The Complicated Truths About Offshore Wind And Right Whales

Right whale

The Northeast Fisheries Center aerial survey team from the NOAA took pictures of two North Atlantic right whales during their May 2016 survey. Tim Cole of NOAA Fisheries, NEFSC is credited with capturing the photos.

Right whale - Figure 1
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This blog post is included in The State of Science, a collection that showcases scientific narratives from public radio stations throughout the United States. The piece authored by Eve Zuckoff was created in partnership with WCAI.

When scientists stumbled upon the deceased whale lying on a Martha's Vineyard shore, her skin had been pecked at by ravenous seagulls leaving holes, her baleen was no longer secured in her mouth, and a thin rope had been wound firmly, consistently, for 17 months around the thinnest area of her tail.

The experts speedily understood that there was a lady named 5120, she was three years old and weighed 12 tons. Moreover, she belonged to the North Atlantic right whale category, which comprises only 360 remaining members.

After a couple of weeks, NOAA Fisheries declared that the rope that caused the entanglement originated from the equipment used for lobster fishing in the waters of Maine. It is highly probable that 5120 was adversely affected and experienced agony and distress, which may have hampered its ability to swim and consume food. Experts believe that it may have eventually perished due to fatigue or lack of sustenance. However, the exact reason for its death is yet to be determined.

The passing of 5120 whale left a huge impact on those who support saving the right whale species. They understand that losing a female whale goes beyond losing one being since it can affect multiple future calves. Typically, a death triggers an intense emotional response and a renewed dedication to the cause. This could have marked the conclusion of 5120 whale's legacy.

However, soon after that, online remarks started pouring in. Numerous, even thousands, of comments on social media were accusing offshore wind farms for the incident. The noise, the power being produced, and simply having turbines were held responsible. During this discussion, the actual issue of 5120 was sidelined and ignored.

Sometimes, people spread rumors that offshore wind farms harm and kill right whales because they are concerned about marine mammals' safety. However, right whale scientists are even more invested in protecting these creatures and have dedicated their lives to saving them from extinction. It can be difficult for these scientists to talk about offshore wind because of the uncertainties surrounding this new industry and the strong reactions from people on all sides of the issue. Although they are worried about the potential risks of wind farms, they are even more distraught about the possibility of climate change destroying the right whales' food sources and ecosystems, ultimately jeopardizing their survival.

Dangers To North Atlantic Right Whales

The number of North Atlantic right whales used to be very high, with an estimated 9,000 to 21,000 of them swimming near the East Coast. However, the commercial whaling industry caused their population to decrease significantly in the 18th and 19th centuries. Back then, whalers named these whales as the "right" whales to hunt since they could be easily found near the shore, moved slowly in water, and were filled with fat that caused their bodies to float when dead. By the 1920s, there were only fewer than 100 North Atlantic right whales remaining.

Right whale - Figure 2
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After the ban of commercial whaling in 1935, there was an increase in the population of these creatures. The number went up to 483 in 2010. But, sadly the progress since then has been decreasing.

Throughout the years spanning from 2011 to 2020, an unfortunate 43% of the beloved North Atlantic right whale population tragically passed away. Scientists fear that if this trend continues, these creatures could ultimately become functionally extinct in the near future, possibly within the next 30 years.

Based on mortality information, professionals reveal that two reasons are the leading cause of their tragic deaths. According to records spanning seven years, 39 right whales suffered severe harm or lost their lives due to entanglements, with predominantly lobster, snow crab, and jonah crab equipment being held accountable.

It is common for right whales to get killed by collisions with vessels. When boats come in contact with them, it can result in severe injuries caused by propellers or blunt force trauma, ultimately leading to death. Due to their black color, and the fact that they usually spend prolonged periods at the surface to feed and move around, they tend to go unnoticed by boat captains cruising nearby. However, they are not out of danger as they can be hit by the submerged hull or propeller.

After that, offshore wind power began to emerge.

The Struggle Against Offshore Wind: A Pawn's Perspective

A few years ago, self-proclaimed grassroots organizations emerged in various places such as Massachusetts, Delaware, and New Jersey that advocated for conservationism. They were against offshore wind power due to their concerns over the safety of whales.

Journalists started discovering connections between these organizations and fossil fuel advocates, however the extent of the collaboration was unclear until a team from Brown University conducted an investigation. In December of 2023, scholars from the university's lab for climate and development published a study that connected 18 of these groups - through financial contributions, affiliation, legal representation, and other means - to conservative donors and think tanks who are recognized for opposing climate policies and backing the interests of fossil fuel businesses.

Dr. Timmons Roberts, who is an expert in researching disinformation surrounding climate change at Brown University, has reported that his team has found proof of a planning memo from 2012 that clearly outlined the strategy to utilize local groups that seem authentically local. However, those groups were secretly receiving information from a centralized cluster of think tanks.

When Donald Trump was the president, he spread false statements about wind turbines that said that they caused cancer, harmed birds, and made whales act erratically. Additionally, Trump directed to subject Vineyard Wind- the nation's first massive offshore wind energy project- to extra environmental scrutiny in 2019, which resulted in an expensive postponement that was seen by some people as a political move.

Right whale - Figure 3
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Some Republicans have been consistently using the issue of right whales to oppose offshore wind power. Meanwhile, these same politicians have been neglecting or even opposing other measures aimed at safeguarding whales from dangerous encounters with boats or getting tangled up.

The right whale named 5120 was found dead on a beach in Martha's Vineyard, and it took researchers about five days to determine that her death was caused by chronic entanglement wounds. During this period, there was a lot of talk on social media and other platforms, and many people started blaming Vineyard Wind's project, which is being built 15 miles away from where the whale was discovered.

According to a post on Facebook by a resident of Martha's Vineyard, it was claimed that the injuries sustained by 5120 were caused by a thick rope that researchers had used to move her off the beach for a post-mortem examination. This post gained a lot of attention and was frequently referenced thereafter.

Later on, organizations such as Save the Dolphins and Whales New Jersey took to Facebook to state that the whale's tail was not initially tangled in a rope, but it was purposely tied up after the incident.

That particular article was distributed massively across various social media platforms like Facebook, X, and Instagram, which eventually resulted in numerous comparable fraudulent claims being published online.

Meanwhile, a group of scientists who were examining the remains of 5120 were shocked by what they found on social media. Despite battling intense winds and waves during a storm to secure 5120's carcass when it first washed ashore, they persevered. Enduring the stench of her decomposing flesh, they spent hours inside the whale's rib cage. Ultimately, they had to use a power saw to cut through a layer of tissue measuring 4 to 5 inches thick to remove the rope from her tail.

A representative from the IFAW, who was responsible for the examination of the animal's body after death, stated that the development of tissue indicates that it could not have occurred if the animal was attached to any lines after it passed away.

"Wildlife Threatened By Shifting Seascape"

Developers need to introduce large equipment into the ocean in order to construct a wind farm. Vineyard Wind's turbines are projected to measure 812 feet in height, taking into account the blades, which is taller than the highest skyscraper in Boston that measures 790 feet.

Experts who study the right whale have identified four significant areas of concern due to the extensive labor and metal involved in constructing and running an offshore wind farm.

The initial two factors enhance the current dangers: an increase in boats on the water raises the possibility of crashes with whales, and a rise in equipment on the water heightens the likelihood of getting caught up in marine debris.

One of the most talked-about topics online is the third concern, which is related to noise.

There are concerns about the noise caused by pile driving during construction. This noise could potentially lead to hearing loss or interfere with the vocal communication of right whales, causing them stress and potentially altering their behavior. Despite these worries, initial research has begun to alleviate some of these concerns.

Right whale - Figure 4
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Dr. Doug Nowacek from Duke University conducted research on the connection between the sound behavior and movement of marine mammals. The study focused on several fin whales, which are related to right whales, in the vicinity of South Fork Wind. This is New York's inaugural wind farm at commercial scale offshore.

According to him, while pile driving was happening, we placed tags on fin whales, but they did not show any drastic reactions. A few of the marked whales did relocate a few miles southwards. However, it is crucial to remember that these animals are migratory and can move considerable distances.

He stated that his group is currently exploring information to determine whether there are any additional slight effects that can be noticed from the whales' actions.

Concerning the noise in the long run, specialists such as Nowacek think that dangers are reduced after the completion of the construction and the wind farms start to operate because whales are highly familiar with most noises produced by boats and ships. Furthermore, scientists specializing in the study of the sounds produced by living organisms from the University of Rhode Island have come to the conclusion that the volume of sound emitted by the turbines of the Block Island Wind Farm is so negligible that if a person is 50 meters away, they won't be able to distinguish it from the ambient background noise, unless there are no winds or boats nearby.

The final type of issue relates to inquiries regarding the potential impact of wind farms on ocean currents and the availability of copepods, which are a vital source of food for right whales.

The operation of wind turbines involves the extraction of wind power from the air, leading to a reduction in the energy that moves and blends the ocean. The resulting decline in mixing could hinder the transportation of nutrients from deeper regions to the surface, thus impeding the growth of algae.

Dr. Mark Baumgartner, a senior scientist at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution who specializes in studying how baleen whales hunt their prey, suggested that by decreasing the nutrients available to the algae, the growth of the algae may be minimized. This reduction in algae could potentially lead to a shortage of food for the copepods.

Instead, he stated that while the water is passing through the turbines, whirlpools may be created, resulting in the formation of swirls. This could lead to an increase in the density of certain areas of copepods due to mixing, resulting in improved feeding prospects.

Baumgartner mentioned that determining whether offshore wind turbines have a positive or negative impact on copepods is a challenge and it may take many years to determine. This is one of the obstacles in trying to lessen any potential issues caused by the turbines.

Feds Boost Safety Measures

The final strategy from NOAA Fisheries and BOEM highlights their aims and steps to decrease the negative impact of offshore wind on North Atlantic right whales and their environment. A few proponents for the right whales say they are yet to see the associated laws that would strengthen the strategy, but they are happy that the strategy instructs regulators to steer clear of leasing new wind developments in right whale territory.

Right whale - Figure 5
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Regarding sound, the plan requires developers to decrease noise as much as possible and encourages them to perform underwater sound detection in order to detect whales at least 24 hours before any noisy construction work takes place.

Several actions are based on promises that developers made to advocacy and ocean conservation groups to safeguard right whales.

Vineyard Wind has decided to put in place certain regulations to ensure the safety of right whales in the area. These measures include limits on boat speed, a specific time frame for pile driving activity (only carried out once the right whales' main migration has concluded), and the presence of marine observers who carefully monitor the area. If a right whale is spotted by these observers, construction is halted immediately.

In the meantime, the fishing business has attempted to decrease the danger of ships colliding with marine animals and getting caught up in fishing gear, but with outcomes that are not entirely favorable.

The offshore wind sector is not a novel field. There are numerous wind turbines installed and functioning throughout Europe. Nevertheless, we cannot fully comprehend the possible impacts on whales in the North Atlantic. This is due to the scarceness, if any, of substantial baleen whales inhabiting near wind farms off the European coast.

Consequently, experts studying the right whale have no choice but to observe from afar as developers of offshore wind energy in the United States conduct a large-scale experiment.

To ensure the safety of right whales, Baumgartner and Nowacek have concurred that the most secure method is to gather a substantial amount of data as swiftly as possible. They are currently assessing the most effective ways to safeguard whales, dolphins, porpoises, and seabirds. Baumgartner expressed his desire for policymakers to use the information obtained from 100 turbines to adjust offshore wind regulations in order to protect marine life. His goal is not only to implement changes at this point, but to continue gathering and evaluating data at 500 turbines, 1,000 turbines, and beyond.

Although there are potential risks to this method, a number of specialists believe that it is worthwhile. Over six scientists and advocates for the protection of right whales agree that the most significant danger to these and other endangered species is the threat of climate change, which is exactly what offshore wind projects aim to combat.

The blog section reports that Dr. Stormy Mayo, who is a highly experienced expert in ecology, and also the leader of the ecology department at the Center for Coastal Studies located in the town of Provincetown, Massachusetts, expressed his inner conflict. He revealed that he feels a sense of dilemma regarding the offshore wind industry. His young son is a worker in the offshore wind sector, and yet, he remains anxious about how this industry could negatively affect the whales, which he has researched for a long time, around 45 years. Nevertheless, he understands that offshore wind might be the most effective measure to protect the environment.

Right whale - Figure 6
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Personally, I've always been bothered by the expansion of industry into the ocean. Offshore wind power is a prime example of this. However, after observing these creatures extensively over the years, I've come to the realization that the most pressing issue that right whales face is the influence of climate change on their habitat.

In 2017, there was a terrible event. Scientists think that like other creatures, right whales choose their path by pursuing their prey. As the temperature rises, copepods relocated to northern waters without any boat-speed restrictions or safety measures for fishing. The right whales followed them, which led to a devastating occurrence where 35 North Atlantic right whales passed away, and no new baby whales were observed.

The copepods may change their location again due to the increased effects of climate change on the ocean. This, in turn, could cause the right whales to return to hazardous areas in the water.

Climate Change And Offshore Wind Power

At the moment, there are around thirty offshore wind schemes being assessed in the United States.

Vineyard Wind has currently hooked up five turbines out of the 62 they intend to install into the grid, while South Fork Wind has successfully activated all of their 12 turbines. When these two wind farms work together, they can produce enough energy to power up approximately 470,000 households. President Joe Biden has set forth an ambitious goal - to generate enough offshore wind power to supply 10 million homes with energy by 2030. This plan aims to reduce the levels of greenhouse gas emissions and address the challenges of climate change.

As wind turbines generate energy, they don't release any CO2. However, there are emissions generated during construction, upkeep, and eventually dismantling. After considering all emissions throughout a technology's lifespan, the Department of Energy discovered that offshore wind farms generate approximately 40 times fewer CO2 emissions than natural gas to generate the same energy quantity, and about 90 times less than coal. A study revealed that the CO2 and energy required to operate offshore wind turbines were "recouped" within the first 6 to 17 months.

Up until now, the updates about whales have been positive. In November 2022, Vineyard Wind started to lay cable below Martha's Vineyard. The lease area received the first pieces of turbine components, and significant construction commenced in the fall of 2023. According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Fisheries, no signs have emerged about whales getting injured or dying from the project or any other. Similarly, South Fork has not been held responsible for any whale fatalities, despite claims circulated during a dishonest campaign in 2023.

NOAA has declared that they have no evidence to link offshore wind activities with the deaths of large whales.

Since 5120 arrived on land, the Aquinnah Wampanoag Tribe of Martha's Vineyard has been discussing how they can officially recognize her as a member of their community.

Jason Baird, the medicine man of the Tribe, stated that the land on which they reside is not restricted to the current land area only but also extends to the underwater terrain. Thus, the tribe's chief possesses an ancestral right to creatures like this that wash up on the shores. This right is well-established in the history of the tribe.

The Aquinnah Wampanoag Tribe has joined forces with NOAA fisheries and IFAW to select a forested location on their reserved land for the ceremonial blessing and burial of over five thousand creatures.

Aquinnah Wampanoag members intend to utilize some of her remains for educational and artistic purposes in approximately one year. This has provided solace to those who were concerned about her during her lifetime and after her passing.

According to veterinarian Dr. Sarah Sharp from IFAW, being aware that she is peacefully resting on their territory is an immensely strong sensation.

Discussions are still ongoing about offshore windmills and how they may impact whales. However, instead of arguing about it, scientists are dedicated to studying the situation to gain more knowledge. Their main goal is to encourage concerned individuals to direct their efforts towards what can be most effective in resolving any issues that may arise for the 5120 whales.

Sharp expressed that the current conversation on wind farms is taking away from what really matters. There is substantial evidence that whales are dying due to getting caught in objects or getting hit by ships. It is important to keep our attention on these two main factors.

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