Recreational fishermen on Block Island have expressed concern over potential fishing restrictions around the Block Island Wind Farm (BIWF). As Capt. Chris Willi explained: "When we started hearing about [the BIWF], my concern initially right out of the gate was 'Is it going to restrict any fishing; recreational, commercial or otherwise? Are we going to be able to fish around them? Is there going to be a security zone?'" While researchers have found that "there is no formal policy in place that would universally limit fishing or navigational access around and through offshore wind farms in U.S. waters," the BIWF is the first (and, to date, the only) offshore wind farm in the United States. In the absence of legal precedent protecting public access at the site, fishermen who use the wind farm have expressed concern that their access could be restricted in the future.
Existing laws authorize ocean areas to be closed to public access for reasons including navigational safety, fisheries management, and conservation. Potential navigational hazards include collisions among vessels operating in congested areas near turbines or allisions with the turbines themselves. Bottom fishing gear may also contact power cables or otherwise damage vessels, gear, or wind infrastructure. In addition, state and federal fisheries laws allow closures for fisheries management purposes, such as to prevent overfishing. Finally, federal laws may authorize creation of Marine Protected Areas (MPAs) that protect or conserve marine life and habitat by limiting access, including fishing. The state or federal government thus could use a variety of legal mechanisms to limit recreational fishing near wind farms to achieve a variety of policy purposes. While no regulations limiting access to the BIWF exist today, fishermen can benefit from understanding whether and how government agencies can limit access to turbine areas– an issue that is likely to arise in the future as more new wind farms are constructed.
This study examines the current legal framework governing access to waters around wind turbines and its application to existing offshore infrastructure. It explains current and possible regulations that could be used to restrict public access to offshore wind farms and why and how access to offshore infrastructure has been limited in the past. Part 1 provides context for the use of wind farm areas by recreational fishers. Part 2 introduces legal authority to restrict access to offshore infrastructure for navigational safety, fisheries management, and conservation purposes. Part 3 examines how regulators have limited access to offshore infrastructure in other contexts, including to offshore wind farms in Europe and non-wind farm offshore infrastructure in the U.S. Part 4 concludes that restrictions are most likely to arise based on evidence of navigational hazards, which could prompt U.S. Coast Guard action to establish safety zones or restricted areas in waters less than 12 nautical miles from shore.