Drilling foundations for offshore wind turbines and sound pulses used to prepare for the 900-foot towers may be creating a “death zone” for whales, a former Greenpeace chief claims.
Patrick Moore, a co-founder of Greenpeace and its ex-president in Canada, believes the acoustic systems used by vessels surveying the ocean floor harm the marine mammals’ sense of hearing – risking their crucial ability to navigate, and leading to more dead whales washing up onshore.
His intervention comes after four minke whale corpses were discovered between Thursday and Sunday in New York and New England, one of them on Friday in Moriches Bay, close to Westhampton, Long Island.
The four-day run of death began in Eastham, on Cape Cod, Mass., on Thursday, with a second minke found at York, Maine, on Friday, and the final corpse at Gloucester, Mass. on Sunday.
At least 36 “large” whales have washed up along the East Coast since Dec. 1, according to data from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
It tracks the deaths of “large” species in the Atlantic including minke, humpback, bowhead, fin, sei, sperm and blue North Atlantic right whales.
The toll of whale deaths includes 16 humpbacks thus far in 2023, seven of them found along the New Jersey shore.
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration declared an “unusual mortality event” among humpbacks in January 2016.
This year’s mortalities are on pace to shatter 2017’s tally of 34, federal data shows.
The overall scale of whale deaths could be even worse: NOAA does not have a public tracker for toothed whales, such as narwhals and beluga whales.
Republican lawmakers in New Jersey said last week they wanted a 60-day moratorium on offshore wind farm development to investigate any possible link to the rash of carcasses.
Massive offshore wind turbines up to 900-feet tall have been given the go-ahead off both New York and New Jersey, as part of moves to increase renewable energy production.
In New York, cable-laying for the South Fork Wind Farm, about 35 miles east of Montauk Point began in March while in New Jersey, large areas off the Jersey Shore are zoned for turbines.
Moore voiced support for the Republicans’ concern, saying that survey work – which uses acoustic pulses to scan the seabed ahead of drilling for the turbines – is risky for whales.
“The effect of the high-intensity acoustic pulses is unknown, and the excavations are muddying waters for what will be years on end,” Moore said. “It is not unreasonable to say there is no possibility of a causal relationship.”
Whales and other endangered species impacted by the acoustic pulses could be guided to their demise, with possible strandings in shallow water, striking vessels or getting entangled in fishing gear, Moore said.
“They tend to migrate south in the winter and north in the summer on certain pathways, just like birds,” he continued. “And it in this case, they appear to be swimming back into a death zone.”
Offshore wind vessels typically use high-resolution geophysical (HRG) surveys during siting efforts, utilizing a “suite of active sound sources” to obtain images of the seafloor and other geophysical features.
Two offshore wind farms are currently operating in US waters. Block Island Wind Farm off Rhode Island, which has five turbines, has been online since late 2016. The Coastal Virginia Offshore Wind Project, which has two turbines off Virginia Beach, has been fully operational since fall 2020.
New Jersey state Sen. Anthony Bucco, R-Boonton, noted that the feds started tracking the spate of dead humpbacks along the East Coast since 2016 – the same year Rhode Island’s Block Island Wind Farm went operational.
“There’s too much of a coincidence here to ignore, and we continue to rapidly push forward,” Bucco told The Post.
“This activity off our coast is only going to dramatically increase as they begin pile-driving and installing these wind turbines. So if this is having an effect on our marine mammals now, it could be catastrophic when that work begins.”
Democratic Gov. Phil Murphy has made offshore wind a top priority during his administration, setting a goal in late 2019 for New Jersey to generate 7,500 megawatts of offshore wind energy by 2035.
The state’s Board of Public Utilities has awarded more than 3,750 megawatts of offshore wind power potential, or enough to power more than 3.2 million homes. One of the state’s two projects, Ocean Wind 1, which will be 15 miles off Atlantic City, could be operational as soon as next year.
Massachusetts is the only other state with an offshore wind farm under construction, according to American Clean Power’s May market report.
NOAA and Gov. Murphy both rejected any link between sound waves from marine sonars and other surveying equipment to profile the seabed and the sharp uptick in whale mortalities.
A spokesman for Murphy told The Post the two-term Democrat “very seriously” evaluates any potential threat to New Jersey’s marine ecosystems while basing policy decisions on scientific evidence, and have been coordinating with NOAA.
“But the notion that either this administration or its federal counterparts have not adequately investigated tragic whale deaths is categorically false,” said Murphy’s deputy press secretary, Bailey Lawrence.
“The results of their investigations have been unanimous and unmistakable: at this time, there is no evidence of specific links between recent whale mortalities and ongoing surveys for offshore wind development,” Lawrence said.
NOAA spokeswoman Lauren Gaches told The Post: “At this point, there is no evidence to support speculation that noise resulting from wind development-related site characterization surveys could potentially cause mortality of whales, and no specific links between recent large whale mortalities and currently ongoing surveys.”
Within the next decade, more than 3,400 turbines and 9,800 miles of cable are slated to be installed across 2.4 million acres of federally managed waters, ProPublica reported last month.
In all, the US has 32 offshore wind farm leases in active development, including schemes in the Gulf of Mexico and the Pacific. Offshore wind capacity already in the pipeline could power more than 20 million homes, according to the American Clean Power Association.
Greenpeace, for its part, insists any insinuation of a potential link is flat-out fear-mongering.
Greenpeace USA senior oceans campaigner Arlo Hemphill said the number of dead whales was “cause for alarm” but added: “At this time, due to the lack of evidence suggesting harm from offshore wind development, Greenpeace’s position remains 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.”
A large percentage of necropsies conducted on the 191 humpback whales stranded along the East Coast since January 2016 showed signs of human interaction like boat strikes and fishing net entanglements, Hemphill said.
Greenpeace has long distanced itself from Moore, accusing the 75-year-old Canadian of lobbying for polluters and exaggerating his role. It said in 2010: “Although Mr. Moore played a significant role in Greenpeace Canada for several years, he did not found Greenpeace.”
Moore insists Greenpeace only disavowed him when he came out in favor of nuclear energy in a Washington Post op-ed in April 2006.
“Greenpeace has betrayed the mission of its founders,” Moore said. “They are protecting [windmills] instead of wild whales.”
Capt. Paul Eidman, who runs fishing and whale-watching charters out of Sandy Hook, New Jersey, and supports offshore wind power, said whale deaths are most likely linked to increased shipping activity and a recent resurgence in population of Atlantic menhaden, known to fishermen as bunkers.
Whales, as well as dolphins and other species, feed on the small filter-feeders found in the New York Bight – the triangular, 12,650-square-nautical-mile area of water bounded by Montauk Point on the east end of Long Island, and Cape May at the southern tip of New Jersey.
The fish have rebounded in recent years in local coastal waters, include the shipping lanes into New York Harbor, creating intense dangers for whales, the captain said.
“It’s like playing on a highway. I mean, they’re literally feeding at the same time ships are coming in,” Eidman, 62, who runs Menhaden Defenders, told The Post.
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