What Kills Whales Off the Northeast Coast? It’s Not Wind Farm Projects, Experts Say – Boston News, Weather, Sports
(CNN) — A spate of nine whale deaths in New York and New Jersey over the past two months has prompted several New Jersey GOP lawmakers to wonder if the deaths are related to the development of a major proposal offshore wind farm in the area. However, scientists say there is no evidence linking the two.
After a juvenile humpback whale washed ashore in Brigantine, New Jersey last week, Condition and federal Republican lawmakers called for a halt to development on the proposed offshore wind project until an investigation could be conducted.
Fox News anchor Tucker Carlson went further, blaming the wind project for the death of the whales and calling offshore wind “the DDT of our time.”
A preliminary autopsy of the humpback whale performed last weekend by scientists at the Stranding center for marine mammals noted that the whale “suffered blunt trauma consistent with that of a ship attack.” And on Wednesday, officials with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the Bureau of Ocean Management told reporters that no whale death has been attributed to offshore wind projects.
“There are no known links between these offshore wind activities and whale strandings, regardless of the type,” said Benjamin Laws, associate director of the Division of Permissions and Conservation at NOAA’s Fisheries Office of Protected Resources.
Laws also said speculation that the sonar equipment wind companies use to map the seafloor may have fatally harmed whales has also not been proven. Officials noted that the New Jersey wind energy project is prohibited from using sonar levels so loud they could be fatal to whales or other marine life.
“There is no information to support any suggestion that the equipment used to support wind development for the site characterization surveys could directly result in the death of a whale,” Laws said.
As the anti-wind energy rhetoric heats up, scientists and US officials are trying to figure out what actually killed these nine whales. The New York and New Jersey coast is an area where more whales have swam in recent decades, officials said, as their food source has recovered.
The region is not only the location of a future wind farm, but also an important shipping corridor.
“Unfortunately, we’ve had an increase in large whale strandings over the past few years, but we’re still concerned about the pulse of the last six weeks,” said Sarah Wilkin, coordinator of the Marine Mammal Health and Stranding Response Program at NOAA Fisheries’ Office of Protected Resources. “We want to know the answers.”
“People are overlooking the obvious”
Scientists have been on the trail since 2016 increased numbers Humpback whale deaths off the east coast. From Maine to Florida, 178 whales have died, and scientists have investigated about half of the incidents. About 40% of these were due to whales being hit by ships or becoming tangled in ropes or nets in the water.
More recently, the focus has been on nine whales stranded off the coast of New York and New Jersey since early December. Of these, seven were humpback whales and two were sperm whales. Wilkin said NOAA scientists are concerned about the “increased number and all of this is happening in a relatively narrow geographic area and in a relatively narrow amount of time.”
There are several factors that could be contributing to whale strandings increasing in the mid-Atlantic region, federal officials and local experts said. As the humpback whale population has increased, more and more of them are heading to the New York and New Jersey area as they follow the menhaden – a small fish that the whales eat.
But menhaden are swimming in an area that intersects with a major shipping lane that brings cargo to the ports of New York and New Jersey, which may increase the risk of the whales being hit.
“The fish are likely to be in areas where there are (ship) channels,” said Paul Sieswerda, executive director of the New York-based nonprofit Gotham Whale, which studies and advocates for the local whale population. “The whales come to areas with a lot of boat traffic.”
Climate change and warming of the oceans can affect where whales travel when they follow their food or move to waters with more favorable conditions, said Lauren Gaches, director of public affairs at NOAA Fisheries.
Numerous scientific studies have documented the growth of the whale population in the region. Sieswerda, whose whale sightings group contributed to a study’s data, said there has been an “explosion” in whale populations along the mid-Atlantic coast. This is being driven by the growing Menhaden population, as well as a cleaner Hudson River and better offshore whale habitats.
“Strikes and ship entanglements are real threats and they happen all the time,” Sieswerda said. “People overlook the obvious just because there is news about wind farms.”
A focus on offshore wind
Ocean Wind, the major offshore wind project planned for the New Jersey shore, has not yet started construction.
Danish company Ørsted has been conducting survey work and soil sampling of the seabed to determine where offshore wind turbines and the cables to bring the electricity back to shore could be installed.
In a statement to CNN, Maddy Urbish, the chief executive of Ørsted, New Jersey, said the ships the company had contracted to conduct its survey work “have not experienced any attacks on marine mammals during offshore survey operations in the United States.”
“Our current work off the coast of New Jersey consists of surveys and does not involve any sounds or actions that might disturb whales or marine mammals,” Urbish added. The company’s tests use a drill on the ship that pushes a metal rod into the seabed, testing the seabed’s resilience.
Ørsted has used one ship at a time for survey work in the region from 2021.
Other survey work can be used sonar and noise to map the ocean floor, US officials said. Officials stressed that the acoustic instruments used by wind projects are typically less noisy than the air seismic cannons used by offshore oil and gas operations to penetrate deeper into the sea floor.
The sound sources used by wind turbines “are generally expected to have much lower impact than seismic air guns,” said Erica Staaterman, bioacoustician at the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management’s Center for Marine Acoustics.
In addition, federal regulations dictate that there be multiple observers on vessels conducting surveys and construction, watching for whales, dolphins and turtles, and requesting work stoppages when the animals swim in the area.
Speculation about how offshore wind operations may have affected the whales has divided some environmental and advocacy groups in the New Jersey area. Some, including Clean Ocean Action, have called for Ørsted, NJ, to cease operations and for future wind farms to be halted.
Other groups, including the Sierra Club state chapters, League of Conservation Voters and Anglers for Offshore Wind, say the wind farms will help humans and whales alike in the long run by reducing fossil fuel use and planet-warming emissions.
“We stand with the whales, all we do is take care of the whales,” said Paul Eidman, a New Jersey boat captain who leads the Anglers for Offshore Wind chapter. “We accept the fact that people screwed it up and that climate change is our fault. This is one of the ways we can stop burning fossil fuels; we look at the big picture.”
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