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Offshore Wind Farms Have A Whale Of A Problem

Building undersea windmill platforms may hurt whales, dividing environmentalists over priorities — sea life or climate change?
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Greenpeace and one of its co-founders are harpooning each other over a sharp rise in whale deaths — and whether offshore wind farms are to blame. 

Greenpeace co-founder and former Greenpeace Canada president Patrick Moore believes the sonar-like devices used to map the ocean bottom and guide undersea construction seem to be harming the hearing of whales. 

“The development of these wind farms is interfering massively with the actual, known habitat of these creatures. The turbines will be inside known migratory pathways. The effect of the high-intensity acoustic pulses is unknown, and the excavations are muddying waters for what will be years on end. It is not reasonable to say there is no possibility of a causal relationship” between rising whale deaths and wind-farm construction, Moore said. “They tend to migrate south in the winter and north in the summer on certain pathways, just like many bird species do,” he said. “And in this case, they appear to be swimming back into a death zone.”

Deafened whales lose their sense of navigation and can beach themselves, die in shallow water, or strike the hulls of ships or collide with other manmade objects. Marine biologist Sylvia Earle famously said: “A deaf whale is a dead whale.” 

Conversely, Greenpeace says there is “zero evidence” that offshore construction of wind farms is harming whales, noting that “the best way to protect whales is to create ocean sanctuaries, eliminate single-use plastics at the source, and stop our dependency on oil and gas” as well ending whale hunting in arctic nations and combating climate change. 

”In response to a tragic spate of whale deaths along the East Coast, anti-science media such as FOX News, long beholden to fossil fuel corporations, has amplified the baseless claims made — with no supporting evidence — by a small group of local mayors that offshore wind farming is somehow to blame,” Greenpeace says in an unsigned editorial on its website. It does not acknowledge opposition from Moore, its one-time ally.

Founded in 1971, Greenpeace was created to oppose nuclear testing in Alaska. By 1975, Greenpeace had launched its first major whale campaign. It soon became a signature issue for the nonprofit.

A dead beached whale is seen on Rockaway Beach on December 13, 2022 in the Queens borough of New York City. The cause of death was unclear. BRYAN BEDDEN/GETTY IMAGES

Moore believes “Greenpeace has betrayed the mission of its founders. They are protecting machinery instead of wild whales. Greenpeace says the best way to protect whales is to create ocean sanctuaries. Perhaps it would be a good idea to put the ocean sanctuaries where the whales are.”

The debate has gotten personal and conspiratorial. 

Greenpeace has distanced itself from Moore, claiming he “has been a paid spokesperson for a variety of polluting industries for more than 30 years,” and that he joined Greenpeace “after the organization had already been in existence for years.” Moore counters Greenpeace “only disavowed me when I came out in favor of nuclear energy in an [April 2006] op-ed in The Washington Post.”  

Greenpeace International’s 2007 website listed Moore as one of the organization’s five founders. Moore can be seen in a photograph of five men Greenpeace describes as depicting “the very first Greenpeace voyage, which departed Vancouver on the 15th September 1971.”

There is little doubt that whale deaths, in the Atlantic, are on pace to set a new record. Some 23 dead whales have washed up on beaches or been found floating lifeless in shallow waters from Maine to the Carolinas since January 2023, according to the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Association — known universally as NOAA — the federal agency responsible for regulating ocean use and safeguarding sea life.

Those 23 whale deaths represent the highest number since 2017, which set a record of 34 whale deaths that year on the Eastern Seaboard. If present trends continue, whale deaths could set a new record this year. For some whale species, this pushes them closer to extinction. Fewer than 350 of the endangered North Atlantic right whales remain.

Local reports, not yet counted in NOAA’s totals, show additional whale deaths. Recently, a dead Humpback whale was found off Breezy Point, New York, and another off Seaside Park, New Jersey. A mortally wounded endangered Northern right whale was spotted near Rodanthe, North Carolina, on January 8. A humpback whale corpse was found in Cape Charles, on Virginia’s eastern shore, according to NOAA reports. An endangered 43-foot-long right whale was found dead on the sands of Virginia Beach on February 13, close to a test wind farm and multiple wind-lease areas being surveyed using high-intensity low frequency sonar devices.

America’s first offshore wind farm, off the coast of Rhode Island, began operations in 2016 — right before whale deaths surged and along the north-south migration pathway for whales. Of course, the nearness of dead whales to wind farms does not prove a connection between the two, nor does it disprove it— prompting the debate between Moore and Greenpeace and dividing environmentalists and federal officials.

The debate will continue to intensify. Up and down the East Coast, another 3,000 wind turbines are slated to be built along the same route, which generally traces the coastline and the Gulf Stream currents. Putting wind farms near the shore makes them cheaper to build and easier to maintain than deep-ocean projects, thereby setting up a conflict between where the whales want to go and where the engineers want to build. 

Wind farm construction coincides with what NOAA calls an “unusual mortality event” for whales. The causes for whale deaths are debated both inside and outside NOAA. The agency itself lists a number of likely culprits: whale contact with ships, nets, cables and other human artifacts. 

One potential suspect in whale deaths is not mentioned by NOAA, the politically powerful wind-farm industry. Meanwhile, NOAA continues to issue expedited “harassment” and “take” permits for the harming of marine life, including whales, to companies building offshore wind farms — a tacit admission that wind-farm construction impacts whales. 

Finding the causes for the increase in whale deaths may “take months to years to complete,” Marine Mammal Emergency Response Coordinator Mendy Garron of NOAA told the press. 

For some, the debate turns on eco-priorities. Wind farms are designed to provide a renewable and clean source of electricity and are intended to replace coal-fired and oil-burning plants, reducing America’s air pollution and climate change risks. Without wind turbines, it’s hard to imagine a transition to a “clean energy future.” To others, saving whales from a for-profit industry is paramount.

Thus, the debate is widening from Greenpeace to the entire environmental movement, generally pitting well-funded national groups against struggling local ones. Sierra Club and other national groups have sided with wind-power companies, citing climate change as the No. 1 threat to the environment. Protect Our Coast New Jersey, based in Ocean City, and other local groups see saving whales as the environmental priority. 

Ever since the snail darter, a then-endangered fish about twice the size of a paper clip, delayed the construction of the Tellico Dam in Tennessee in the 1970s, the green movement was unified in championing wildlife over energy projects. Now, the movement is divided, with some favoring wildlife and others saying the renewable energy projects pose no risk — the very kind of argument the Tellico Dam supporters unfurled 40 years ago. What was once a fight between greens and energy companies is now a fight within the environmental movement itself. 

Deepwater Wind offshore wind farm at Block Island, Rhode Island in 2016. MARK HARRINGTON/NEWSDAY RM/GETTY IMAGES

“Human interaction” held responsible

Even before construction can begin on the thousands of offshore windmills scheduled along the North Atlantic coast, crews must generate high-intensity acoustic pulses in order to map what is on and beneath the ocean floor.

Whales use sound to communicate with each other and navigate; they can die if disoriented. SONAR and other high-intensity sounds can cause death at close range for whales and hearing loss and internal organ damage at greater ranges. Both harms ultimately endanger the life of the whale, because it loses the ability to navigate the ocean depths.

Pro-wind farm groups point out that NOAA blames whale deaths on “human interaction” rather than wind-farm construction. NOAA and U.S. Navy studies have shown that high-intensity sound pulses can bombard marine life, including whales, and may cause them to throw themselves against the hulls of ships or onto the beaches. Vessel strikes, entanglement and hearing damage are not mutually exclusive causes of death. 

A Fight within NOAA

NOAA acknowledges on its website that whale deaths have multiple causes, including wind farm construction. “Ocean noise from human activities such as shipping, boating, construction and energy exploration and development has increased in the Northwest Atlantic. Noise from these activities can interrupt the normal behavior of right whales and interfere with their communication. It may also reduce their ability to detect and avoid predators and human hazards, navigate, identify physical surroundings, find food and find mates.”

Yet, NOAA does not officially align wind-farm related activity with whale deaths. Benjamin Laws, deputy chief for permits and construction at NOAA, says: “We do not have evidence that would support the connection between the survey work and these recent stranding events or any stranding events in the last several years.”

Still there is disagreement within the agency. A recently disclosed memo reveals that in May 2022, Dr. Sean Hayes, Chief of Protected Species at NOAA, warned the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management: “The development of offshore wind poses risks to these species (right whales), which is magnified in southern New England waters, due to species abundance and distribution.”

“These risks occur at varying stages,” writes Hayes, “including construction and development, and include increased noise, vessel traffic, habitat modifications, water withdrawals associated with certain sub-stations and resultant impingement/entrainment of zooplankton, changes in fishing effort and related potential increased entanglement risk.”

Mariners Perspective

Captain Lance Dildine, who has worked in the whale-watching tourist industry, said ship operators are always cautious. “Humpbacks, for instance, blow, and we look for these signs and stay away for their safety. We also try to predict how pods are moving in order that we never intercept them. These deaths are a major concern for all of us.”

“This is not a political issue,” says Captain Tim Ferrie, president of the United New Jersey Sandy Hook Pilot’s Benevolent Association. “With the whale situation, we’re hoping for a solution. Our job is to bring vessels to where they need to be, safely, but of course we also care about the whales. We are professional mariners and are stewards of the environment.”

Dark money

Fueling the fire, both sides of the whales-wind farm debate accuse the other of receiving “dark money” from fossil-fuel companies. In reality, energy companies have invested heavily in wind farms, with companies like Shell and BP building their wind portfolios, and virtually all offshore wind farms are funded by taxpayer dollars.

“These groups fighting offshore wind say it’s about whales—but they’re funded by Big Oil,” says a Fast Company article summarizing the claims of pro-wind power groups, contending that the nonprofit Protect Our Coast NJ is “connected to a right-wing think tank seemingly motivated by a different goal: curbing the offshore wind industry.”

Denying that her group receives any corporate backing of any kind, Protect Our Coast NJ founding member Suzanne Hornickis said: “The offshore wind industry is a branching out of companies like Shell and Orsted Energy,” which are energy and construction multinationals that produce or use large amounts of fossil fuels.

Lisa Lenowes of WindAction, and its umbrella group Save Right Whales, both of which are “fighting to stop the threat to the proven habitat of North Atlantic right whales,” denies any corporate links. “We have never received, been offered, or asked for any monies from any industry of any kind, energy or otherwise.” 

While the finger pointing between environmental groups continues, the mystery of increasing whale deaths deepens.

Green vs. Green

John Hocevar, oceans director for Greenpeace, says Moore and others calling for a moratorium on wind-farm construction are now part of a “cynical disinformation campaign.”

“Blaming offshore wind projects on whale mortality without evidence is not only irresponsible but overshadows the very real threats … to these animals,” said Anjuli Ramos-Buscot, New Jersey director of the Sierra Club, in a prepared statement. “There have been many mitigation techniques identified for reducing the threat of offshore wind development to whales and other wildlife. We should focus on implementing these while continuing to push for clean energy.”

Are wind farms getting a green pass? Or a license to kill?

“We are often told these are ship-strikes, and they have nothing do with offshore wind,” said Bonnie Brady of the Long Island Commercial Fishing Association. “But there are multiple survey boats out there zigzagging back and forth through these lease areas, over 1 million acres of leased ocean bottom, harassing whales with low-frequency pulses right where they breathe, feed, and nurse. A whale that can’t hear is far more likely to get hit by a ship.”

“The government has not done environmental due diligence,” said Cindy Zipf, executive director of Clean Ocean Action pointing to some 31 power projects, 3500 turbines, 2.2 million acres of ocean and ten thousand miles of cable to be laid. “Eleven companies were given permits to do this pre-construction activity off the New York /New Jersey coast. The projects are well underway, we are in the midst of an unprecedented whale and dolphin die-off… Isn’t it plausible that there may be a connection?”

She cites no specific study or government finding establishing the connection. 

A dead humpback whale washed up on Brigantine Beach, New Jersey, in early March 2023.  (Courtesy of FranklIn Raff)

Muddy Science

One reason it’s hard to settle the controversy is that NOAA has specified that whale necropsies may be made public only at the discretion of the responding agency, unless a federal investigation is underway. Thirty mayors in New York and New Jersey have called for such an investigation and for an immediate halt to offshore wind-farm survey work. Others suggest there may be cronyism in reporting, pointing out that stranding centers are sometimes funded by wind companies or have board members who are actively engaged in the offshore wind industry.

An agreed-upon problem is the time it takes to process information about whale deaths. The acoustic structures of ears, for instance, which for baleen whales are inside the skull, should be examined within 24 hours of death or delicate tissues may decay making the cause of death all but impossible to determine. The internal organs of dead whales are not always professionally examined to find a cause of death.

Wind-Farm Work Begins

The prospect of jobs also drives the political debate. Hundreds of wind-farm related jobs are currently posted online at Indeed, LinkedIn, ZipRecruiter and The Biden administration promises the creation of “up to 25,000 development and construction jobs from 2022 to 2030,” as well as “up to 4,000 operations and maintenance jobs annually.”

The Biden Administration has announced lease agreements and a general initiative to place wind farms along the Atlantic Coast, partnering with 11 Eastern states. Thousands of turbines and platforms are slated to be pile-driven into the ocean floor, along with associated offshore substations, some employing seawater systems that intake more than 8 million gallons of water per day, releasing it as 90-degree effluent. Thousands of miles of undersea cables are also scheduled to be jet-ploughed into the ocean bottom.

Whales were hunted almost to extinction in the 19th century, when whale oil was prized as a source of light in homes and offices. Then Edison’s light bulb, and the fossil fuels that powered electric generation, turned commercial attention away from the whales. Now a new “energy transformation” may be bringing humans back into competition with whales. 

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