The bloated corpse of a humpback whale washed up on the New Jersey coast March 1. That was the 23rd whale or dolphin to have washed up on the Atlantic coast since December. Since 2016, 187 whales have washed up on the beach — 29 in Virginia, four in Maryland and eight in Delaware — in what the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration has deemed an “unusual mortality event.”
Some groups — without evidence — have tried to blame offshore wind development. There have been protests about the effect of the renewable energy industry. The New Jersey-based Clean Ocean Action has called for a halt to ocean wind projects. Twelve mostly Republican Jersey Shore mayorsand several members of Congress, including representatives Jefferson Van Drew, R-N.J., Chris Smith, R-N.J., and Andy Harris, R-Md., have been vocal about halting offshore renewable energy development. Conservative news outlets have also blamed renewable energy for the whale deaths, even accusing scientists of conspiring to hide the truth about whale strandings.
Like all good conspiracy theories, the idea that offshore renewable energy poses a threat to whales sounds plausible. To assess potential sites for renewable energy, the wind power industry conducts undersea mapping surveys using 3D sonar and seismic “sparkers.” The idea feeding this conspiracy is that these loud noises from the sparkers somehow harm the whales or interfere with their ability to navigate.
But if seismic surveys are the culprit, why aren’t these local government officials and members of Congress going after the oil industry? After all, oil and gas exploration uses seismic equipment that is much louder and travels much farther than that used for offshore wind. Yet, no one is pointing a finger at oil companies or calling for a new oil and gas exploration ban.
If the critics were concerned about whales, they would be demanding the removal of all oil rigs in the habitat of the Rice’s whale in the Gulf of Mexico.
With fewer than 50 Rice’s whales remaining, this is one of the most endangered animals in the United States. Their habitat overlaps with oil and gas extraction in the Gulf, and a spill would be devastating. In fact, the species was largely discovered as it was observed in the potential area of impact of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill.
If they were concerned about whales, they would join the America the Beautiful for All coalition in the call to phase out all new federal offshore drilling. Not only would this remove the threat of noise pollution, but it would also remove the threat of oil spills. These whale lovers would get a warm welcome from the 150 groups supporting the coalition, including frontline organizations; Indigenous communities and communities of color; mainstream green groups; wildlife and ocean organizations; hunter and anglers; businesses; and land trusts.
And if they were really concerned about whales, by calling for a ban on these types of surveys, they could be setting a precedent against which any further surveys, whether by the oil and gas industry, militaries around the world, or even scientific researchers could be measured.
So, what is really going on? Scientists have examined these washed-up whales, and of those where they could determine the cause of death, about 40 percent showed evidence of ship strikes. The real threat here is not renewable energy but rather ship strikes and fishing gear entanglements.
Several populations of whales have rebounded in recent decades. For example, sightings of humpback whales have increased in recent years off the coast of New Jersey and New York harbor. In fact, there are so many sightings of whales that an active whale-watching industry has sprung up. However, these sightings overlap with busy shipping lanes to New York harbor. And many of the whales sighted in this area are younger whales who may not have the experience to avoid boat traffic in the busy shipping lanes.
The U.S. Marine Mammal Commission (the independent specialist agency overseeing marine mammal conservation) confirms this. In February, it issued a statement that there was no evidence that renewable energy was causing the standings.
Instead of unfairly blaming renewable energy development, we should call for speed restrictions (less than 10 knots for vessels 35 feet or larger) on vessel traffic where these washed-up whales are being discovered.
Strangely these politicians and conservative talking heads aren’t discussing these issues and solutions. It’s almost as if they aren’t concerned about the whales.