Debate grows over offshore wind, as whale deaths mount

By: - January 17, 2023 2:37 pm

Staff from the Marine Mammal Stranding Center conduct a necropsy on a humpback whale that washed up on the North End Natural Area in Brigantine on Jan. 12, 2023. (Photo by Michael McKenna of the Marine Mammal Stranding Center)

Five days after the seventh dead whale in six weeks washed up on New Jersey’s shoreline, environmentalists put out dueling calls to continue or curtail offshore wind work, though no evidence shows it caused the casualties.

Activists from groups including the New Jersey League of Conservation Voters, Sierra Club, Association of New Jersey Environmental Commissions, and GreenFaith held a press conference on the Atlantic City boardwalk Tuesday morning to blame climate change, plastic pollution, and fishery practices for the spike in whale casualties.

Warming waters are, in part, responsible for increasing the human-whale conflict and a threat to numerous other species across the globe,” said Paul Eidman, a conservationist, fisherman, and offshore wind advocate. “Those who are using the tragic deaths of these whales to speak out against any offshore power are engaging in nonscientific speculation, and some are using this as an opportunity to further an anti-environmental agenda. On the climate crisis and on the whale strandings, one thing is very clear: We must follow the science.”

As those environmentalists shivered in the cold on the boardwalk, Clean Ocean Action issued a statement calling for an investigation, saying offshore wind shouldn’t “get a pass on scrutiny.” Construction activities can disrupt marine animals’ behavioral patterns and increase boating traffic, both of which raise the potential for ship strikes, Clean Ocean Action executive director Cindy Zipf said.

“Any industrial activity — especially reckless industrial development that is massive in scope, scale, magnitude, and speed — should be required to prove it is protective of the marine ecosystem,” Zipf said in a statement. “The deaths of seven whales in 39 days is unprecedented … Why wouldn’t the 11 offshore wind-related companies be suspected?”

Marine biologists from groups including the Brigantine-based Marine Mammal Stranding Center and Delaware’s MERR Institute necropsied the latest casualty — a 12-ton humpback whale that washed up in Brigantine’s North End Natural Area on Thursday.

Preliminary results suggested the 32-foot whale suffered traumatic injuries consistent with a vessel strike but otherwise appeared healthy, according to the Marine Mammal Stranding Center. Official results, confirmed by laboratory analysis, will take a few weeks.

Vessel strikes and entanglement in fishing gear are the biggest human threats to whales, the center noted. And a “high number” of whales, likely attracted by smaller prey, now are swimming off Jersey’s shores, prompting the center to advise boaters to go slowly.

“Although there has been speculation about whether these whale deaths are linked to wind energy development, at this point, no whale mortality has been attributed to offshore wind activities,” the center said in a statement. “We will continue to gather data and go where the science leads us.”

Humpback whale strandings have spiked so much along the East Coast since 2016 that the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration has declared them an “unusual mortality event.” Twenty-two of 176 whale strandings occurred in New Jersey, according to NOAA.

Gov. Phil Murphy set a goal to have 11,000 megawatts of energy generated by offshore wind turbines by 2040 as part of the state’s aim to have a 100% clean energy economy by 2050. That’s the most ambitious target in the country.

No wind turbines have yet been built, although several projects have been approved, and planning work for those, including surveying, is underway.

Murphy on Friday said he wouldn’t pause offshore wind work, despite the whale deaths.

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Dana DiFilippo
Dana DiFilippo

Dana DiFilippo comes to the New Jersey Monitor from WHYY, Philadelphia’s NPR station, and the Philadelphia Daily News, a paper known for exposing corruption and holding public officials accountable. Prior to that, she worked at newspapers in Cincinnati, Pittsburgh, and suburban Philadelphia and has freelanced for various local and national magazines, newspapers and websites. She lives in Central Jersey with her husband, a photojournalist, and their two children.