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Contrary to politicians’ claims, offshore wind farms don’t kill whales. Here’s what to know.

by Ryan Lee
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Whale Deaths

Contrary to assertions made by some politicians, the notion that offshore wind farms pose a threat to whales lacks credible evidence. This issue has emerged as a contentious point in the ongoing debate over the future of renewable energy. In recent months, conservative figures, including former President Donald Trump, have raised concerns that the construction of offshore wind turbines is causing harm to these majestic marine creatures.

However, it’s essential to emphasize that scientists have found no substantial evidence to establish a direct link between offshore wind farms and whale deaths. Nevertheless, conservative groups and ad hoc “not in my back yard” style anti-development organizations have persistently attempted to draw such a connection.

The Big Big News aims to separate fact from fiction, particularly as the North Atlantic right whale’s migration season unfolds. Let’s delve into the key aspects of this issue:

Current State of U.S. Offshore Wind Projects

Presently, the United States has two commercial offshore wind farms under construction. One is the South Fork Wind, situated 35 miles east of Montauk Point, New York, developed by Danish wind energy company Ørsted and utility Eversource. Ørsted recently announced that the first of its 12 turbines is now supplying electricity to the grid. The other project, Vineyard Wind, is constructing a 62-turbine wind farm 15 miles off Massachusetts. Both projects are slated to become operational by early next year, and additional large offshore wind projects are in the permitting phase.

Furthermore, there are two pilot projects involving five turbines off Rhode Island and two off Virginia. The Biden administration has set a goal to power 10 million homes with offshore wind by 2030, a significant component of its climate objectives. However, Ørsted faced legal challenges from community groups, leading to the cancellation of two large offshore wind projects in New Jersey. This decision was primarily based on economic viability and unrelated to offshore wind opposition in New Jersey.

Are U.S. Wind Farms Linked to Whale Deaths?

Experts and researchers assert that there is no substantial evidence indicating that limited wind farm construction along the Atlantic Coast has directly caused whale deaths. This claim arises from politically motivated statements rather than scientific findings. The concern about this issue began in 2016 when an unusual number of whale strandings and deaths occurred on New England beaches, a trend predating the significant offshore wind farm construction that started this year.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) has reported that approximately 40% of recovered whale carcasses showed evidence of death resulting from fishing gear entanglement or vessel strikes. The causes of death for the remaining whales could not be definitively linked to a specific source. Notably, European countries, where offshore wind development has been ongoing for over three decades, have not found causal links between wind farms and whale deaths.

In the United States, scientists are actively collecting data near offshore wind farms to monitor any potential impacts on whales, aside from fatalities, such as altered behavior or changes in migration routes. This research is in its preliminary stages and is part of a 5-year federally-funded study led by marine biologist Doug Nowacek at Duke University.

Real Threats to Whales

While the causes of recent whale strandings along the East Coast remain largely unknown, whales do face genuine threats from human activities. The most significant dangers include collisions with shipping vessels, entanglement in fishing gear, and underwater noise pollution. Advocates for whale protection argue that the opposition to offshore wind power distracts from addressing these real issues.

Since 2016, humpback whales have been experiencing a higher-than-usual mortality rate, categorized as an “unusual mortality event” by the federal government. The critically endangered North Atlantic right whale, with fewer than 360 individuals remaining, is also facing a similar unusual mortality event. NOAA reports that 83 whales have died off the East Coast since December 1, 2022, with humpbacks comprising roughly half of these deaths, occurring between Massachusetts and North Carolina. Two critically endangered right whales were among the casualties in North Carolina and Virginia.

Measures to Protect Whales Near Wind Farms

Federal laws have established limits on human-generated underwater sound, both continuous noise and short sudden bursts. Marine construction projects near wind farms can take steps to minimize their potential impact on marine mammals. These measures include pausing construction during migration seasons, employing “bubble curtains” to contain sound from pile-driving, and stationing trained observers with binoculars on ships to spot marine mammals.

Moreover, offshore wind developers are not only complying with regulatory requirements but are also voluntarily adopting additional measures to ensure that marine mammals are not harmed. For example, Ørsted refrains from pile driving between December 1 and April 30, coinciding with whale migration periods. They also employ extra lookout vehicles, utilize bubble curtains around turbine monopiles, and conduct underwater acoustic monitoring.

Equinor, another company involved in offshore wind development, plans to use acoustic monitoring and infrared cameras to detect whales when they begin developing lease areas off Long Island in collaboration with bp. The company commits to limiting pile driving to months when right whales are least likely to be present.

Misinformation and Its Impact

Opponents of offshore wind projects have been using unsupported claims of harm to whales as a tactic to halt these projects. This opposition is particularly vocal in New Jersey. The spread of misinformation can lead to anxiety within coastal communities, where developers must establish shoreside infrastructure to operate wind farms.

Republican politicians, including representatives from New Jersey, Maryland, and Arizona, have taken these concerns seriously. They successfully urged the U.S. Government Accountability Office to investigate the offshore wind industry’s impact on commercial fishing and marine life, calling for a moratorium on projects. In contrast, New Jersey’s Democrat-controlled Legislature remains steadfast in supporting the offshore wind industry.

Whales and Climate Change

Advocates for renewable energy highlight the broader context of the relationship between whales and climate change. They argue that climate change poses a significant threat to whales due to shifts in the distribution of their preferred food sources, driven by warming waters. This displacement has led whales to venture beyond their protected ocean areas in search of food, increasing their vulnerability to ship strikes and entanglements.

Moreover, large whales play a vital role in mitigating climate change by capturing and storing carbon. Reducing reliance on fossil fuels by transitioning to renewable energy sources aligns with efforts to address climate change, benefiting both marine ecosystems and the global environment.

In conclusion, while concerns about the impact of offshore wind farms on whales have been raised, scientific evidence does not support a direct causal link between these projects and whale deaths. The focus on this issue may divert attention from more pressing threats to whales, such as shipping collisions and fishing gear entanglement. As renewable energy projects continue to expand, it remains crucial to base discussions and decisions on rigorous scientific research and facts to ensure the welfare of marine life and the success of sustainable energy initiatives.

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) about Whale Deaths

Q: Are offshore wind farms causing whale deaths?

A: No, there is no credible evidence to support a direct link between offshore wind farms and whale deaths. The concerns raised about these projects harming whales lack scientific basis.

Q: What are the real threats to whales?

A: Whales face genuine threats from activities such as collisions with shipping vessels, entanglement in fishing gear, and underwater noise pollution. These are the primary dangers to whale populations.

Q: What measures are in place to protect whales near wind farms?

A: Federal laws set limits on underwater sound, and offshore wind developers voluntarily adopt measures like pausing construction during migration seasons, using “bubble curtains” to contain noise, and employing trained observers to spot marine mammals. These efforts aim to minimize potential harm to whales.

Q: Why is there opposition to offshore wind projects?

A: Some opponents, including conservative groups and think tanks, have raised concerns about offshore wind projects. They argue that wind farms may have negative environmental and aesthetic impacts. However, claims of wind farms causing whale deaths lack scientific support.

Q: How does climate change affect whales?

A: Climate change disrupts the distribution of whales’ preferred food sources due to warming waters, forcing whales to search for food in new areas. This exposes them to increased risks, such as ship strikes and entanglements. Whales also play a role in mitigating climate change by capturing and storing carbon in the ocean.

More about Whale Deaths

  • National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA): NOAA provides information on whale strandings and their causes.
  • Ørsted: Learn more about Ørsted’s offshore wind projects and their commitment to environmental protection.
  • Equinor: Explore Equinor’s initiatives for marine mammal protection in offshore wind development.
  • The Heritage Foundation: Understand the perspective of opponents of offshore wind projects, such as The Heritage Foundation.
  • The Heartland Institute: Learn about The Heartland Institute’s views on offshore wind and regulatory restrictions.
  • Oceana: Discover Oceana’s efforts to protect marine ecosystems and marine life.
  • Big Big News: For in-depth coverage of climate and environmental issues, visit Big Big News.

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