Wind and whales: ‘No evidence’ links projects to deaths

By: - March 1, 2023 2:24 pm

Scientists say that ship strikes and fishing gear are the biggest threats to whales like the one seen here in the Block Island Sound. (Bruce Bennett | Getty Images)

The U.S. offshore wind power industry is in its infancy, with just a handful of turbines installed along the Atlantic coast.

But they’re already being blamed for the deaths of whales that have washed up on beaches in New Jersey, New York, Virginia, and elsewhere. 

A Fox News story on Feb. 13 made strenuous attempts to link a dead right whale to Dominion Energy’s Coastal Virginia Offshore Wind project, which currently consists of two small test turbines about 27 miles off the coast of Virginia Beach. 

It was among a string of articles from local and national outlets on wind development and dead whales over the past several months that also saw a call for an offshore wind moratorium by 30 mayors of coastal New Jersey towns. The backlash comes as states and the federal government increasingly set aggressive offshore wind energy targets and as the industry tries to develop supply chains and solve transmission problems.

However, according to several federal agencies and scientists, there’s no connection between offshore wind development and what the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration calls an “unusual mortality event” that’s been afflicting whales up and down the East Coast, from Maine to Florida, since 2016, before the vast majority of Atlantic coast wind development began. At the time, the only U.S. wind project in operation was the five-turbine Block Island Wind Farm off the coast of Rhode Island. As of 2022, though, at least 20 projects were in various stages of development 

“At this point, there is no evidence to support speculation that noise resulting from wind development-related site characterization surveys could potentially cause mortality of whales, and no specific links between recent large whale mortalities and currently ongoing surveys,” NOAA said in a statement.

“We will continue to gather data to help us determine the cause of death for these mortality events. We will also continue to explore how sound, vessel, and other human activities in the marine environment impact whales and other marine mammals.”

Last week, the Marine Mammal Commission, an independent federal agency tasked with protecting whales, dolphins and other marine mammals by overseeing science, policy, and management actions, said there had been 16 humpback whale strandings this winter, noting that 10 or more humpback whales have been stranded every year since 2016, with a high of 34 in 2017. 

“Despite several reports in the media, there is no evidence to link these strandings to offshore wind energy development,” the commission said

Andy Read, a marine biology professor at Duke University and a member of the Marine Mammal Commission, said the biggest threat to humpback and severely endangered North Atlantic right whales, of which fewer than 350 remain in existence, are ships and fishing gear. 

“I don’t see offshore wind as a particularly acute threat at this time,” he said, noting that about 40 percent of dead whales show evidence of being hit by a ship or getting tangled in fishing gear. “We know what the big threats to large whales are in the coastal areas of the Atlantic … they’re ship strikes and entanglement in fishing gear and we shouldn’t lose our focus on those two big threats.” 

Read said that, in the case of humpback whales, a combination of growing numbers and cleaner waters means they’re coming back to areas previously abandoned because of pollution and the ravages of the whaling industry.  

“We are seeing more whales in places we didn’t see them before,” he said. “That’s a function of populations growing.” 

He added that younger whales often prefer to stay in the busy ship lanes of the mid-Atlantic during the winter, comparing them to kids playing on a highway.

“Younger animals feed in the mouth of the Chesapeake Bay where they’re really vulnerable to ship strikes,” he said.  

The U.S. Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, which oversees ocean energy extraction and manages federal offshore wind leases, requires that wind survey vessels, which use acoustic equipment to map the ocean floor, establish “exclusion zones” around the ships, meaning it must be clear of marine mammals or sea turtles for a length of time before the gear can be used. It also requires ships to use independent observers to watch for whales and other marine mammals to minimize the risk of a collision. 

And BOEM says the technology used in the offshore wind industry’s high-resolution geophysical surveys is much less powerful than the seismic airguns that have been employed for decades by offshore companies to look for oil and gas deposits beneath the seafloor. 

“Overall, the sound sources used here are generally expected to be much lower in impact than seismic air guns,” said Erica Staaterman, a bioacoustician at BOEM’s Center for Marine Acoustics, during a press call in January. “There’s no evidence that any of these sound sources used in HRG surveys are attributed to any of these kind of impacts to baleen whales.”

The American Clean Power Association, a trade group of renewable energy companies, said offshore wind work at the moment amounts to a tiny sliver of the vessel traffic along the busy ports of the East Coast. The association blamed “groups opposed to clean energy projects” for spreading “baseless information that has been debunked by scientists and experts.”

Indeed, news outlets have linked some of the organizations clamoring to halt wind development for the whales’ sake to conservative opponents of renewable energy.

“It’s unfortunate that so much misinformation is obscuring the facts of what’s really happening off the shores of the East Coast. We have always worked alongside the environmental community to protect marine life and follow rigorous standards when developing projects,” the association said in a statement.

As for the right whale that washed up in Virginia, a necropsy that came out just two days after the Fox article revealed that the whale appeared to have died of a vessel strike. 

“While these whale deaths are tragic, they are not related to Dominion Energy’s Coastal Virginia Offshore Wind activities,” said Jeremy Slayton, a company spokesman. “There are currently only three offshore wind vessels operating off Virginia’s coast and they were in port between Feb. 6 and Feb. 13.”

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Robert Zullo
Robert Zullo

Robert Zullo is a national energy reporter based in southern Illinois focusing on renewable power and the electric grid. Robert joined States Newsroom in 2018 as the founding editor of the Virginia Mercury. Before that, he spent 13 years as a reporter and editor at newspapers in Virginia, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and Louisiana. He has a bachelor's degree from the College of William and Mary in Williamsburg, Va. He grew up in Miami, Fla., and central New Jersey. He can be reached at [email protected].