Over the last few months, roughly two dozen whale corpses have washed up on the Atlantic Coast of the United States. The unexplained increase in fatalities is happening as the state of New Jersey is constructing a massive offshore wind farm, which some conservationists claim is affecting whale navigation.
Federal scientists insist that no evidence has directly linked the construction to the spike in beached whales, but some local lawmakers, environmentalist groups, and conservative commentators have insisted the wind turbines are the obvious culprit and are demanding action.
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration has tracked 184 “unusual mortality events” for Humpback whales in the area since 2016 — roughly 25 per year, but over the past few months, there have been at least 22 large whales stranded in the region, including 15 humpbacks, rivaling last year’s annual total.
“It’s an alarming surge,” said Sheila Dean, director of the Marine Mammal Stranding Center in New Jersey.
Roughly a third of the corpses have washed up on the shores of New York and New Jersey — that’s significant because a massive wind farm is being constructed off New Jersey’s coast. The state has committed $10 billion to the project, which they hope will generate 11 Gigawatts of power by 2040. But now, there’s a growing effort to stop the project.
Thousands of protesters gathered on Sunday — “international whale day” — at Pleasant Point Beach in New Jersey to lobby for a moratorium on offshore wind developments. The group spearheading the effort, Clean Ocean Action, was initially supportive of smaller wind projects, but has expressed concerns over the impact larger developments could have.
“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,” according to the official website of the NOAA, “and no specific links between recent large whale mortalities and currently ongoing surveys. We will continue to gather data to help us determine the cause of death for these mortality events.”
While investigations have not connected the construction of the wind farm to the excess fatalities, some employees of the NOAA had raised concerns about the risks it may pose before the surge began.
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Sean Hayes, chief of the protected species branch at NOAA’s Northeast Fisheries Science Center, warned regulators last year that “additional noise, vessel traffic and habitat modifications due to offshore wind development will likely cause added stress [to whales and] result in additional population consequences.”
Whales and other cetaceans often rely on echolocation, a sort of natural sonar, to sense their surroundings, and excess noise could distort their perceptions and lead them into dangerous waters.
Advocates of the turbines have argued that the ships involved only account for 2% of the total traffic in the area — the port of New York and New Jersey is the third busiest in the United States — and whatever minor marine disruptions that are created would be offset by a decline in greenhouse emissions.
30 mayors of coastal communities in the area, and several sitting members of Congress, including Chris Smith (R-NJ), Jeff Van Drew (R-NJ), and Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-GA) have called for a moratorium on the project. Tucker Carlson of Fox News also highlighted the issue to a national audience.
The office of Governor Phil Murphy put out a statement in response to the public outcry, expressing sympathy for concerned environmentalists while insinuating that some critics were not concerned with whales at all and were merely capitalizing on the situation to shut down a project they had already opposed.
“We know that many residents, both in our shore communities and across the state, share our genuine concern for marine life and its survival,” the statement said. “But we also know that there are those out there who are motivated not by a concern for our environment but by their own political ideologies and opposition to the very efforts that will preserve and protect our environment for generations to come.”
Other observers were even less charitable.
“It’s just a cynical disinformation campaign,” Greenpeace oceans director John Hocevar told USA Today.
Still, while the cause of the surge in stranded whales has not been firmly established, the phenomenon is indisputable.
“I’ve gotten lots of information from different sources,” said Kim Wetzel, 57, an Ocean City resident who attended Sunday’s rally, “and you can’t argue with the fact that 10 whales have washed up.”