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SLO County fishermen sue Coastal Commission, offshore wind companies. ‘We’ve got rights here’

By Stephanie Zappelli and Mackenzie Shuman, Stephanie Zappelli and Mackenzie Shuman, The Tribune
Published: April 8, 2024, 7:17am

Two groups of San Luis Obispo County fishermen are worried marine surveys related to offshore wind development will disrupt the local fishing industry — and they want the court to stop them before that can happen.

The Morro Bay Commercial Fishermen’s Organization and the Port San Luis Commercial Fishermen’s Organization are suing the California Coastal Commission, State Lands Commission, three offshore wind development companies and environmental consulting company CSA Ocean Sciences Inc to stop the approval of permits for site surveys, according to a complaint filed in San Luis Obispo Superior Court on Feb. 29.

The surveys use sound to learn about the marine environment, such as where shipwrecks are located, whether the seafloor is sandy or rocky and what the exact depths of the ocean are. Knowing these factors will help determine where it’s feasible to construct floating wind turbines and lay subsea cables carrying the electricity ashore, offshore wind companies have said.

The site surveys will be conducted by the three companies who won leases to potentially develop floating wind turbines in the 376-square-mile Morro Bay wind energy area located about 20 miles offshore of Cambria and San Simeon. They are Atlas Wind, Golden State Wind and Even Keel Wind.

The lawsuit asks the court to block state agencies from issuing site survey permits until a statewide plan is developed to protect fisheries from offshore wind development.

The two fishermen groups are worried the surveys will harm marine life and disrupt the local fishing industry, according to Morro Bay Commercial Fishermen’s Organization President Tom Hafer.

“We’re worried about our livelihoods,” he told The Tribune on Thursday.

Lawsuit asks court to temporarily block site survey permits

Provisions of the California Coastal Act and the California Constitution mandate the protection of the commercial fishing industry, including the “biological productivity of fishing grounds and reproductive habitats,” the right to fish, the right to harbor space and the right of fishermen to navigate freely through state waters, the complaint said.

Fishermen worry that offshore wind development will violate those rights by harming fisheries and interfering with the ability to fish safely and freely, Hafer said.

He hoped the lawsuit would slow down offshore wind development on the Central Coast, so the California Offshore Wind Energy Fisheries Working Group has time to study the potential impacts of site surveys and set rules that prevent harm to the commercial fishing industry.

“These wind companies are jumping way ahead of the ball,” Hafer said. “This is California, we’ve got rights here.”

After all, there is already work behind the scenes to help mitigate potential impacts to fishermen.

Senate Bill 286 established the California Offshore Wind Energy Fisheries Working Group, a panel of experts working to create a statewide plan for minimizing the impact of offshore wind development on fisheries.

Those impacts could include exclusion from fishing grounds, loss of future fishing grounds, more time spent at sea to avoid wind farm areas and loss of harbor space.

The plan is expected to establish best practices for conducting site surveys and data collection, a fishing agreement and create a framework for compensating those harmed by offshore wind projects.

The plan is due by Jan. 1, 2026, and the California Coastal Commission must adopt it during a public hearing by May 1, 2026.

Any company seeking approval from a state agency for an offshore wind project would then be required to comply with the terms of the plan, according to the bill.

The local lawsuit seeks to block the California Coastal Commission and State Lands Commission from issuing site survey permits until the SB 286 plan is adopted.

The State Lands Commission already issued a general offshore geophysical permit to Florida-based corporation CSA Ocean Sciences Inc. on Dec. 5, according to the complaint. The permit allows the company to conduct surveys for the “potential of offshore wind project sites and submerged land transmission facilities in a three-mile zone from the mean tide line along the California Coast,” the complaint said.

The complaint asked the court to block the permit until the SB 286 plan is adopted

CSA Ocean Services did not respond to The Tribune’s request for comment as of Friday.

The complaint also specifically urged the court to block the California Coastal Commission and State Lands Commission from issuing permits for site surveys to Atlas Wind, Golden State Wind and Even Keel Wind until the plan is adopted.

When will site surveys start?

Atlas Wind LLC, owned by Equinor, was the first of the three companies to announce plans to start site surveys.

The company is expected to begin conducting the surveys between April and December, according to an April 1 announcement.

“Atlas Wind has sought all necessary federal and state approvals for its survey work,” company spokesperson Tibi Dean said in a statement to The Tribune.

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Agencies including the U.S. Bureau of Ocean Management, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the California Coastal Commission authorize survey work, Dean said.

“Upon applicable authorization by federal and state authorities, we look forward to beginning our Atlas Wind project’s surveying activities,” Dean said in the statement. “This is an exciting milestone and an important step toward advancing offshore wind development on the Central Coast and delivering renewable power to Californians.”

Meanwhile, Invenergy, which owns Even Keel Wind, could start conducting site surveys later this year or early next year, according to Erin Lieberman, executive vice president of environmental compliance and strategy.

“At the appropriate time, Even Keel Wind will complete standard geophysical and other surveys to map seafloor and sub-surface conditions and inform the responsible project siting, design, construction and operation of the project,” Lieberman said in a statement. “These surveys are carefully designed to minimize potential disturbance to marine mammals and other wildlife. Even Keel Wind is committed to sharing the ocean responsibly and supporting a healthy marine environment, and these surveys help ensure we have the information necessary to do so.”

Golden State Wind, the California Coastal Commission and State Lands Commission declined Tribune requests for comment on the lawsuit.