Written for the Argo by Sophia Milone and Miguel Borbon
In the past three months, there have been multiple whale strandings along the NJ coast, including on the nearby beaches of Atlantic City and Brigantine. This pattern has been alarming to most, especially to those who have never seen whales dead on our local shorelines. While many individuals have been seeking answers from scientists and leadership, some organizations have urged federal authorities to halt potential hazards like offshore wind activity; but do accusations naming offshore wind activity as the culprit hold any weight? Agencies continue to monitor the shoreline, investigating the wave of humpback whale mortalities in order to identify the greatest threats to our nearby cetacean population.
Scientists such as Melissa Laurino, a Professional Services Specialist and Adjunct Professor of Biology at Stockton University, share the same concern for the health of whale populations as our communities do. Laurino has conducted research with the Cape May Whale Watch & Research Center since 2013. From her experience, she understands that the greatest threat to whales relates to human activity, namely entanglement from nets or fishing gear, as well as injury from vessel strikes. Most whale strandings have been attributed to these threats, but the overall picture is more nuanced than ship strikes.
The Marine Mammal Stranding Center (MMSC), a leading marine mammal rehabilitation and rescue organization, has started investigating the causes of the strandings. Preliminary efforts, including samplings and necropsies, found “visible signs of blunt trauma and injuries consistent with that of a vessel strike,” which reflects the broader, ongoing causes of whale deaths in the past seven years. Since January 2016, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) has been monitoring an Unusual Mortality Event (UME) of humpback whales along the East Coast. About half of the 178 stranded humpback whales were examined, and the cause of death was either a vessel strike or entanglement in fishing gear for 40% of the examined whales.
In addition to Laurino, many scientists have found no direct connection between whale deaths and the recent development of offshore wind farms off the coasts of Brigantine, Atlantic City, Ventnor City, Margate, and Longport. One project in the process of being developed, titled Ocean Wind 1, has been designed and developed by Ørsted, an energy company based in Denmark. Despite public inquiries into the relationship between offshore wind development and whale
mortalities, surveying activities will continue under the direction of New Jersey Governor Phil Murphy as of mid-January. Due to the lack of evidence associating offshore wind and the deaths of marine mammals, this could very well remain the precedent until Ocean Wind 1 is completed in 2035.
As of the writing of this piece, offshore wind activities have been minimally invasive. High-resolution geophysical surveys were conducted using sonar on the ocean floor to collect data about the seafloor and subsurface conditions. One example of an invasive practice using sonar involves a Cone penetration test (CPT), where a metal rod is inserted into the seafloor to
measure the resistance, friction, and other soil characteristics needed to prepare for wind turbine installation. These surveying and sampling activities, plus different types of site preparation, have not generated sounds that affect the behavior of marine mammals, according to Ørsted and the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management’s Center for Marine Acoustics.
Regardless of this reassurance, public concern about the auditory impacts of industrial activity on the health of whale populations persists, fueling the argument for reduced human activity in the ocean. The noises from aircraft, boats, energy exploration, construction, and sonar can affect the ability of humpback whales and other marine mammals to communicate, mate, follow prey, and avoid predators. The key takeaway from this is that, while early offshore wind activity may have minor unknown impacts on whale behavior, a decade-long UME cannot be attributed to noise or surveying from offshore wind projects. Further, while no whale mortalities have been caused by offshore wind development, there is evidence that around 2⁄5 of the whales included in the UME were killed or affected by an encounter with a vessel or discarded fishing gear. If calls for a pause to offshore wind activity were modified to address the greatest threats to whales, environmental and community groups would instead shift their focus to regulating vessel behavior and pollution in the ocean.
As explained by Prof. Laurino, a safeguard required for vessels doing any work that may potentially harm whales is having a Protected Species Observer aboard. These trained professionals must legally be present to watch for any sea life that may have been or could be disturbed by the vessel’s activities. They do this by reporting any sightings of blowholes or breaches and announcing if there are whales near the vessel. When an organism is sighted, the captain is directed to take precautions such as reducing the vessel’s speed or halting all activity. In addition, the laws protecting marine mammals— especially endangered species like the North Atlantic right whale— are stringent, requiring vessels from commercial cargo ships to recreational fishing boats to maintain far distances from the animals and not disturb or harm them. Another set of preventative measures is seasonal management areas and voluntary slow zones, both of which have been implemented along the east coast to minimize threats to the endangered North Atlantic right whale, whose population is highly vulnerable to mortalities of reproductively active females.
However, more enforcement is needed to prevent vessel strikes. Enforcement of policy in the ocean is already complex, and it becomes increasingly tricky as offshore development continues and the number of fishers and tourists grows. During the summer, thousands of beachgoers and tourists visit the east coast to get on boats and enjoy the waters. Although there are laws that prevent beachgoers and recreational boaters from even approaching whales, the extent to which they know the rules and regulations of different zones is likely minimal, which could lead to unintentional harm to wildlife. Management zones, speed limits, data tracking, laws/regulations, and monitoring are all critical, but improved enforcement is needed to ensure that whales can continue swimming safely along the coast. Protected areas and laws have already been created to protect whales and other marine mammals, but we need adequate enforcement to minimize the threats facing these animals.
Although some industries or people may not abide by maritime laws and avoid legal repercussions, stricter enforcement by entities such as the Coast Guard could deter undesirable actions at sea like explicitly disobeying speed limits and discarding used fishing gear. The marine environment is rapidly changing due to climate change, heightening the vulnerability of whales and other marine mammals. The wide array of anthropogenic activity has altered the availability and movement of prey, shifted migration patterns, and constricted mating and rearing patterns.
The combination of climate change and coastal development is posing a large-scale threat to marine biodiversity. While there does seem to be a correlation between whale strandings and offshore wind activity, numerous scientists have emphasized the lack of evidence connecting offshore wind to whale deaths. As time passes, governmental agencies and conservation organizations will continue investigating the causes of the recent east coast whale strandings to elaborate on existing knowledge of the ongoing humpback whale UME.
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