URI researcher to map commercial fishing activity to help reduce conflict between fishing, wind industries

Media Contact: Todd McLeish, 401-874-2116 |

KINGSTON, R.I. – July 27, 2020 – A University of Rhode Island natural resource economist has been awarded a $250,000 grant from the Massachusetts Clean Energy Center to create a new way of documenting where commercial fishing is conducted in southern New England waters. The project is aimed at reducing conflict between the fishing industry and offshore wind farm developers.

“I’m exploring a new way of improving spatial planning for offshore wind,” said URI Associate Professor Thomas Sproul. “One of the biggest sources of delay in the regulatory process for offshore wind has been because of the conflicts with commercial fishing.”

He said that while the National Marine Fisheries Service collects a variety of data about the fishing industry, limited information is available about where commercial fishing occurs.

“There isn’t a consensus map of the ocean that says, for instance, if you put a wind turbine here, it affects 30 percent of the squid fishery,” Sproul said.

He will be taking a novel approach to the problem by combining existing data from numerous sources, including the Automatic Identification System, which identifies the location of every fishing vessel over 65-feet long every minute of every day it is at sea. It will be combined with the government’s vessel monitoring system and vessel trip reports, along with seafood dealer reports, Coast Guard registry records, and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s ship-board observer program.

“The really unique thing about our project is that we have buy-in from local fishing industry groups and fishing research groups, and they’re going to help us by having fishermen review snapshots of data to help us classify whether boats are actually fishing or not,” Sproul said.

Partners include the Massachusetts Fishermen’s Partnership, the Commercial Fisheries Research Foundation, the Responsible Offshore Development Alliance, and the Commercial Fisheries Center of Rhode Island. Julia Livermore, a supervising marine biologist for the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management, is also collaborating on the project.

The maps that the researchers generate will be publicly available on the Northeast Ocean Data Portal and will be especially useful to regulators who are reviewing proposals from wind farm developers and to the developers themselves as they plan future wind farms.

In addition to the maps, Sproul will develop a machine-learning approach to modeling the probability of fishing activity in various areas based on vessel activity. The computer code for this model will be made available to other scientists who may wish to apply it to other parts of the country.

“Some of the offshore wind lease areas in southern New England have already been determined, but there are still questions about how the turbines are going to be laid out, and our data will be useful for that,” Sproul said. “And it will certainly be useful for future lease areas.”

The project is expected to be completed in 2022.