Unfounded and Premature: Correlating Wind Turbine Construction with Whale Mortalities

For Immediate Release

Media Contact: Anjuli.Ramos@sierraclub.org, allison.mcleod@njlcv.org‬, eileen.murphy@njaudubon.org, paulyfish@reeltherapy.com, jweber@surfrider.org, agoldsmith@cleanwater.org, heidi@pinelandsalliance.org

In the past two months, there have been seven whales, all endangered species, washed-up in the New Jersey and New York coastal region. A broad coalition of environmental organizations agree it’s important to discover why we’re seeing increased whale mortalities in New Jersey and surrounding areas; however, they believe that correlating it to wind turbine site exploration is unfounded and premature. The coalition encourages more research into the potential impacts of these turbines and their construction on wildlife but don’t believe plans for future production should be halted unless a direct correlation is uncovered and proven.

Over the years, humpback whales have gone from uncommon to common off the New Jersey shore. Rutgers research shows humpback whales returning to sites off the New York and New Jersey coast. Each year, more whales will learn and copy this behavior from others, which could explain why we’re seeing more and more each year. Additionally, “the habitat use and surface foraging behavior of juvenile humpback whales may make them particularly vulnerable to vessel strikes in nearshore waters.” Research shows an increasing population of humpback whales off the coasts of New York and New Jersey. The increase in strandings could be a proportionate response to an increase in population, especially if we’re seeing more juveniles. 

NOAA said it has been studying what it calls “unusual mortality events” involving 174 humpback whales along the entire U.S. East Coast since January 2016, long before there were exploration vessels for offshore wind development. Agency spokesperson Lauren Gaches said, “that period pre-dates offshore wind preparation activities in the region.”

“Blaming offshore wind projects on whale mortality without evidence is not only irresponsible but overshadows the very real threats of climate change, plastic pollution, and unsustainable fishery management practices to these animals. 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. These include specific turbine configurations and entanglement deterrents,” said Anjuli Ramos- Busot, New Jersey Director of the Sierra Club. 

“As a former professional marine mammal observer with a background in marine science and biology, I am alarmed and deeply concerned with the recent whale strandings on our shores - as we all should be. We need to base our decision making on science and data, not emotions or assumptions. Professionals from the Marine Mammal Stranding Center have indicated the juvenile humpback in Atlantic City had a head injury, likely suffered from a vessel strike. The vessels on this offshore wind survey, which are equipped with marine mammal observers, have not reported any such incidents. It is therefore irresponsible to assign blame to offshore wind energy development before a routine full investigation is completed,” said Allison McLeod, New Jersey LCV Policy Director. “New Jersey LCV continues to advocate for responsible offshore wind development that is in full compliance with the Marine Mammal Protection Act. We are confident that the professionals involved will determine an accurate cause of death for each of the mammals, as ship strikes and entanglements from abandoned fishing gear continue to be a concern for our marine life. We also thank the many scientific and emergency management teams that responded for their dedication to protecting our resources.” 

“Wildlife deaths of any kind concern us and should be fully investigated to prevent further impacts,” said Eileen Murphy, PhD., VP Government Relations for NJ Audubon. “And it is important to understand the true cause of these deaths. Erroneous assumptions do not help us to prevent future deaths but lead us to dead ends. Undoubtedly, there will be more wildlife deaths with the continued use of fossil fuels than with the use of renewable energy sources like offshore wind. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration has been studying the uptick of whale deaths in NJ and NY since 2016 and must continue to investigate. And we must continue to protect sensitive species by ensuring that the planned offshore wind projects are responsibly sited and developed.”

“As an owner/operator of a NJ based fishing charter business and founder of the forage fish conservation group Menhaden Defenders, I have spent a lot of time on the water with the humpbacks and the news of the whale strandings touches me on a deeply personal level,” said Capt. Paul Eidman. “The reality is our oceans are changing, rapidly. I’m seeing more prey for fish and whales in near shore habitats, and warming waters are changing the distribution of whales and other marine wildlife, leading to increased interactions in one of the busiest shipping channels in the country. Continuing to burn fossil fuels for electricity, polluting our air and waters is a major failure – for whales, fish, wildlife and people. A transition to renewable energy from responsibly developed offshore wind and solar power is the fastest way to mitigate and address this lethal destruction of our environment and harm to all creatures.”

“All marine mammal deaths are investigated by the proper authority in each state, and in NJ it is the Marine Mammal Stranding Center”, said John Weber, Mid Atlantic Regional Manager of the Surfrider Foundation. “The responsible thing is to be patient and let them do their work. In time, we will all know the likely cause of these deaths whether it is a ship strike, plastic pollution, or whatever. To call for a federal investigation is unnecessary because the federally authorized and federally funded Marine Mammal Stranding Center will automatically investigate these deaths as they do for all whale deaths.”

"You know what the greatest threat to whales is? Climate change! New Jersey has been blessed to have more whales thriving off our shores the past few years but that means we're also cursed with more dead whales washing up on our shores. Given the climate emergency and other threats to endangered species, we can't speculate, we must apply sound science and the precautionary principle all the time,” said Amy Goldsmith, NJ State Director of Clean Water Action. “We must advance offshore wind responsibly and quickly, and that's what New Jersey is doing. We must investigate and apply lessons learned from these strandings too. Promoting offshore wind and saving the whales are part of a multi-tiered effort to get off dirty fossil fuels, create good jobs, and protect our precious natural resources from beautiful ocean views to the awesome wildlife beneath them." 

“Last year there were 18 such strandings along the Atlantic coast of the US—for better or worse, the situation in New Jersey is not exceptional,” said Heidi Yeh, M.S., Policy Director, Pinelands Preservation Alliance. “The recent humpback whale strandings and mortalities in New Jersey are the tip of the iceberg of an unusual mortality event (UME) that has been occurring since 2016. It is disingenuous to ignore this context in an attempt to lay the blame on offshore wind development that has barely begun. We must work to address the real causes behind many of these mortalities, which we know are commonly caused by ship strikes or entanglement in derelict fishing gear. The body count will be even higher if we do not address climate change, which presents a myriad of threats to the continued survival of these whales.”