New Bedford Ocean Cluster: Marine industries can work together to help each other 'thrive'

NEW BEDFORD — While not forgetting its legacy as a fishing port, the focus for the greater New Bedford area has largely and inevitably turned to offshore wind power with competition for the emerging industry up and down the East Coast.

In January 2021, New Bedford Ocean Cluster Executive Director Jennifer Downing joined the New Bedford Ocean Cluster as its first staff member, and the all-volunteer private nonprofit organization received its nonprofit designation in late 2021.

The concept behind creating the NBOC had been in the works for several years, having come out of research done by former New Bedford Port Director Ed Washburn with the support of the city of New Bedford under Mayor Jon Mitchell and the New Bedford Economic Development Council.

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Jennifer Downing of the New Bedford Ocean Cluster speaks to a  Danish delegation attending a conference held in the Harborview Gallery of the Whaling Museum during their stop in New Bedford for the U.S. East Coast Offshore Wind Roadshow featuring stops in New York City, Stamford and Providence.
Jennifer Downing of the New Bedford Ocean Cluster speaks to a Danish delegation attending a conference held in the Harborview Gallery of the Whaling Museum during their stop in New Bedford for the U.S. East Coast Offshore Wind Roadshow featuring stops in New York City, Stamford and Providence.

With commercial fishing and processing so successful in New Bedford already, the early adopters of the model were looking at the city’s strengths and how to leverage and support the continued growth for marine industries in New Bedford.

What are New Bedford's 'four pillars'?

They decided on four marine pillars, having looked at successful ocean cluster models around the world with a focus on fisheries and how fisheries can use technology and innovation to support new ideas such as utilizing byproduct for interesting new markets.

“Ed was really intrigued by how our port and our fisheries could be strengthened by this approach and so was looking at the Iceland ocean cluster model for instance,” Downing said. “If you look at ocean cluster models, they are all created differently with different focus areas depending on the geographic context, including where they’re located and what kinds of industries are successful in those locations.”

The four marine pillars are commercial fishing and processing, with a focus on keeping that industry strong and robust; offshore wind and renewable energy, with the focus on capturing local economic opportunity and supporting its advancement seeing that the opportunity is coming; aquaculture as an emerging industry, and innovation and technology supporting new businesses.

“Everything we’re doing is with the goal of creating local wealth, new jobs, and a talented and active marine workforce,” she said.

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How Jennifer Downing ended up directing the New Bedford Ocean Cluster

Downing joined the NBOC in early start-up mode and hasn’t really slowed down since.

She has been working in the nonprofit field locally for more 20 years, starting her career in philanthropy working for a private national foundation. She went on to manage a local grant portfolio in New Bedford focused on commercial revitalization and economic development. She got plugged into the issues and opportunities facing the city.

The Garfield Foundation that she had worked for made a lot of early investments in offshore wind in New Bedford when the viability of the Cape Wind project was the focus. As a result, she connected with individuals involved with economic development through the Economic Development Council.

After 14 years there, she joined Leadership South Coast servicing the region and learned about the impact of education, public health and other issues on economic vibrancy. She was there six years before joining the Buzzards Bay Coalition as vice president of engagement focusing on environmental sustainability.

She said she thinks she is well suited to the position of director due to her nonprofit experience and her local connections although there has been a big learning curve. She said she feels fortunate to have the job of executive director.

“When I was provided the opportunity to interview for the New Bedford Ocean Cluster it really piqued my interest both personally with my interest in environmental sustainability from a conservation standpoint but also from an energy efficiency and renewables standpoint,” she said.

A learning curve

The technical aspects of the industry have been a big part of that learning curve over the past six months but having an understanding of the industry and how the supply chain works has been central to her position.

She has had to learn quickly about the challenges facing the fishing industry as the result of offshore wind and what is of most concern to local fisheries so that the NBOC can provide support and help the fishing industry.

“Our board of directors really feels strongly and I do, too, that if offshore wind is developed responsibly that both industries should be able to thrive in our port, but that’s going to take really careful planning and a lot of communication and coordination between both industries,” she said. “We’re trying to help with that, and that’s not easy. It will continue to be a challenge for us.”

She said whatever they do they want to maintain existing fisheries through advocacy efforts based on feedback through outreach and stakeholder engagement.

Downing was recently invited by the U.K.’s Department of International Trade to be part of a trade mission to attend the annual global offshore wind conference and to travel to the northwest of England to see key offshore wind sites developed over the past 20 years as an educational and network building opportunity to develop relationships with potential companies and trade delegations.

“They know the industry well so we have a lot to learn from them,” she said. “As the offshore wind industry starts to evolve here in the United States, there are no doubt supply chain gaps. Some of the manufacturing that is needed to construct these turbines is not happening in the U.S. like it is overseas.”

She said there’s also a lot of work to do to train and prepare the workforce for offshore wind jobs. She said the NBOC is working to understand where supply chain gaps exist in New Bedford and across the U.S. She said they want companies to set up shop in New Bedford and the surrounding area.

The NBOC’s Act Local program funded in its first year by offshore developer Vineyard Wind to do local supply chain work for its project is a model the NBOC plans to refine and evolve so it can grow to support other wind projects.

Off-shore wind projects

Four wind projects are tied directly to New Bedford. The Vineyard Wind project is under construction, the two Mayflower Wind projects are going through early permitting, and New Bedford will be Commonwealth Wind’s base for operations and maintenance for the Avangrid Renewables. Vineyard Wind will be the first of three projects staging in New Bedford.

She said they have developed the closest ties with Denmark, the U.K. and Belgium, the three countries that sent delegations to New Bedford this year, and continue to reach out to other countries through their trade offices and general consulate offices.

It’s a learning process for the NBOC with outreach to major companies in the global business community with the goal of developing relationships and entering into tier one contracts playing a key role. There’s also outreach to local companies about offshore wind opportunities. She said it’s a lot of work and very time intensive.

Bristol Community College has been working to prepare the local workforce for jobs in the wind industry with construction of its training and certification facility, the National Offshore Wind Institute, underway.

“As we’re talking to tier one suppliers and learning what their workforce needs are, we’re trying to communicate what we’re hearing to Bristol Community College to make sure everybody is on the same page, but they’re also doing their direct outreach as well,” she said.

Growing the New Bedford Ocean Cluster

She’s still the only staff member and as director of a nonprofit she’s looking for funding sources to add staff. The NBOC has a contract with a global energy group Xodus for help with the technical aspects of the industry while catching local opportunities.

She said a big part of it is involving fisheries interested in getting into offshore wind because there are opportunities to contract with vessel operators who understand the ocean for use in surveying, monitoring work and ongoing operations and maintenance.

As the NBOC grows as a nonprofit, she said they’re going to be looking to build out programs based on the four pillars.

“With the help of my board of directors, we’re starting to think about a stakeholder engagement process and so that we can get feedback from local marine companies on how the New Bedford Ocean Cluster can be most valuable to their growth,” she said.

With diversity, equity and inclusion important to the Ocean Cluster, as part of the their supply chain work they want minority-owned, women-owned and veteran-owned businesses are engaged in what they are trying to do particular/y in offshore wind because it’s a new industry.

She said their new Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Committee made up of local stakeholders will be considering as a priority strategies to ensure that disenfranchised communities are included with a desire for community involvement in all that they are doing.

New Bedford Ocean Cluster Board of Directors President and former New Bedford Mayor John Bullard understands the marine environment and offered his support to Washburn and Mitchell after retiring as an administrator for National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Fisheries in 2018.

He said many of the ocean clusters on which the four pillars were modeled focused on the full utilization of fish, but Washburn wanted it to be much broader. Two years ago when Mitchell asked if he would join the board, he said he was excited about the opportunity.

He said he was excited about all four pillars but also the connections between any two of them, particularly the connections between commercial fishing and offshore wind despite the notion that they are in conflict.

“I felt that this was an area where both industries could benefit each other, and I also saw the connection between commercial fishing and aquaculture is mutually beneficial,” he said. “I thought the synergies between all four pillars were also very exciting.”

Bullard said the board was fortunate to find Downing through a professional search firm and be able to have her hit the ground running at high speed. He said the search yielded a full field of qualified candidates, but she rose to the top.

The board of directors had been meeting once a month with executive committees meeting every week for the first eight months without an executive director, and that’s why the consulting firm Xodus was brought on board until they hired Downing.

He said they want New Bedford and the surrounding region to be strong in all four areas. For fishing, it’s find ways to maintain commercial fishing as a dominant industry. For offshore wind, it’s establishing the New Bedford region as the leader in an industry new to the U.S.

“This is a tremendous opportunity for everyone in New Bedford to be here at the outset of an industry that has created thousands of jobs and billions of dollars of economic opportunity in Europe and is just beginning here in New Bedford,” he said.

He said their goal through their Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Committee is to reach out and involve the minority community in fishing, offshore wind, aquaculture and technology as part of their effort to build bridges among the four pillars.

Standard-Times staff writer Kathryn Gallerani can be reached at kgallerani@gannett.com. Follow her on Twitter: @kgallreporter. Support local journalism by purchasing a digital or print subscription to The Standard-Times today.

This article originally appeared on Standard-Times: New Bedford Ocean Cluster focuses on wind, fishing, aquaculture, tech