Whale deaths along East Coast prompt 12 NJ mayors’ call for offshore wind farm moratorium

Source: By Amanda Oglesby and Dan Radel, Asbury Park Press • Posted: Wednesday, February 1, 2023

ASBURY PARK, N.J. – A group of New Jersey mayors are calling for an “immediate moratorium” on offshore wind energy development until federal and state scientists can assure the public that ocean noise related to underwater seabed mapping, soil borings and other turbine construction activities poses no threat to whales.

The announcement followed news that another humpback whale died off of the coasts of New Jersey and New York and washed ashore in Lido Beach, New York, according to numerous reports.

“While we are not opposed to clean energy, we are concerned about the impacts these (offshore wind) projects may already be having on our environment,” the 12 New Jersey mayors wrote in a joint letter to Washington officials.

The Lido Beach whale marks the eighth whale to wash ashore on the beaches of New York and New Jersey in the past two months, the mayors said.

On Saturday, a dead humpback was seen floating about 12 miles off Long Beach Island, said Andrea Gomez, a spokesperson for the Greater Atlantic Regional Fisheries Office at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

It was not clear Monday if the Lido Beach whale could be the same one spotted off Long Beach Island.

“This is the sixth stranded humpback whale reported in New Jersey, and the 18th large whale stranding along the East Coast, since December 1,” Gomez said in an email to an the Asbury Park Press, part of the USA TODAY Network.

Experts at NOAA said ship strikes and fishing gear entanglements are among the most common causes of death in humpback whales. The agency said the unusually high number of whale deaths among humpbacks dates back to 2016, before offshore wind energy exploration began in the Atlantic ocean.

Are offshore wind farms responsible for whale deaths?

Cindy Zipf, executive director of the environmental organization Clean Ocean Action, said in a statement earlier this month that offshore wind companies are being allowed by federal regulators to disturb and harm a certain number of whales and other marine animals during pre-construction and construction activity.

“Why should offshore wind get a pass on scrutiny to ensure marine ecosystem protection, especially for endangered and protected species?” she said in the statement.

There is no evidence that sound from high-resolution geophysical surveys, which are used to map sea floors for offshore wind farms, harms marine mammals, Erica Staaterman, a bioacoustician at the federal Bureau of Ocean Energy Management’s Center for Marine Acoustics, told reporters earlier this month. The surveys map the ocean bottom by bouncing sound waves.

“Acoustic trauma, which could result from close exposure to loud human-produced sounds, is very challenging to assess in stranded whales, particularly with any amount of decomposition,” said Gomez of NOAA. “Scientists look for bruising or trauma to the ear and other organs, but linking it to a particular sound source is difficult.”

The New Jersey League of Conservation Voters, an environmental advocacy group, said there was no evidence to blame offshore wind companies for the whales’ deaths.

“While I am deeply concerned with the recent whale strandings, I also know we must base our decision making on science and data, not emotions or assumptions,” Allison McLeod, policy director for the New Jersey League of Conservation Voters and a former professional mammal observer, said in a statement earlier this month. “It is therefore irresponsible to assign blame to offshore wind energy development without supporting evidence.”

Since 2016, 23 dead humpback whales have washed ashore in New Jersey, according to NOAA. Three of those happened in January, according to the agency.