It wasn’t quite ‘a break the glass’ emergency moment but in a recent letter to the National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration Senators Cory Booker and Robert Menendez warned that a “concerning number of whale deaths along the Atlantic Coast” could be the harbinger of extinction for certain species of the extraordinary mammals.
In a March 28 letter to Janet Coit, the assistant administrator for Fisheries National Marine Fisheries, New Jersey’s Senators, along with their colleagues Richard Blumenthal (D-CT), Jeff Merkley (D-OR), and Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI) signaled a sense of urgency writing that “accessibility, transparency, and timeliness” was of the utmost importance when it came to “NOAA’s whale injury and death reporting.”
The Democratic Senators referenced what NOAA describes as an “unusual mortality event” along the Atlantic coast from Maine through Florida where there had been 178 cases where dead whales washed ashore, from Maine to Florida with New Jersey accounting for 22 of them since 2016.
“However, in recent months, there has been a concerning number of whale deaths along the Atlantic coast. From North Carolina to Nova Scotia, Canada, more than 20 whales have died since December 2022,” the Democratic Senators warned. “If the death trajectory continues, particularly amongst juvenile individuals, species will begin to disappear. There are fewer than 340 NARWs (North Atlantic right whales) remaining, including fewer than 70 breeding females, and without action, the NARW will likely go extinct.”
DEAD WHALE PILE UP
Since December, the pace has accelerated dramatically with at least ten whales washing up dead just on the New Jersey coastline, sparking a fierce partisan debate on the future of our state’s ambitious wind power program to build three off-shore wind turbines farms capable to provide enough carbon-free electricity to power 1.5 million homes.
March 1st Rep. Jeff Van Drew blasted the Biden administration “for its continual lack of transparency…. about the correlation of offshore wind development and the death of endangered whales.”
In his press release, Van Drew linked to an internal letter from 2022, that was addressed to Brian Hooker, the lead biologist of the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM) from Sean Hayes, the Chief of Protected Species at National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) addressing the decades long impact offshore wind will have on North Atlantic right whales in southern New England.
“These risks occur at varying stages, including construction and development, and include increased noise, vessel traffic, habitat modifications, water withdrawals associated with certain substations and resultant impingement/entrainment of zooplankton, changes in fishing effort and related potential increased entanglement risk, and oceanographic changes that may disrupt the distribution, abundance, and availability of typical right whale food,” Hayes wrote.
The NOAA expert’s correspondence continued. “The focus of this memo is on operational effects, and as such, focuses on potential oceanographic impacts driving right whale prey distribution, but also acknowledges increased risks due to increased vessel traffic and noise. However, unlike vessel traffic and noise, which can be mitigated to some extent, oceanographic impacts from installed and operating turbines cannot be mitigated for the 30-year lifespan of the project, unless they are decommissioned.”
“They refuse to acknowledge that their plan to ‘save the world’ through alternative energy sources will have detrimental and catastrophic effects on our environment and marine animals,” Van Drew wrote in his press release that pledged hearings. “But, as long as these offshore wind companies make their profits under the guise of stopping climate change, I guess it doesn’t matter to this administration. Accountability is coming.”
On March 16, at the Wildwood Convention Center in Ocean County, an unusual Congressional field hearing was convened by Van Drew, along with fellow Republican Reps. Chris Smith (NJ), Andy Harris (MD), and Scott Perry (PA) that drew 400 people according to the Asbury Park Press.
The construction of the massive wind farms turbines, which can range between 466 feet to close to 850 feet tall, considerably taller than the 305-foot story Statue of Liberty, are the centerpiece of Gov. Phil Murphy’s ambitious climate change agenda.
The multiple whale deaths in such a short period of time proved divisive within the environmental movement at a pivotal time when the climate crisis appears to be accelerating. Meanwhile, billions of dollars in dark money from nefarious corporate sources can produce pseudo-science and swells of online conspiracy theories which can have a gravitational pull-on public opinion.
At Van Drew’s SRO hearing in Wildwood, Cindy Zipf, executive director of Clean Ocean Action, called for a pilot program to study what the potential impact of a commercial scale wind turbine farms would have on marine mammals that appear to be already under significant ecological stress, according to the Asbury Park Press.
“Climate change is real,” Zipf testified at the hearing. “Reducing fossil fuel (use) is critical toward this goal… Now while some offshore wind may hold promise, federal and state agencies have moved forward without public transparency, robust and sound science, and good governance.”
Zipf, a long-time environmental activist, went on to warn that there was not enough attention being paid by regulators to the unanticipated consequences from the vessel traffic, ocean noise, and the alteration of ocean flows and sea floor habitat that would result from the offshore energy projects, the newspaper recounted.
WIND POWER RESISTER
For Rep. Van Drew, a former Democrat who switched parties as a sign of allegiance to Donald Trump, before the former president incited the Jan. 6 Insurrection, the hearing was a chance to channel his inner Theodore Roosevelt, the Republican conservationist, trust buster and white supremacist,
“I want to thank you all for joining us here today for the launch of a congressional investigation into offshore wind,” NJ Spotlight reported Van Drew said as he opened the hearing. “We call it offshore wind industrialization.”
It was a curious turn with Van Drew positioning himself as the anti-big project protector of the world’s largest mammals looking to check the “cold blooded capitalist” Gov. Murphy designs on a vast swath of our horizon line.
It works for his “Don’t Tread on Me” base already fearing their own imminent extinction and provides an opening for his re-invention with voters whose life experience has taught them that when big business and the government lock arms mammals of all sizes and description can be put at risk.
Case in point, the bi-partisan beltway corruption that enabled Norfolk Southern to serve up a mass dose of vinyl chloride for the unsuspecting people along the railroad right of way in East Palestine, Ohio.
So far, overwhelmingly the state’s environmental groups have rallied to protect Murphy’s windfarm vision which could dramatically cut the state’s carbon emissions while adding as many as 10,000 jobs by 2045.
At a Jan.17 press conference on the Atlantic City Boardwalk, representatives from the NJ League of Conservation Voters, the New Jersey Sierra Club, the Association of New Jersey Environmental Commissions, the New Jersey Organizing Project, Anglers for Off-Shore Wind and the GreenFaith Alliance took their turn making the case against suspending the work despite the groundings.
“The number one threat facing our marine ecosystem today, including marine mammals, is climate change and offshore wind and access to clean energy and our transition to clean energy is one of the most important tools that we have in order to protect the entirety of our ecosystem including marine mammals,” Alison McLeod, the public policy director for the NJ League of Conservation Voters.
McLeod added that preliminary reports indicted the recent whale deaths were linked to vessel strikes, something that’s become increasingly more common as the whales shifted northward as the Atlantic’s ambient water temperature has risen.
Jennifer Coffey, the executive director of the Association of New Jersey Environmental Commissions, told reporters that the leading cause of whale deaths were vessel strikes, entanglements with abandoned fishing nets, and the ingestion of plastics which have proliferated in the world’s oceans.
“We also know that plastic pollution is a growing cause of death killing 100,000 marine mammals and one million sea birds each year—time and time again we have seen whales die from malnutrition with stomachs full of plastics washing up on our beaches,” Coffey told reporters. “The World Economic Forum has said that by 2050, when my 13-year-old niece will be younger than I am now, we will have more plastic than fish in our ocean unless we make major changes now.”
Capt. Paul Eidman (pictured), a member of Anglers for Offshore Wind and the Anglers Conservation Network told reporters the spate of whale deaths in the broader context of the climate crisis.
“I have been looked at right in the eye four times [by a whale] and these are highly intelligent and sensitive creatures—these experiences are more memorable than the fishing trips and my interaction with a humpback whale remains special and precious to me,” Eidman said. “Warming waters are in part responsible for increasing the human whale contacts and a threat to numerous species around the globe to say nothing about the threat of sea level rise, flooding, and storm activity along our Jersey shore.”
Last month, Ocean County commissioners voted to support a moratorium on offshore wind development, a day after State Sen. Vince Polistina, (R-Atlantic) “called on the Murphy administration to impose a 30-day pause on work to build a network of offshore wind turbines, giving scientists further time to study their environmental effects,” the Atlantic City Press reported.
The county’s move was prompted after a dead 35-foot female humpback whale washed up in Manasquan, Monmouth County, at that point the ninth dead whale in the NJ/NY metro area this winter. The graphic images of the whale corpse sparked conversations about the potential “adverse effects on the local $7 billion tourism industry” and “the state’s $2.5 billion commercial fishing industry,” according to the newspaper.
Back in January, reporting on the pro-wind farm environmental groups was countered by pushback from Clean Ocean Action.
“We have had more beached whales in a month than in a year upon average, so we are very concerned about the unprecedented number of whales being washed up dead on our beaches in a short period of time,” Clean Ocean Action Advocacy Campaign Manager Kari Martin told NJ Spotlight News.
Martin told the public TV news outlet that she was concerned that the whale groundings were linked to the offshore wind surveying crews use of sonar sound waves to map the underwater terrain might be a culprit.
Back in 2002, Science reported on a landmark research study conducted by the U.S. Navy and the U.S. National Marine Fisheries Service that concluded the Navy had “killed at least six whales in an accident involving common ship-based sonars.”
“For decades, marine mammal scientists have suspected that sonar pings produced by military ships may have played a role in a half-dozen unusual strandings of beaked whales, toothy marine mammals that often feed deep in the ocean,” Science reported. “In each case, researchers discovered the beached whales shortly after nearby military sonar exercises, but the remains were always too decayed to reveal evidence of sound-energy injuries.”
Science continued. “In an interim report released Dec. 20, 2001, Navy and NMFS scientists conclude that the strandings were caused by an ‘unusual combination’ of factors, including sea-bottom contours and water conditions that may have channeled and magnified sonar pings. While the researchers could not pinpoint exactly how the sound energy injured the whales’ ears or tissues, the acoustic assault appears to have left some dazed and confused, causing them to swim ashore or become vulnerable to shark attack.”
Asked about the sonar issue, back in January, ANJEC’s Coffey, said the offshore wind survey crews don’t use the same the sonar blasting used by the Navy. “This is a different technology and there are mounds and years of scientific research from Alaska to the Gulf Coast looking at geo-technical surveying—and all the research shows it is outside the hearing range of whales,” Coffey said.
Off-shore wind power projects come under the regulatory jurisdiction of the U.S. Bureau of Ocean Energy Management that oversees the “development of U.S. Outer Continental Shelf energy and mineral resources in an environmentally and economically responsible way,” according to its website. Each wind project has to file an environmental impact system.
The Brigantine based Marine Mammal Stranding Center was founded in 1978 and is the sole federally credentialed animal hospital in New Jersey that can handle shore stranded marine mammals and sea turtles.
“Vessel strikes and entanglement in fishing gear are the largest known human threats to whales of all species,” MMSC’s Facebook page reported. “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.”
According to MMSC, there are currently a “high number of large whales in the waters off New Jersey, likely attracted by prey (small fish) that are also attracting stripers, so we advise boaters to go slowly (less than 10 knots) and keep a lookout for whales. There is currently a voluntary slow zone in effect for the waters off New York and New Jersey. There are also active Seasonal Management Areas (where all vessels 65 feet or longer must travel at 10 knots or less) off the ports of New York/New Jersey and Delaware Bay.”
According to Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, a non-profit advocacy group, federal regulators have failed to implement the “decisive measures” necessary to protect them “due in part to fishing industry opposition.”
“Due to a combination of increasing coastal ship traffic, smaller crew size, bigger vessels and faster speeds, fatal collisions between ships and whales are on the rise,” according to PEER. “Federal agencies are resisting actions designed to protect whales from collisions with ships. As a result, fatal ship strikes on whales are becoming a leading threat to survival. Deafening underwater noise levels also prevent whales from hearing approaching propellers.”
Two years ago NOAH report flagged non-compliance with suggested vessel speed limits as a top risk to the already endangered North Atlantic right whale population which is down to just 400. These whales can range from 45 to 55 feet long and weigh 70 tons.
Between the warming of the ocean, and the whales increasing migration to our Mid-Atlantic coastline, these exquisite creatures are being drawn into one of the busiest and greediest commercial shipping lanes at risk of becoming floating roadkill on the altar of same day delivery.