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01 • 21 • 2023

Surfrider Statement on Offshore Wind and Recent Whale Beachings on the East Coast

By Matt Gove

There has been a lot of media coverage and conflicting narratives surrounding a spate of whale beachings in New Jersey and other East Coast locations. The Surfrider Foundation would like to convey some basic facts about that situation, and reiterate our position on offshore wind energy projects.

Since 2016 and continuing today, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) has been studying a humpback whale “unusual mortality event” (UME) on the East Coast. (1) Similar UMEs occurred in the 2000s. NOAA performed necropsies on some of the current UME whales and the top two causes of death were determined to be ship strikes and fishing gear entanglements. (2)

Since early December 2022, 14 whales, mostly humpback but at least two toothed whales, have washed up on the East Coast (half of those in New York and New Jersey). Marine mammal stranding groups are currently performing necropsies on some of the whales (as others were too decomposed to analyze).

Baleen whales (like humpbacks) do not use sonar like toothed whales, and are therefore less sensitive to noise. For this reason, they have not historically been connected with beachings from loud offshore noises like oil and gas exploration or Navy testing. (3)

It is still unclear exactly what data collection and mapping activities the offshore wind industry has been implementing off the East Coast since 2017 (the earliest permit for this type of data collection by the industry), but they have not yet begun turbine construction, the loudest part of wind farm deployment. Additionally, the type of sound imaging used by the offshore wind industry is very different from the type used by the oil and gas industry and the Navy. This lower energy type of sonar is frequently used by ocean research vessels and is not linked with whale beachings. (4)

Offshore wind energy boats are required to have marine mammal spotters on board. (5) It is possible that an offshore wind boat struck one of these beached whales, but there are hundreds of large boats offshore, so the chance that these deaths were caused by wind boats specifically, is low. (6)

On January 19, 2023, NOAA held a press conference stating that, not only is there no evidence connecting the offshore wind industry to recent whale deaths, but also that, “There is no information that would support any of the equipment being used [by the wind industry] could directly lead to the death of a whale.” (7)

Surfrider is very concerned about the scientifically predicted climate change scenarios that will result in major negative impacts to our coasts and ocean. We know that we must move from fossil fuels to renewable energy as fast as possible to avoid these negative impacts. 

At the same time, we are concerned about the many possible negative impacts from the development of offshore wind energy projects. Accordingly, Surfrider has adopted a Policy on Offshore Renewable Energy that includes principles for responsible development. This policy guides Surfrider’s evaluation of offshore wind projects, and has led us to request additional scientific study, monitoring, and mitigation for any offshore wind project.

Furthermore, we are assessing each offshore wind project separately, and have been waiting for the Construction and Operations (COP) step in the federal government’s approval process before we take a position on a particular project. At the COP step, we can access the environmental analysis prepared pursuant to the National Environmental Protection Act, which lays out the possible impacts from each project. Chapters are then able to decide whether or not to support specific offshore wind projects.

Surfrider has a 20 year history of protecting the New Jersey and greater East Coasts, including defeating proposed projects for liquefied natural gas, poorly planned development, and offshore oil drilling. As recently as 2020, the federal government was contemplating oil leases on the East Coast. As our country looks for more energy sources to feed increasing energy demands, especially for electricity, Surfrider will continue to monitor proposed energy projects, including offshore wind, to ensure the protection of our coasts and ocean for all people. 

For more information about marine mammal standings and what to do if you find a beached animal, check out our Beachapedia page

 

 1. NOAA Fisheries. 2016–2023 Humpback Whale Unusual Mortality Event Along the Atlantic Coast. Available at: www.fisheries.noaa.gov/national/marine-life-distress/2016-2023-humpback-whale-unusual-mortality-event-along-atlantic-coast

2.  NOAA Fisheries. Frequent Questions—Offshore Wind and Whales. Available at: www.fisheries.noaa.gov/new-england-mid-atlantic/marine-life-distress/frequent-questions-offshore-wind-and-whales?fbclid=IwAR2TXmI7xEfF89Cws7dmZJWYxkgnqTfl-nd6Fj3ql0D15bGharPlYOa_Z5c

3. NOAA Office of Protected Resources. 2018 Revision to Technical Guidance for Assessing the Effects of Anthropogenic Sound on Marine Mammal Hearing (Version 2.0). Available at: media.fisheries.noaa.gov/dam-migration/tech_memo_acoustic_guidance_(20)_(pdf)_508.pdf

4.  Ibid.

5. Long Island Press. Feds: Offshore Wind Not to Blame for East Coast Whale Deaths. Available at: www.longislandpress.com/2023/01/19/feds-offshore-wind-whale-deaths/

6.  USDOT. Maritime Trade and Transportation by the Numbers. Available at: www.bts.gov/archive/publications/by_the_numbers/maritime_trade_and_transportation/index

7.  The Press of Atlantic City. NOAA: Wind Power Could Not Have Caused Whale Deaths. Available at: pressofatlanticcity.com/news/local/noaa-wind-power-work-could-not-have-caused-whale-deaths/article_ed70011c-977b-11ed-b492-cf78ee93ccfa.html