore wind. Seven offshore wind farm projects have been fast-tracked off Ireland’s eastern and southern coast to reach this goal.

Many fishers and residents criticise the location of these developments, claiming marine biodiversity has been disregarded and communities ignored.

On July 20th last, about 80 people crowded into a conference room at Fitzpatrick Castle Hotel in Killiney to discuss Dublin Array, a wind farm primed for the Kish and Bray banks 10km off Co Dublin. Dublin Array is a partnership between German energy giant RWE and the Irish company Saorgus Energy.

Once operational, the wind farm will generate 600-900 megawatts of electricity, enough to power 390,000-585,000 homes.

Susan McDonnell, chair of Dalkey Community Council, which hosted the meeting with its neighbouring Killiney council, said the event was to inform the public about the proposed wind farms and Ireland’s lack of protection for its marine area. While Ms McDonnell said she understood the need for renewable energy, marine ecology and biodiversity should be preserved, and finding a balance between the two was crucial.

“The licenses that the Government is granting for exploration are probably in areas that should be marine protected areas [MPAs] because they are rich in biodiversity. We seem to have this strange system of granting licences before we have the protected areas,” said Ms McDonnell.

Only 2.13 per cent of Ireland’s marine waters are protected areas. The Government has committed to expanding this to 30 per cent by 2030. Designating MPAs can help ecosystems recover from intrusive human activities such as overfishing and drilling.

In June, Fair Seas, a coalition of environmental non-governmental organisations, released a report, Revitalising Our Seas, which identified dozens of high-biodiversity marine sites in Ireland needing MPA status.

Fair Seas marine policy officer Dr Donal Griffin said Ireland was behind other European countries in prioritising sites for protection, and the report was a way to jump-start the process. “Next steps would be for the Government to begin the conversation of where these sites might be, where biodiversity is and communicate that to stakeholders, local communities and the fishing industry, and then go through a process of choosing the sites that will help our seas recover.”

Dún Laoghaire TD Richard Boyd Barrett echoes local concerns about the Dublin Array project.

“What has happened in Ireland is private, for-profit developers are dictating the process and are selecting marine sites on the basis of what is most profitable for them. That runs completely counter to any notion of sustainable planning and development and protecting our precious marine resources, biodiversity and livelihoods of fishers and other people who make their livelihood from the sea,” the People Before Profit TD said.

Ireland introduced the Maritime Area Planning Act 2021 to consolidate the process of foreshore planning. All wind farm projects, even those with a foreshore lease, need to apply for planning permission. That application needs to be accompanied by a comprehensive environmental impact assessment.

Only an outline of the Dublin Array project has been published so far — planning applications are expected to be submitted in 2023. If approved, construction would begin in 2025-2026 with the wind farm operational by 2029.

RWE senior development and consents manager Paul Kelly said the company had for years been doing a broad range of environmental surveys, including bird surveys, mammal surveys, seabed surveys, archaeological surveys and navigation surveys.

“Those environmental assessments are guiding our design because what’s really important to us is that the design is customised to the site and what we find on the site. You have to make sure that your design is cognisant of what’s in the water and under the water,” said Mr Kelly.

But Valerie Freeman of Coastal Concern Alliance, an independent citizens’ group working to protect Ireland’s coastal zone, who attended the Killiney meeting said: “The Government has not reformed the legislation over the last 20 years and has continued to allow developers to select and expand sites. There has been inadequate regulation and inadequate environmental assessment. No proper objective scientific environmental assessment has been done.”

Offshore sandbanks, such as the Kish and Bray banks, are home to marine invertebrates, such as whelk, lobster and crab. Terns that roost on the nearby strand forage for fish in the shallow waters. A large population of grey and common seals live in the Irish Sea.

On July 14th, the Seanad passed the Planning and Development, Maritime and Valuation (Amendment) Bill 2022, which introduced amendments to flexibility in planning applications.

Mr Kelly said developers were looking for a bit of flexibility because they don’t know exactly what turbines will be on the market when they get to the construction phase of the wind farms. However, Mr Boyd Barrett said the Bill was rushed through without proper scrutiny or public consultation.

Residents and fishers suggest placing wind farms farther from shore or constructing floating wind farms instead.

Floating wind farms are advantageous because they can be situated in deeper waters, with turbines placed on floating support structures moored and connected to the seabed with anchor lines. But they are expensive and the technology is relatively new.

The wind farm projects currently in development use fixed-bottomed turbines, which require a firm connection to the sea floor and need to be placed at a depth of less than 60m. Because the seabed of the Irish Sea drops off quickly, these turbines must be located close to shore.

During an Oireachtas committee meeting on offshore renewable industry in June, Wind Energy Ireland chief executive Noel Cunniffe said floating wind farms were not economically competitive this decade.

Developers have expressed concern about delays in setting up a regulatory framework to approve new projects. Last year Norway’s Equinor abandoned a joint venture with ESB to build a €2 billion wind energy project at Moneypoint, Co Clare, venting its frustration about planning delays. And in recent days, Shell revealed it was scrapping its involvement in the Western Star and Emerald projects off the coasts of Clare and Cork.

Shell declined to answer why it was pulling out of Ireland, but industry sources said it was a further signal of mounting “frustration” from overseas investors at delays in the establishment of the new Maritime Area Regulatory Authority. Last week, the Government was advertising for a chairman and board members for the new agency, which is being set up to grant licences for offshore wind farms.

A spokeswoman for Minister for the Environment Eamon Ryan said the agency would be established “in early 2023″.

Feeling ignored by both the Government and wind farm developers, Mr Ryan and 24 other small-scale fishers have banded together as the East Coast Fishers and retained legal counsel. Their solicitor, Gus Cullen, said the Government had failed to implement their obligations under the European Union’s maritime spatial planning directive to consider the cumulative effect of all the wind farms on the local fishing industry.

Fishers argue that the need for renewable energy is destroying a profitable industry employing an estimated 600 people off the east coast, according to Mr Ryan. “The noise from the geophysical surveys has caused a 30-50 per cent reduction in our catches. All shellfish like whelk and lobster burrow down into the seabed and stay down there.”

Mr Kelly said this exodus was temporary. “If you’re introducing noise at a fixed point, mobile species move away temporarily, but they will return.”

Even if fishers survive the geophysical surveys, Darren Kinsella, who fishes out of Wicklow harbour, wonders where fishers would be allowed once the wind farms were operational: “We’ve asked the Minister of the Environment and Department of Marine: where would you like us to go because the wind farms will be up and down the coast?”

Mr Kelly said when wind farm projects were “originally built off the coast of Belgium and the Netherlands, the technology was quite new, and so other member states in the EU took a very precautionary approach and they enforced exclusion zones. We don’t feel that this exclusion is warranted any more”. He supports coexistence and fishing within the wind farm.

While he admits certain types of fishing are more difficult to do, such as dredging, which uses rigid nets towed by a boat and risks snagging cables, “our fishing community is focused on potting, and potting and offshore wind coexist”. Potting involves dropping wooden or mesh cages or pots to the sea floor, where they remain stationary.

On behalf of the East Coast Fishers, Mr Cullen has asked RWE for a guarantee in writing that they would be allowed to fish inside the wind development, but he said he had not yet received a response.

“Currently, the wind farms have no legal power to stop such fishing,” said Mr Cullen. “It is likely that the State planning and licences will impose at least a 500m exclusion zone on each side of cables and turbines, which will take up a lot of the east coast whelk, lobster and crab fisheries.”

A spokesperson for the Department of the Environment said: “No specific policy rules out fishing activity within the location of a wind farm. Any decision on exclusion zones will be specific to the proposal itself, depending on the location, structure and physical layout of the wind farm.”

“The guys are realistic,” said Mr Cullen. “Once the wind farms get going, they will destroy the whelk, the crab and lobster business, so the only practical solution is compensation. The State will be liable for each of these fishers who will all lose their jobs.”