Oregon fishermen gathered in Coos County on Tuesday to fight for “a place at the table,” as state and federal agencies continue to hash out where to potentially lease space for an offshore wind farm on the Oregon coast.

Around 200 people, roughly 50 of whom were from Newport, hit the streets of Coos Bay on Tuesday as part of a rally against placing wind farm facilities within two broad zones off the coast of Coos and Curry counties, within which wind-power turbines could some day be sited.

According to Heather Mann of the Newport-based Midwater Trawlers Cooperative, she helped organize the event after the Pacific Ocean Energy Trust, one of many groups involved in the wind farm discussions, put on a three-day “fly-in” meeting in Coos Bay for potential wind farm developers and other stakeholders to discuss the project. The city also hosted one of many recent Bureau of Ocean Energy Management meetings Wednesday, which was a separate event. 

Mann said members of the fishing community were invited to participate in the Pacific Ocean Energy Trust event and were added late into its agenda, but they declined to attend and instead hosted their own event at the same time.

“It looked as though we were an afterthought, included only for an hour and a half on the last day,” Mann said.

She said many members of the fishing community feel as though they haven’t been given “an authentic seat at the table” during ongoing talks and decided they needed to approach the conversation from a new, more public-oriented angle.

Tuesday’s rally included sign-waving by the roadside, speeches, a march through the streets of Coos Bay and a barbecue. The heads of multiple fishing industry groups, environmentalists and several members of Oregon fishing families spoke at the event, most of whom said they aren’t necessarily against a wind power on the Oregon coast, but are concerned about adverse effects it could have on the areas currently outlined to host it.

Since March, when the federal ocean energy management bureau announced three “call areas” off the coasts of Coos and Curry counties, multiple fishing industry groups, including Midwater Trawlers, have repeatedly voiced their opposition to the project, citing concerns that the construction and operation of offshore wind turbines there could impact wildlife and have an adverse effect on overlapping commercial fishing grounds.

The wind energy project came about after the Oregon State Legislature passed House Bill 3375 in 2021, setting a goal to establish at least 3 gigawatts of offshore wind energy production in the state by 2030.

“These call areas offshore here take up 70 percent of my fishing grounds. If these grounds go away forever, we’re pretty much toast,” said Rex Leach, a Coos Bay fisherman who hopes to eventually pass his business on to his sons. “It makes sense to push this stuff offshore, outside of our fishing grounds.”

According to an ocean energy bureau spokesperson, if the entirety of the three call areas were filled with wind turbines, it would generate around 17 gigawatts of power, meaning less than an eighth of the outlined areas would need to be utilized. 

The purpose of announcing the area is to put out a “call for information” and work with stakeholders to gradually whittle down wide swaths of territory to find an ideal place to lease to developers. About a third has already been eliminated.

An entire call area off the coast of Bandon and Port Orford was eliminated from the running late last month. Although she considers the area’s elimination a good thing, Mann feels its removal is an empty gesture, or worse, a ploy to placate the project’s opponents and garner undue public support.

“A lot of people’s reactions were ‘That’s great, they listened to the fishermen,’ but my response is that, while its good that the area near Bandon is no longer on the table as a formal area, they never should have included it in the first place,” Mann said. “It is prime fishing ground, and the habitat is not suitable for offshore tethering. It’s almost a ploy so they can say, ‘Look, we listened to stakeholders and reduced it from three to two,’ but it shouldn’t be rewarded because that area shouldn’t have been included at all. That’s the way they operate, they pulled the same thing when they were doing similar projects in California.”

While the bureau promised to include members of the fishing industry in its discussions when appropriate, Mann and others within the industry feel their concerns aren’t being taken seriously and that their only option is to look for other avenues to let their opinions be heard.

“I think this was just the beginning of what people will see from an extremely motivated seafood industry,” Mann said. “Different fisheries and parts of the industry have faced tough issues before, but something as wide-reaching and potentially devastating as 200 wind turbines twice the size of the Statue of Liberty in key fishing grounds is enough to unite us across all gear types, fisheries, and parts of the industry.”

According to bureau Public Affairs Specialist John Romero, he and other representatives attended a separate meeting in Coos Bay on Wednesday, and he was unaware of both the Pacific Ocean Energy Trust meeting and fishing industry rally. He said the focus of many of the agency’s current meetings is to work with different state, federal and other government groups, such as Oregon coast municipalities and tribes, and opportunities to engage more with the fishing industry and public would come later.

Rep. David Gomberg, who represents the 10th District in the Oregon House, attended the rally Tuesday, and after seeing the turnout, said he plans to organize and moderate a forum on the topic in Newport as soon as May 18, with the venue still to be decided. 

Romero said he hadn’t heard about Gomberg’s plan for a forum, but was interested in having someone from the energy bureau attend.

“This project may conflict with some of the primary fishing grounds used by Oregon’s commercial fishing fleet, and the largest part of the commercial fleet is in Newport,” Gomberg said. “You saw more Newport fishermen in Coos Bay Tuesday than you saw in Newport.”

One of Gomberg’s goals moving forward is to facilitate a more equitable role for the established fishing industry as discussions about a wind farm go forward. He said the plans for a wind farm are being driven primarily by the federal government, and the conversation has similar nuances to prior discussions the state legislature has had in the past regarding marine reserves, the PacWave wave energy project and other natural resources, such as Oregon’s forests.

“We need to have an honest conversation about the future and how these wind energy devices are going to impact the fishing fleet,” Gomberg said. “I support wind energy and the creation of a new industry and new jobs, but not at the expense of an existing industry and existing jobs, which is potentially what’s going on here. We need to find a path forward that won’t impact our existing industries.”

The News-Times attempted to contact a spokesperson for the Pacific Energy Trust for comment about Tuesday’s events, but received no reply by its Thursday deadline.

More information about the proposed wind farm, and a list of meetings involving the project, can be found on the bureau’s website at https://www.boem.gov/renewable-energy/state-activities/Oregon.

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