Are offshore wind farms responsible for recent whale deaths?
When I was a kid, I remember environmentalists being utterly obsessed with "saving the whales." So where are all these whale-loving environmentalists when you really need them?
Over the past two months, eight whales have washed ashore across New Jersey and New York beaches. Coincidentally or not, the major uptick in deaths of these majestic mammals also happens to be occurring as construction has begun for Empire Wind, a massive offshore wind farm located in the very same waters.
Because of the unmistakable connection between the whale deaths and the opening phases of construction for the wind farm, several New Jersey beachfront mayors have called for an "immediate moratorium" on the offshore wind development project.
"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 mayors said.
In truth, they have every right to be concerned about the detrimental impact that underwater seabed mapping, soil borings, and other turbine construction activities may be inflicting on whales and other marine life in the area.
According to Cindy Zipf, executive director of Clean Ocean Action, "[i]t is plausible to question whether offshore wind pre-construction activities, which are happening concurrently in this region, are a contributing factor in these deaths."
She added that this many whale deaths in this short a time span is "unprecedented" and notes that preconstruction for the Empire Wind project has led to substantially "more ships and vessels in the area, which increase potential ship strikes, and sonar can deafen or disorient whales, leading them into the path of oncoming vessels."
In other words, drilling massive holes into the sea floor to erect the mammoth-sized wind turbines could be wreaking havoc on a species that uses sound to navigate the waters, find mates, and hunt for food.
In fact, even the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) admits that "ocean noise from human activity can alter whale behavior, stress the animals, and in some cases, cause disorientation or hearing loss." However, NOAA also claims that "there is no evidence that sonar and noise created from pre-construction offshore wind activity is harming the whales."
That sure sounds fishy.
Perhaps most interesting about this whole affair is that it has created quite a rift among several environmental groups that typically sing from the same song sheet. For instance, in one corner, Clean Water Action, Environment New Jersey, the Sierra Club, New Jersey Audubon, NY/NJ Baykeeper, and the New Jersey League of Conservation Voters strongly support the project despite the surge in whale deaths.
As Allison McLeod, policy director at the New Jersey League of Conservation Voters, recently said, "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." She added, "It is therefore irresponsible to assign blame to offshore wind energy development without supporting evidence."
In the other corner, environmental groups like Clean Ocean Action and Save the Whales staunchly oppose the project. In December 2021, Save the Whales, along with nine other organizations, sent a letter to the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, noting, "There is reason for grave concern" because Empire Wind will use "equipment [that] will emit sounds of the same sound frequencies as the calls of the North American Right Whales."
The letter also documents that "BOEM, under Biden-Harris Administration, continues to decline to make an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) prior to lease sale of ocean areas, even knowing that such lease sales, with 100% certainty, will result in sea floor exploration/SAP activities requiring ensonification, and knowing that based on the sound frequency at which NARW communicate, adverse effects on the remaining NARW population of such sound-producing site-characterization activities are highly likely."
Although it is too soon to know with certainty that the sudden increase in whale deaths along the New Jersey and New York shore lines is 100 percent due to the opening phases of construction of the Empire Wind project, there is reason for concern. And considering that most environmental groups nowadays are hypersensitive when any animal or habitat could be damaged by a new construction venture, it does seem strange that so many environmental groups, politicians, and federal government agencies could not care less about the potential catastrophe that a massive wind farm could impose on whales and countless other forms of sea life.
Chris Talgo (firstname.lastname@example.org) is editorial director at The Heartland Institute.