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The Boston Globe
On the Street:(November 10, 2021)
New Bedford is a shining sea of possibilities
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NEW BEDFORD — Stand here on Leonard’s Wharf, near where the Acushnet River empties into Buzzards Bay, and you’re surrounded by boats with colorful hulls and elaborate rigs. They help power the nation’s most lucrative fishing port, hauling hundreds of millions of dollars worth of scallops, fish, and lobsters from the Atlantic Ocean to be sold worldwide.
Next door, behind a rusty chain-link fence, sits a huge old power plant, long unused. The 29-acre site is one of two on New Bedford’s waterfront that is poised to host the assembly of massive wind turbines that would be shipped out and mounted in the Atlantic Ocean, promising much-needed clean energy for the Northeast.
Whether these two industries — oneages old, the other being birthed on the fly — can coexist in New Bedford harbor and out in the ocean will say a lot about the future of one of the most distinctive places in Eastern Massachusetts, a city that has for most of its 234 years drawn a living from the sea.
“The waterfront has always provided an opportunity for people,” said Laura Orleans, executive director of the New Bedford Fishing Heritage Center, who has spent a quarter-century telling the stories of New Bedford’s maritime history. “There have been a lot of people from many different cultures who have been very successful making a living on our waterfront.”
Of course, what that success has looked like has changed several times.
In the early to mid-1800s, New Bedford was the capital of the global whale oil industry — “the city that lit the world.” By the 1840s, it was, by some measures, the wealthiest city per capita on the planet. People were attracted to an industry where the only job qualification was a willingness to stand eye-to-eye with a whale from the prow of a rowboat. New Bedford soon established itself as a place that welcomed all comers.
Then came textile mills, and with them a wave of European immigrants that ballooned the population to more than 120,000 by the 1920s. In recent decades, commercial fishing has driven the city’s economy. Scallop fishing, in particular, has been crucial, having recovered from a sharp decline in the early 1990s to become a thriving andstable business.
Today, scallop boats based as far south as the Carolinas come here to sell their catch. The city lands more than $400 million in seafood each year — eight times that of its perhaps-better-known northern cousin in Gloucester, and more than all other East Coast fishing ports combined. Eighty percent of that value comes from scallops.
“When you get outside of Massachusetts, people are startled to learn that New Bedford is the leading fishing port in the US,” said Bob Unger, former editor and associate publisher of the SouthCoast Media Group, who noted that Hollywood movies and reality TV shows have tended to feature other ports. “‘The Perfect Storm’ convinced them it was Gloucester,” he said.
The New Bedford waterfront is lined with more than just boats. An operation of this scope requires fish processors and ice houses to serve the fishing fleet, but also an array of engine and repair shops, fuel providers, and other businesses that can service anyone who’s heading out to sea, including the ships that will spend years building offshore wind turbines.
That maritime industry, along with a deep water port, has put New Bedford at the forefront of a growing offshore wind industry along the North Atlantic coast.
Vineyard Wind plans to start construction next year on 62 turbines — enough to power 400,000 homes — south of Martha’s Vineyard, just 35 miles by sea from New Bedford. Officials hope the $2.3 billion project will be the first of several offshore wind farms to be assembled and serviced from here, and they aim to establish the city as a center of a new industry.
“I think this can have the same impact on New Bedford as other major chapters of our history,” said John Bullard, a former mayor of the city and an Obama-era federal fishing regulator. He now heads the newly formed New Bedford Ocean Cluster, which aims to develop the city’s maritime industries. “We spread the light, and we’re going to do it again,” Bullard said. “That’s the character of this city.”
But offshore, in waters ideal for both fish populations and wind energy, things get a lot more complicated. Figuring out where to site wind turbines so they don’t disrupt fishing grounds is a complex and high-stakes exercise, one that’s never really been tried at this scale before. The structures can be as tall as Boston’s John Hancock Tower and have blades the length of a football field.
Fishermen worry about the impact of wind installations on their dredges and nets — which can in some cases trail for miles behind a boat — and radar, and about whether the wind arrays will shift water temperatures, or change how fish move through the sea. Planners say they’re listening to the concerns, and stress that turbines are typically spread at least a mile apart to aid navigation through the wind fields. But some fishermen worry even the best plans will fall short.
One of them is Eric Hansen, a longtime scallop boat captain and owner whose family has fished the waters off New Bedford for more than 100 years. He serves on the board of the Fisheries Survival Fund, an industry group that helped rebuild the scallop harvest over the last two decades, and the Responsible Offshore Development Alliance, which advocates to protect historic fishing grounds. Hansen says he’s not opposed to offshore wind, but he’s hard-pressed to upend a longtime lucrative industry for something so unproven.
“It may all work on a perfect day with perfect conditions,” he said. “But it’s hard to explain to someone who hasn’t witnessed the power of the ocean how powerful it actually is. And when you have mountains of water coming at you that will toss you around drastically, well, it’s hard to picture a wind turbine in that environment.”