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The Country’s Most Valuable Fishing Port Gears Up For Wind Energy

The city of New Bedford first prospered as a whaling capital. Now, a thriving scallop industry makes this the country’s most valuable fishing port.

“Last year we landed over $300 million worth of fish and that’s only a small portion of what’s processed here,” said New Bedford Port Director Ed Anthes-Washburn. “We’re now at a point where more vessels unload from North Carolina in New Bedford than unload in North Carolina.”

On board a port authority boat, Anthes-Washburn points to the infrastructure that has made New Bedford a fishing destination: fuel barges, ice houses and the warehouses where fishermen drop their catch daily for auction.

Massive fishing vessels painted in bright orange, red and blue line the port, but these days not all the boats are for fishing.

Anthes-Washburn pointed to a pair of research vessels outfitted to explore the depths of ocean. New Bedford — a community with expertise in catching fish — is gearing up to capture wind. The city is poised to be the launching point for the country’s first full-scale off shore wind farm.

The centerpiece of this effort is the New Bedford Marine Commerce Terminal, a 29-acre tract of land along the port. It will serve as a staging area for construction of the off-shore wind turbines. More than one hundred are planned in federal waters 14 miles off the coast of Martha’s Vineyard. Think windmills in the ocean, but far bigger than the type used on land, each one the size of a sky-scraper.

“It’s a $2 billion construction project,” said Anthes-Washburn. “It’s my job to make sure to see that as much of that happens in New Bedford as it can.”

Construction of the off-shore wind farm is expected to bring thousands of jobs to New Bedford. Long term, the city is positioning itself to serve as an offshore wind operations and maintenance center.

The wind farm is expected to generate enough electricity to power four-hundred-thousand homes — about 6 percent of the state’s electricity needs. And that’s only the beginning. In the next decade, Massachusetts plans to double its off-shore wind production.

But there’s concern that harnessing the ocean’s wind will harm this community’s life-blood.

“We have a very sustainable fishery at the moment,” said Danny Eilertsen, who owns a small fleet of boats dedicated almost entirely to scallops.

He supports clean energy, but worries turbines will make it difficult — and potentially dangerous — to reach the scallops grounds.

He said it's hard enough to navigate at night or when the weather turns. “I picture my radar just white-out from all these windmills,” he said. “And I see you better be paying close attention because if your autopilot goes out, if the wind blows up, if your engine fails and you start to drift off course all you’re going to have is obstacles to hit.”

Eilertsen would like to see the turbines spaced far apart, or better yet, fewer of them. He’s also concerned another proposed wind farm off New York is right in the middle of a scallop breeding area. States all along the East Coast are planning off-shore wind projects. New Bedford Mayor Jon Mitchell said the Massachusetts project will set a precedent.

“We need to make sure off shore wind is done the right way,” said Mitchell. “Off shore wind is not going to supplant the fishing industry, not by a long shot. We want to set things up so that the two industries complement one another.”

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