NewburyportNews.com, Newburyport, MA

July 11, 2013

Undersea cable project raising concerns for fishermen

By James Niedzinski and Angeljean Chiaramida
Staff Writers

---- — SEABROOK — Local fishermen are watching ongoing conversations between Gloucester-based fishermen and an engineering firm set to do an underwater Sonar survey from Revere to Seabrook, as that plan could leave an impact on their lobster season, and therefore their finances.

Representatives from Tetra Tech, a technical engineering firm and New Hampshire Transmission, a developer exploring the possibility of running a 55-mile long underwater cable along that same route, was set to meet with Gloucester’s lobstermen and fixed-gear fishermen earlier this week. The purpose of that meeting was to listen to the concerns of Cape Ann’s commercial fishermen who feel the timing of the survey is terrible as it will disrupt their efforts in the middle of lobster season, for their fishing equipment would have to be cleared from the water while the survey is taking place.

But according to Matt Valle, president of New Hampshire Transmission at NextEra Energy, any change in time frame could impact future cable installation plans.

“If we don’t do it in the near term, we would have to put a proposal out where we haven’t investigated all the risks,” said Valle, whose parent NextEra owns and operates Seabrook nuclear power plant. “In terms of data collection and a time frame, it’s the ideal time.”

Valle said an underwater cable, which is under “serious consideration,” would help meet the electricity needs of the company as well as customers. The cable, which would run offshore from southern New Hampshire, around Cape Ann to just off Revere, is being designed to boost the New England power grid. The underwater cable would avoid the need to build more land-based, overhead power lines.

The cable, if installed, would connect two stations in different sections of New England, said Nick Welz, a senior marine scientist with Tetra Tech. Because of the population and usage between the two stations, Welz said, power tend to “bottleneck” in the area.

Tetra Tech was hired by New Hampshire Transmission to use a 110-foot vessel, the Sea Lion V, to drag Sonar equipment from Revere, through Cape Ann waters and up to the Seabrook area to examine the possibility of installing the underwater cable. While the cable would loop offshore, NextEra Energy Seabrook nuclear power plant is just 17 miles across the water from Cape Ann, and can be seen from parts of Rockport and Lanesville.

There will be four zones for the survey and the Sonar equipment will spend 7 to ten days in each zone. The Sea Lion V arrived in Gloucester late last week in preparation for the project.

Yet the timing of the Sonar survey, which will extend through August, will tangle plans for lobstermen and fixed-gear fishermen, as the Sonar equipment would pass through waters that would have to be cleared of lobster traps.

Officials with the Gloucester Fisheries Commission as well as the Massachusetts Lobstermen’s Association have previously expressed their frustration with the Sonar plans, since this is the ideal time to set out traps and collect lobsters.

According to Seabrook’s Yankee Fisherman’s Cooperative Manager Red Perkins, he received a call concerning the Sonar survey by the company involved a while ago, but the exact method used for the survey wasn’t fully explained. Perkins thought the Sonar used would be similar to the Sonar equipment most fishermen have on their boats, which would not have posed a problem.

“I didn’t know they were going to drag the Sonar equipment along the bottom,” Perkins said. “If that’s the case there could be problems.”

Perkins said the concerns of local fishermen would be the same as those based in Gloucester. Summer is a prime time for lobster and ground fishermen, Perkins said, when most are out on the ocean trying to earn a living. Any disruption can be financially harmful to New Hampshire’s fishing industry, already distressed by severe federal fishing limits.

Fixed gear, or gillnets, are used by ground fishermen who set the nets out on the bottom at night to catch fish, then go back and haul them in the next day to harvest fish, Perkins said.

Commercial lobster fishermen bait and set lobster trawls — a series of connected lobster traps — on the sea bottom. In order to be able to know where they are and which belongs to who, each one is attached to a distinctively-marked buoy that rides on the ocean surface.

If the equipment isn’t removed during the Sonar survey, they could get damaged, tangled or dragged away by the Sonar equipment, Perkins said. If equipment is removed for a week or more for the survey is would impact fishermen’s ability to harvest the seas and earn a living during their most lucrative season.

Adding to the concern, Perkins said, is that for New Hampshire’s small commercial fishing fleet it’s not been a abundant season so far. Although lobsters are almost as plentiful this year as last year, Perkins said, it has not been a bountiful summer for ground fisherman.

“No one knows exactly what the problem is,” Perkins said. “Most think it’s that the water temperature is warmer than usual, because of all the rain.”

Perkins said the pending Sonar survey was discussed by members of the Yankee Cooperative Board, who met in Seabrook earlier this week.

Officials from Tetra Tech and New Hampshire Transmission have expressed their sympathy over the fishermen’s plight.

But, Welz said this is also the right time to do the survey, as this time of year would provide the best results.The project has already been 15 months in the making; with all of the preparation work done such as accessing mooring databases done before, the next logical step was to take a look at where a cable might be placed.

Valle said he has been in contact with local lobstermen and he understands their concerns.

Tetra Tech has agreed to limit the survey corridor to 984 feet in width to minimize water space, use local fishing vessels to act as liaisons and assist in fishing communications and work with the Massachusetts Department of Marine Fisheries to limit the displacement of gear. It is against the law to damage commercial lobster equipment.