Whales Face Many Dangers: Offshore Wind Is Not One of Them

Articles | February 23, 2023

By Maya Nguyen

A series of recent whale deaths along the Atlantic coast have raised speculation about their connection to offshore wind activity. Scientists, however, emphasize that there is no evidence to support a link between the two.

In New Jersey and New York, efforts to increase offshore wind capacity have been met with opposition from groups like Clean Ocean Action and Protect Our Coast New Jersey, who have blamed wind farms’ early-stage geotechnical surveys for the death of nine whales in the past two months. These groups are joined by a dozen New Jersey mayors and a congressman in calling for a moratorium on all offshore wind activity.

Scientists, conservation groups, and longtime whale advocates underscore the absence of evidence to support that conclusion. Officials from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Fisheries explained in a press conference that while recent whale deaths are a concern, “to date, no whale mortality has been attributed to offshore wind activities.” There is “no evidence” that any ongoing surveys or “any of the equipment that’s being used in support of wind development” could “directly lead to the death of a whale,” they emphasized.  

Ocean Wind, the proposed offshore wind project for the New Jersey coast, for example, has not yet begun construction; they are conducting initial survey work and ocean floor soil sampling, determining where wind turbines and cables can be installed. The sonar equipment that wind projects use to map the ocean floor is typically “much lower in impact” and much less intrusive to marine life than seismic air guns used by offshore oil and gas operations, said Erica Staaterman, a bioacoustician in the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management’s Center for Marine Acoustics. In addition, federal regulations require multiple observers on vessels conducting surveys and construction for wind projects to watch for animals and call for work stoppages when whales are in the area. 

So what could explain the number of whale deaths? The New York and New Jersey coast is a busy area – not only for marine life or future wind farms, but for shipping vessels and other boats. As the climate changes and oceans warm, many marine species adapt by moving into new, more favorable conditions; these changing distributions of prey, whales, and other marine life can lead to increased interactions with humans as they move closer to shore. 

Paul Sieswerda, the executive director of the nonprofit Gotham Whale, explained to CNN that as fish habitats are likely to overlap with shipping channels, whales are following, leading them to areas with high boat traffic and increasing the risk of vessel strikes.

In 2017, NOAA Fisheries declared an “Unusual Mortality Event” for humpback whale strandings along the Atlantic coast, totalling 181 humpback whale deaths. After conducting partial or full necropsy examinations on about half of the whales, 40 percent demonstrated evidence of human interaction by ship strike or entanglement. Evidently, vessel strikes and entanglement in fishing gear represent the greatest human threats to whales; these are happening continuously, Sieswerda added, in light of the recent “explosion” in the whale population along the Mid-Atlantic shore. 

Sarah Wilkin, coordinator of the Marine Mammal Health and Stranding Response Program, said that humpback whale strandings do occur “in the winter months in the mid-Atlantic especially”. As strandings have occurred long before offshore wind was a factor, NOAA emphasizes, “correlating the two now is not based in science”. For comparison, experts point to the United Kingdom – home to 2,652 offshore wind turbines – where necropsies have not found any connection between dead whales and wind turbines. 

While there are many real threats to whale populations today – from climate change and pollution to entanglement and vessel strikes  – there is no evidence to link recent whale deaths with offshore wind development. In the long run, by reducing fossil fuel usage and greenhouse gas emissions overall, wind farms will help humans and whales alike.

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