On February 21, the Marine Mammal Commission released an update on the recent strandings of large whales along the East Coast. (Read the entire release at the end of this article.) This release is likely a response to the rash of dead whales washing ashore on East Coast beaches, but also in response to the false assertion that the exploration and installation of wind farms is the reason behind the death of these whales.
NOAA created a page with all the frequently asked questions regarding the whales, the issues involved in their deaths, and the data that supports their assertions. You can find these FAQs on the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s site regarding whales, whale deaths and wind farms here.
Comments on Connection Between Whale Deaths & Wind Farms
There appear to be many rumors and fictions circulating about the cause of the recent whale deaths along the East Coast. We went to NOAA and the Marine Mammal Commission to get some data to see what is true and what isn’t. We also talked with Dave Wilson, Maryland Development Manager for US Wind. Dave was also Executive Director of the Coastal Bays Program, is an avid birder and an avowed environmentalist.
Yes, Whales are Dying
NOAA declared a Unusual Mortality Event for the number of Humpback whales dying along the East Coast. NOAA’s numbers show that since 2016, 184 humpback whales have died. 61 died off the coasts of New York and New Jersey, 28 in Virginia and only 4 in Maryland. The recent mortality events for whales are tragic and cause for concern, but sadly, these deaths are not new on the East Coast and beyond. So far this year, 16 humpback whale deaths have been reported between Maine and Florida.
On average, 52 whales have died each year along the coast since 2007.
78 dead whales were reported in 2017 along the East Coast, including humpbacks and right whales, and 59 each year in 2018, 2019, and 2020. This is not just an East Coast issue, in the Pacific Ocean, Gulf of Alaska, and British Columbia, 52 whales from April 2015-April 2016. Some 30-40 whales per year died along the East Coast from 2000-2006.
There is no proven link between Off-Shore Wind and Whale Deaths – But Still Watching
NOAA says, there is no link between recent whale deaths and offshore wind. Nor, given the volume of science related to whales and offshore wind activity, is there any reason to believe offshore wind has anything to do with whale mortality. No wind company has surveyed off the coast of DE or MD since May and US Wind doesn’t do seismic testing. Currently, there are only seven turbines in the water off the East Coast, 5 off of Rhode Island and 2 off of Virginia.
So far the deaths of the necropsied whales with identifiable causes have been attributed to boat strikes and commercial fishing entanglements—historically the leading cause of whale deaths. Even USA Today reported on the results of this whale’s cause of death. This includes the adolescent humpback found dead on Assateague which was photographed by Allen Sklar.
Safeguards to Marine Mammal Mortality Being Employed by US Wind
According to Dave Wilson, “All offshore wind vessels that are surveying have professionally trained Protected Species Observers (PSO) on board or in adjacent boats. Because certain surveys are within hearing range of some whales and can be an annoyance to them, if whales are observed, surveying is always ceased until the cetaceans have left the area.”
Protected Species Observers are approved by NOAA based on their qualifications and experience. If you are interested in becoming an observer, you can learn more here and here.
To identify when marine mammals occupy the area designated for wind farm development, Dr. Bailey’s ran a “Passive Acoustic Monitoring” project off the coast of Maryland. There is a significant amount of interesting research that was undertaken as part of this project that you can access with the above link.
Nearfield Sound Attenuation Methods & Data
According to Dave Wilson again,
“Double bubble curtains or equivalent nearfield sound attenuation methods will be employed when driving monopiles into the seabed. This substantially mitigates sound outside the near vicinity. We will only pile drive well outside of whale migration season and drive only one monopile per day which takes 2-4 hours. We’ll also have PSOs monitoring the surface for miles around each site when this work begins in a few years.
“In the meantime, we’re collecting some amazing data through aerial surveys and acoustic whale identification through our metocean buoy and a real-time whale buoy which is also located in our lease area. These efforts have proven invaluable to researchers and will continue indefinitely. “
The Marine Mammal Commission’s mission is “to provide independent, science-based oversight of domestic and international policies and actions of federal agencies addressing human impacts on marine mammals and their ecosystems.”
Update on Strandings of Large Whales along the East Coast
February 21, 2023
To date, sixteen humpback whales have stranded along the Atlantic coast this winter. These strandings are part of the Humpback Whale Unusual Mortality Event (UME) declared by the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS). Forty percent of the whales that could be examined at necropsy (some were inaccessible floating at sea) showed evidence of ship strike or entanglement.
Although these strandings have generated media interest and public scrutiny, this is not an unusually large number of whales to strand during winter. In fact, ten or more humpback whales have stranded each year during the UME, with a high of 34 in 2017. As the Gulf of Maine stock of humpback whales continues to grow, more young animals are choosing to overwinter along the Atlantic coast where they are vulnerable to being struck by ships and becoming entangled in fishing gear.
Humpback whale strandings are not new (Wiley et al. 1995) nor are they unique to the U.S. Atlantic coast (Giardino et al. 2022). NMFS recently hosted a media briefing on the recent East Coast whale strandings and the recording and transcript of that briefing are available here together with a Q&A webpage.
Despite several reports in the media, there is no evidence to link these strandings to offshore wind
energy development. For more information on offshore energy development and whales, please see
this fact sheet produced by the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management.
The North Atlantic right whale is one the world’s most endangered species of large whale (Moore 2023). On February 12, 2023, a dead North Atlantic right whale stranded on Virginia Beach, Virginia. The whale was identified as a 20-year-old, 43-foot male, catalog # 3343. A multi-agency necropsy was conducted, led by the Virginia Aquarium Stranding Response Program, University of North Carolina, Wilmington, and the City of Virginia Beach’s Beach Operations Division. Experts determined the whale suffered a catastrophic blunt force traumatic injury, impacting the vertebral column. The injuries, consistent with vessel strike, included multiple vertebral fractures that would have resulted in death shortly after the injury. The whale was in normal to thin nutritional condition, with no evidence of recent entanglement. Seasonal Management Areas are in place off all major ports along the Mid-Atlantic, including the Chesapeake Bay, through April 30, 2023. All vessels 65 feet or longer must travel at 10 knots or less in these areas. Additionally, there is an active voluntary SLOW Zone for all vessels off Chesapeake Bay in effect through February 23, 2023. Last year, NMFS introduced proposed changes to vessel speed regulations to expand coverage to include vessels 35 to 65 feet in length and broaden the spatial boundaries and timing of the seasonal speed restriction areas along the East Coast of the United States.
Human-caused mortality and serious injury, particularly entanglements and vessel strikes, is the greatest threat to recovery of North Atlantic Right Whales (Moore 2023). Today, there are fewer than 350 North Atlantic right whales in existence, with fewer than 95 mature females in the population. An Unusual Mortality Event was declared for North Atlantic right whales in 2017, and currently includes 97 individuals (36 dead, 22 seriously injured, and 39 sub-lethally injured or ill). Between 2003 and 2018, in cases where a cause of death could be determined, every juvenile and adult right whale death was attributable to human activities (Sharp et al. 2019). After the first year of life, right whales do not live long enough to die of natural causes. In addition, sub-lethal effects of ship strikes and entanglement can impair the growth and reproduction of right whales and further impair their recovery (Moore 2023).
Giardino, G.V., et al. 2022. Occurrence and anthropogenic-derived mortality of humpback whales (Megaptera novaeangliae) along the northern coast of Argentina, 2003-2021. New Zealand Journal of Marine and Freshwater Research https://doi.org/10.1080/00288330.2022.2130365
Moore, M.J. 2023. Policy enabling North Atlantic right whale reproductive health could save the species. ICES Journal of Marine Science. DOI: 10.1093/icesjms/fsac239.
Sharp, S.M., et al. 2019. Gross and histopathologic diagnoses from North Atlantic right whale
Eubalaena glacialis mortalities between 2003 and 2018. Diseases of Aquatic Organisms. 135: 1–31.
Wiley, D.N., et al. 1995. Stranding and mortality of humpback whales, Megaptera novaeangliae, in the mid-Atlantic and southeast United States, 1985-1992. Fishery Bulletin 93: 196-205.