Environmentalists question developers’ plan to kill 157,000 marine mammals

Six endangered whales ended up dead on beaches recently and several environmental protection groups want to know if that is related to Governor Phil Murphy’s rush into offshore wind energy development.

As the stench of a dead whale hung in the air, environmentalists gathered on the beach where the marine mammal washed ashore to call for a federal investigation to determine whether such deaths in New Jersey and New York are related to offshore wind projects.

The White House set a goal of significantly increasing the nation’s offshore wind energy capacity to 30 gigawatts by 2030, but environmentalists from the two states wrote President Joe Biden requesting a probe of the unusually high number of deaths of marine mammals.

Six whales have washed ashore in a 33-day period in areas being prepared for large-scale offshore wind farms.

The environmentalists want a halt to site work until officials determine the cause of the whales’ deaths.

Cindy Zipf of Clean Ocean Action, called the number of recent whale deaths unprecedented and said she was joined by Protect Our Coast NJ, Save Long Beach Island, Defend Brigantine Beach, and the Long Island Commercial Fishing Association in calling on Biden to take immediate steps to address this alarming and environmentally harmful trend.

“Is it an omen?” she asked. “Is it an alarm? Never before have we had six whales wash up in 33 days.”

Zipf said survey boats explore the ocean floor using focused pulses of low-frequency sound in the same frequency that whales hear and communicate, which could potentially harm or disorient the animals.

“Before building 3,400 turbines and installing 10,000 miles of cable on the ocean floor, developers should pay the government to conduct a comprehensive, reasonable and responsible pilot project to assess the harm to marine life,” said environmental advocate Lisa McCormick, a frequent critic of the administration. “Governor Phil Murphy’s rush into offshore wind energy development and building in the ocean at that pace and magnitude would be reckless unless we rule out the possibility that it will have dire consequences.”

McCormick said more than one million acres of the ocean has already been leased to develop offshore wind energy off the New York and New Jersey coasts, where dozens of construction projects are being fast-tracked.

“Our state should support responsible offshore wind energy,” said McCormick, who added: “but unreasonable and reckless privatization will endanger marine life including whales, dolphins, turtles, and hundreds of other species that call the ocean home.”

Offshore wind developers have applied for authorization to harass, harm or even kill as many as 157,000 marine mammals off the two states, but while permits have been issued McCormick said critics have largely been ignored by government officials.

The stench from the decaying animal remained powerful, even though a heavy layer of sand covered the beach in Atlantic City where the carcass of a whale was buried.

The animal washed ashore over the weekend in front of the Boardwalk arena that was once the venue for the Miss America competition.

A prominent marine mammal stranding expert said that while the cause of the deaths is unknown, it could be a simple function of a larger-than-normal number of whales in the area this winter, with the number of deaths rising proportionately.

And a federal agency, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration said that to date, no humpback whale — the species accounting for most of the recent whale deaths in New Jersey and New York — has been found to have been killed due to offshore wind activities.

New Jersey is trying to be the East Coast leader i offshore wind energy. State officials approved three offshore wind farms and are soliciting more during the first quarter of this year.

More similar projects are planned off the New York coast.

Orsted, the Danish wind power developer that will build two of those three approved projects, said its current work off the New Jersey coast does not involve using sounds or other actions that could disturb whales.

“As the world’s most sustainable energy company, we prioritize coexistence with our communities and marine wildlife,” said Maddy Urbish, Orsted’s top New Jersey lobbyist. “When offshore, we combine human surveillance and state-of-the-art technical equipment to avoid any impact on marine wildlife as we build projects to advance New Jersey’s clean energy ambitions.

The groups’ demands came after a 30-foot (9-meter) humpback whale washed ashore Saturday in Atlantic City. Another young humpback whale washed up a few blocks away on Dec. 23, and a third 30-foot-long (9-meter) humpback was found on a beach in Strathmere, New Jersey on Dec. 10.

Marine Mammal Stranding Center director Sheila Dean, environmental advocate Lisa McCormick, and CindyZipf of Clean Ocean Action

An infant sperm whale, 12 feet (3.6 meters) long, was found dead on the beach in Keansburg, New Jersey on Dec. 5; a 31-foot-long (9.4 meters) humpback was found dead on Indian Wells Beach in Amagansett, New York on Dec. 6; and a 30-foot (9-meter) sperm whale was found on New York’s Rockaway Beach on Dec. 12.

The Marine Mammal Stranding Center, located just north of Atlantic City in Brigantine, responded to the city’s two recent whale deaths.

Sheila Dean, the center’s director, said it is not yet known what caused the deaths, pending post-mortem tests. But she noted that many variables could be in play, including underwater sonar use by the military, the prevalence of plastic pollution in the ocean, and the ever-present danger of collisions with ships.

Dean also said there is an above-normal number of whales in the region right now because their food sources are still in the area. That could simply mean that with a larger total population, a corresponding number of deaths could be taking place, she hypothesized.

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.

NOAA spokesperson Lauren Gaches said that the whales have been dying since before offshore wind preparation activities commenced in the region.

About 40% of the dead animals presented evidence of having been struck by a ship or being entangled in ropes, lines and fishing gear.

Gaches said the agency has not authorized any “incidental” harm to marine mammals due to offshore wind activities that include injuring or killing the animals, adding “to date, no humpback whale mortality has been attributed to offshore wind activities.”

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