Thirty New Jersey coastal mayors are calling for a moratorium on offshore wind activity, more than a week after the ninth deceased whale washed ashore in the state since December.
There’s currently no evidence to suggest that offshore wind farms or surveys that help determine locations to build them caused the recent spike in whale deaths. The necropsies that have been completed found the mammals were killed by vessels.
However, the mayors wrote a letter to New Jersey’s delegation, asking for a moratorium on the surveys until further investigation. They also sent copies to President Joe Biden, and Gov. Phil Murphy.
“While we are not opposed to clean energy, we are concerned about the impacts these projects may already be having on our environment,” the letter reads.
The mayors are concerned about surveys that often involve putting intense sound into the water to determine ocean floor topography and its geological make-up.
The federal agency NOAA, as well as other scientists, say vessel strikes are causing the whale deaths. In fact, deaths began increasing across the East Coast in 2016, before the offshore wind surveys began. According to NOAA, there have been 184 unusual humpback whale mortalities on the East Coast since 2016. Of the conclusive necropsies, the causes of death were linked to vessel strikes and fishing gear entanglements.
Brigantine Mayor Vince Sera, who signed the letter urging a moratorium, said he’s concerned acoustics might alter the whales’ behavior and put them in harm’s way of vessels. He and the other mayors want a third party to investigate further.
“I agree that they are boat strikes … But, why all of a sudden are the whales unable to navigate around the ships?” Sera said. “There’s a lot of concern from our community about the unusually large number of whales that are dying. And people want to know if there’s any connection to the ocean wind development activities.”
Various marine mammals react to sound differently. Large baleen whales, such as gray whales or humpback whales, “may change their migratory path to avoid exposure to loud noises such as seismic airgun surveys or industrial noise,” according to NOAA’s website.
However, so far there hasn’t been any direct link to the recent whale deaths.
“We can say that these active acoustic systems that are used during these surveys are commonly used around the world. There are no historical stranding events that have been associated with use of systems like these,” said Ben Laws, deputy chief for NOAA’s Permits and Conservation Division, and NOAA Fisheries Office of Protected Resources, during a press conference last month.
Ear bones can be examined during necropsies to assess acoustic trauma. However, NOAA officials say it’s very difficult to access that part of the body, and they also decompose quickly.
Last month, biomedical scientist Joy Reidenberg told WHYY News it’s possible whales are lingering in port areas longer than previously because there’s more fish for them to eat.
The New Jersey League of Conservation Voters, an environmental advocacy group, believes that the fossil fuel industry intentionally sparked the concern about offshore wind activity.
“I don’t hear folks saying, ‘Are we slowing down the boats?’ ‘Are we limiting vessel traffic?’ ‘Are we asking for the solution to the actual cause?’” said Ed Potosnak, the organization’s executive director.
He advocates that offshore wind development will protect the ocean from climate change.
“The greatest threat to marine life, including whales, is climate change itself,” Potosnak said. “And it’s part of the solution to have the offshore wind to reduce carbon emissions and the pollution that goes with it that’s causing these catastrophic events across our ocean ecosystem.”
This week, the Marine Mammal Stranding Center, a nonprofit that responds to strandings in New Jersey, released its financial statements following false accusations that it receives funding from the offshore wind industry. The center told media outlets that members have been harassed by residents accusing them of a cover-up.
The organization, which assisted in the recent whale necropsies, is among those experts informing the public that the whale deaths are attributed to vessel strikes.
“To assign blame before the scientific data is analyzed and interpreted would be premature and could dilute our impact on championing changes on behalf of these animals in the future,” the organization wrote in its newsletter. “The Marine Mammal Stranding Center is approaching this investigation in a non-biased manner.”
Brigantine Mayor Vince Sera said he and his colleagues “100% support” the center and denounce any accusations that it isn’t a neutral organization.
Get daily updates from WHYY News!