The U.S. Secretary of the Interior met with members of New England's fishing industry in Boston Tuesday, and signaled he hears their concerns about offshore wind farms.

The Vineyard Wind project, proposed for 15 miles off the coast of Massachusetts, has been on hold since the Interior Department announced nearly a year ago that it would expand its environmental review to include an analysis of every offshore wind development that's likely to be proposed off the East Coast over the next 10 years.

As Interior Secretary David Bernhardt met with fishermen, seafood distributors and others working in the region's fishing industry at the Legal Harborside restaurant, he told them the Trump administration is focused on doing what's best for America, "not Copenhagen." (Copenhagen hosted the 2009 United Nations conference in which the U.S. agreed to targets for emissions reductions).

 Interior Secretary David Bernhardt
U.S. Interior Secretary David Bernhardt met with members of New England's fishing industry at Legal Harborside restaurant in Boston Tuesday.
Craig LeMoult WGBH News

After the meeting, Bernhardt told reporters that he's previously met with wind energy advocates, and that he came to Boston to hear from the fishermen.

"The decisions that we make have very significant consequences to people that rely on or depend on the lands or waters that we manage," he said.

And wind farms, he said, would have consequences for the fishing industry.

"We don't whack people with an unnecessary burden if we can avoid it and do things sustainably," he said. "We should be able to figure out how to do this together."

Bernhardt likened the proposed Vineyard Wind project to wind farms in western states.

"You know where we don't put them?" he asked reporters. "In the middle of a highway."

John Williams of the Maine-based Atlantic Red Crab Company, which operates in part out of New Bedford, echoed that, saying the proposed one mile gap between turbines isn't wide enough for fishing vessels.

"Even though there's a lane going through the farms, when a boat breaks down, it doesn't have brakes and it just starts drifting through these farms," he said. "And that's a huge safety issue."

The U.S. Coast Guard published a study in May that said the proposed turbine spacing was sufficient for safe navigation. Earlier this month, 40 state lawmakers in Massachusetts urged the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management to approve the Vineyard Wind project, saying it will create more than 3,600 jobs and generate enough clean power for 400,000 homes.

Bernhardt meeting
Members of New England's fishing industry met with U.S. Interior Secretary David Bernhardt (right) on Tuesday at Legal Harborside in Boston.
Craig LeMoult WGBH News

After the meeting, fishermen who'd been in attendance raised a range of other concerns about the Vineyard Wind project, including a reduction of fishing access to the sea floor, underwater hazards for boats, interference with radar systems, and possible changes to the temperature stratification in the water column that could impact the ecosystem.

In a statement, Vineyard Wind spokesman Andrew Doba said they hope to work in conjunction with fishermen.

“The commercial fishing industry has given us valuable input throughout the many stages of this project, and after years of consultation we are convinced that co-existence is both possible and necessary to move forward," Doba said in the statement. "We’ve been encouraged by the outpouring of public support the project has received throughout the BOEM public comment period, and look forward to constructive collaboration with the fishing industry in the years ahead.”

“Offshore wind developers remain committed to collaborating across industries as our country strives to catch up with other nations that are already harnessing the economic and environmental benefits of this energy source," Laura Morton of the American Wind Energy Association said in a statement. "As the industry works hard to deliver clean, affordable electricity and tens of thousands of jobs up and down the East Coast, we are confident that the deployment of offshore wind can be compatible with commercial fishing operations and safe navigation.”

The public comment period for the current environmental reviewends next week, and a decision is expected in December. But some of the fishermen said they were hopeful the Interior Secretary would take steps to address their concerns even before then.

Joseph Gilbert of Connecticut-based Empire Fisheries pointed to President Trump's executive order last month that opened up fishing in an area that President Barack Obama had designated in 2016 as the Northeast Canyons and Seamounts Marine National Monument.

"The secretary has a very good grasp, a very good understanding of our issues," Gilbert said. "And I believe if with the stroke of a pen, we can reopen the marine monument area to sustainable fishing, then I also believe through an executive order, we can keep windmills off the fishing grounds," he said.

"I don't know if it's that easy," Gilbert added. "But it seems that they have the power to make a change."