Offshore Wind and Dead Whales


humpback whale under water
Humpback whales, similar to this one, have been involved in a number of strandings and deaths off the New York Bight in recent months. Elianne Dipp via Pexels

While I hate to say it, whale strandings and deaths along the East Coast aren’t particularly unusual anymore. Since 2016, there’s been a whopping 178 whale mortality events, and there are likely more that go undetected.

But it’s the recent pulse of strandings/deaths in New York and New Jersey, in a very short time period, that’s really concerning. There have been 10 (eight humpbacks, two sperm whales) in the last 6 weeks. That’s a lot—way more than we’ve ever seen in such a short period of time in this area.

Indeed, all of this happens to coincide with the continuing effort to get offshore wind power along the East Coast off the ground. And so, there seems to be a lot of folks pointing specifically to the wind-power industry’s data collection efforts in the New York Bight. It’s worth pointing out here that such surveys have been ongoing since 2016.

The big question right now is are those offshore wind power survey boats causing this geographically specific whale mortality event? NOAA says that’s extremely unlikely. Let’s consider some of the facts here. Then, we’d like to hear what readers think.

Seismic vs. Sonar

For several decades seismic testing has been used by the offshore oil and gas industry to collect data below the seafloor. Essentially air-guns blast high-decibel explosive pulses, and based on the refraction/return time, what’s underneath the ocean floor can be mapped in 3D.

Is it destructive to sea life? Absolutely. Effects can range from short-term stunning and disorientation, to long-term behavioral changes such as abandonment of historical feeding grounds and migration routes. And yes, in some cases, even death.

Despite what some folks are claiming though, wind-power data collection/survey boats that have been operating off the East Coast are NOT using seismic survey technology. They simply don’t need to penetrate the seafloor to the extent oil and gas exploration does. Really, there’s been no seismic surveys off the east coast since the 80s.

What they are and have been using is sonar (bouncing sound off the bottom). Sonar isn’t exactly benign. It’s well known that US Navy sonar can and has resulted in whale mortality. But the sonar power used by offshore-wind survey crews is not even close to the same as the Navy’s. It’s a completely different technology designed specifically to avoid adverse effects on marine life. And it’s been used all over the world without any significant harm to marine mammals. The folks at NOAA have been quick to point out that wind energy surveyors are prohibited from using levels of sonar loud enough to be fatal to marine life.

Let me be clear: I’m not saying that it’s impossible that the survey sonars aren’t contributing to, or even causing the whale strandings. But, there’s currently no information that would support the contention that any of the data collection equipment being used could lead to the death of a whale.

Ship Strikes?

Of course, boats hit whales. From my perspective, that certainly seems to be a function of abundance. If there are a lot of whales around (and make no mistake, there are) there are going to be interactions. Having spent the last two decades underway in the New York Bight, there are unquestionably more humpbacks around. I mean, way more than anyone can remember.

Why? Well, there are likely a number of reasons. But the big one becomes apparent the first time you see dozens of bunker (Atlantic menhaden) spray out of the water and a 30-ton animal lunge 20 feet away from the boat.

No one knows what the cause of this recent mortality event is, but in the postmortem tests/necropsies that have been performed, almost half of those animals had injuries consistent with vessel strikes. Some are quick to point out that high-powered sonar could be messing with whales’ navigational/directional systems, disorienting them. There’s also the potential all that deafening underwater noise could be preventing whales from hearing approaching propellers.

But to me it seems entirely possible, in fact likely, that what we’re seeing here is simply an aggregation of bunker and/or herring moving in and out of one or more shipping channels, and a bunch of feeding humpbacks following them around. I see this regularly in Ambrose and Sandy Hook Channels, so it doesn’t seem unlikely. In such high-traffic areas, of course there will be a greater incidence of strikes.

Still, it begs the question of why here and why now? One would think that such aggregations occur during other times of the year, and in other channels outside of the New York Bight. Unless this is just an unusually large menhaden aggregation with an unusually large number of humpbacks on it. Of course, this is all speculation.

Politics

There are a lot of unanswered questions here. But which side of the political aisle folks sit on certainly seems to be coloring opinions.

Folks leaning to the right, who tend to be suspect of green energy initiatives in general, point the finger at offshore wind. And it’s not hard to understand why. I mean, let’s be honest. One hundred and seventy eight whale strandings/deaths since surveying for wind power began (7 years ago) does seem suspicious.

On the other hand, folks that lean left seem to be overly supportive of offshore wind. In their defense, there doesn’t appear to be any science that might indicate that these current survey methods are causing harm to marine mammals. And the injuries on at least some of those whales appear to be from ship strikes.

But, if there is even the slightest indication that sonar surveys might be causing the strandings, why wouldn’t we want to pause things until we can be sure this isn’t the case? Thus far I haven’t heard of any organization supportive of offshore wind suggest that.

Science vs. Conspiracy

Let me be clear on where I stand here. I understand some readers may think I’m naïve, but I generally trust science and trust scientists. By definition, science is, or at least should be, unbiased and based on facts which can be verified.

If the science and scientists are saying that the sonar being used by offshore wind is unlikely to be causing this mortality event (or others) I tend to believe them. I have not yet heard a reputable scientist say otherwise.

Yes, I suppose it’s possible that this is an intricate political cover up, but I’ve never really believed in those sorts of conspiracy theories. If there were signs of acoustic damage in the whales, and it wasn’t being reported, you’d certainly think a whistle-blower would have emerged by now, or some investigative journalist would have uncovered something.

On Ship Strikes and Speed-Limits

If you read my piece on right whales, and maybe the comments in the “conversation” section that followed, there were folks claiming that perhaps NOAA is maintaining that the likely cause of the mortality events are ship strikes so that they could not only protect the wind-power industry, but also justify the right-whale proposed rule (some version of which will likely be finalized this spring). This rule creates a 10-knot speed limit from the fall through spring for boats over 35 feet in an effort to avoid ship strikes with right whales, which pretty well screws the sport-fishing fleet.

I do understand that rationale. And I’m the last person who would support that sort of blunt measure, which would punish charter-boats like mine, while failing to protect the species in any case (for a number of reasons I detailed in the piece). But, I also don’t believe NOAA is that nefarious. And I don’t believe that NOAA scientists would alter a necropsy report or unjustifiably defend offshore wind surveys, even if they were receiving orders from the top to do so. My experience with NOAA scientists is that they are generally unbiased, honest yeoman.

But, it’s really important to point out here that none of the recent strandings or deaths involved right whales. And there are clear reasons for that.

For one, right whales are extraordinarily rare here. In the unusual circumstances that one of the 350 animals left is observed in this region, it’s likely it’s just passing though. That’s because their food source (i.e. krill) simply doesn’t exist in any real concentrations here. Right whales do not feed on menhaden or herring or any sort of large baitfish likely to amass in high volume transit areas. And so, it’s pretty unlikely you’ll find them in a similar situation to the one we likely have now with the humpbacks on bunker schools sitting right in busy transit zones.

Absolutely, I’m all for reducing interactions with humpbacks. But those interactions are merely a reflection of abundance. That is simply not the case with right whales.

But let’s move on.

My Conclusions

So, can we justifiably blame all these whale strandings/deaths on the current survey work? My gut and my brain are telling me no. But I’m not going to lie: both have been wrong before, so I’m trying to avoid saying that unequivocally.

But it is true that wind-power companies have had to take great pains to avoid these sorts of impactful interactions. Federal regulations actually require multiple observers on vessels conducting survey and construction work. Those observers are required to watch for whales, and work stoppages have to take place when whales have been observed swimming in the area. So, it just seems really unlikely to me that a handful of boats using technology designed specifically to avoid harassing whales are actually killing them.

But something sure as hell is causing it. From where I sit, there doesn’t seem to be any real effort to get to the bottom of it. And that’s troubling.

We’d like to know what you think. Comment below.

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