Blaming 7 dead whales on offshore wind called dangerous by some N.J. climate activists

opens in a new windowBlaming 7 dead whales on offshore wind called dangerous by some N.J. climate activists | NJ.com | January 17, 2023

Using words like non-scientific, baseless and dangerous, a group of climate activists on Tuesday condemned linking offshore wind projects to seven dead whales that have washed ashore in New Jersey and New York since the start of December.

The Atlantic City press conference came almost exactly a week after Long Branch-based non-profit  opens in a new windowClean Ocean Action led Save LBI, the Long Island Commercial Fishing Association and other Jersey Shore organizers  opens in a new windowcalling for a federal investigation into what they claimed was an “unprecedented” string of half-a-dozen whale deaths.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration said so far offshore wind survey work has not been found to be the cause of the whales deaths. But after a  opens in a new windowseventh whale washed ashore in Brigantine, in what officials later said was likely from a vessel strike, Gov. opens in a new windowPhil Murphy assured an investigation was underway, while noting opens in a new window that pre-construction of offshore wind turbines would keep going.

So far, no evidence has tied offshore wind development to the humpback and sperm whale deaths — five of which have been reported in New Jersey — and it remains unclear if seven whale deaths in just over a month is atypical, some activists and officials said. Some organizers have suspected survey work — including sonar mapping and increased vessel activity — could be having a fatal impact on marine life. However, as of now state and federal agencies have not drawn a connection.

“What we know kills whales is plastic pollution and what we know kills whales is abandoned fishing gear,” Jennifer Coffey, executive director of non-profit  opens in a new windowAssociation of New Jersey Environmental Commissions said Tuesday morning on the boardwalk.

“I think anytime anyone uses the guise of science without actually looking at the data to further their own agenda its dangerous,” Coffey added after the press conference, “and when we’re talking about combating climate change the stakes could not be higher.”

Stewart Farrell, founder of the nearby Stockton University Coastal Research Center and retired professor, said Tuesday afternoon that data from necropsies, post-death exams, could help clarify the cause of the series of whale deaths.

“They’re doing forensic tests on the carcasses, which could say if its a) diseased, b) trauma or some unknown factor which could be hard to trace,” said Farrell.

While Farrell declined to speculate on other causes of death before investigations are concluded, he said vessel traffic in and around New Jersey continues to be high, as are  opens in a new windowhumpback whale sightings.

Bob Stern, of Save LBI, said his coalition is wary of the possible impact noise and vessels doing survey work could be having on whales migrating nearby. He also sought further clarity on how necropsies are performed.

“Not seeing any energetic effort by the responsible agencies to organize a qualified and independent team to analyze this, we ask for the vessel data to see whether survey vessels were in the same vicinity at the same time as these incidents, field noise measurements, and the necropsy reports to determine whether the surveys are a plausible cause or not,” Stern said in a statement in reference to a letter Save LBI sent state and federal officials this week.

Cindy Zipf, executive director of Clean Ocean Action, in a statement responding to Tuesday’s press conference, continued to call seven whale deaths in 39 days “unprecedented.”

“Importantly, why should offshore wind get a pass on scrutiny to ensure marine ecosystem protection, especially for endangered and protected species? Any industrial activity — especially reckless industrial development that is massive in scope, scale, magnitude, and speed — should be required to prove it is protective of the marine ecosystem,” Zipf said. “This is why Clean Ocean Action also continues to call for a pilot project to assess threats. A pilot project could inform responsibly developed offshore wind, which was the promise of Governor Murphy.”

But Allison McLeod, public policy director for the New Jersey League of Conservation Voters, said Tuesday a permitting approval process is already in place for offshore developers in order for any impacts to the environment and marine life to be apparent.

In the week since the most recent whale deaths were reported, discourse surrounding whether offshore projects could be harming whales have in some cases devolved into political back-and-forth’s over the validity of the clean energy alternative writ-large.

Still, state Sen Vince Polistina, R-Atlantic — who was in attendance Tuesday — said after the press conference he still felt a halt of offshore wind survey work was necessary.

Asked by NJ Advance Media whether correlating offshore wind to the whale deaths in order to oppose the turbines as a whole concerned him, Polistina said, “I think it does … certainly we need renewable energy so that is part of everyone’s goal. We need to continue efforts toward wind, solar, other (clean energy) technologies.”

“I don’t think it calls for a full stop (of turbine construction),” he added, “but I also don’t think continuing blindly without having all the facts is the right thing to do.”

The Marine Mammal Stranding Center, which responds to whale strandings in New Jersey, deferred comment Tuesday to NOAA. On Sunday, in an update on a necropsy performed on the recent whale to wash up in Brigantine, the center said the whale had blunt trauma injuries that appeared to indicate it was struck by a vessel.

“Although there has been speculation about whether these whale deaths are linked to wind energy development, at this point no whale mortality has been attributed to offshore wind activities,” the center said in a summary of the examination  opens in a new windowperformed on the dead whale.

Paul Eidman, a captain who runs opens in a new window Reel Therapy Fly & Light Tackle Fishing Charters and is associated with the non-profit group  opens in a new windowMenhaden Defenders, said Tuesday he monitors vessel and whale movements and thus far he has not seen evidence of wind development hurting the animals.

“Offshore wind offers a clean, economical, beneficial opportunity to combat the climate crisis and an alternative to continue burning fossil fuels,” Eidman said at the press conference. “Those who are who are using the tragic deaths of these whales to speak out against any offshore power are engaging in non-scientific speculation.”

READ MORE:  opens in a new windowOffshore wind work will continue despite 7 dead whales and investigation, Murphy says

Dead humpback whale in Brigantine

Waves crash over an approximately 20-foot long humpback that washed ashore in the North end Brigantine Friday, Jan. 13, 2022. Tim Hawk | NJ Advance Media for NJ.com

So far, 176 dead stranded humpback whales have been reported across 13 states, including New Jersey, according to  opens in a new windowa NOAA report that began in 2016 and highlights a spike of whale deaths (or “unusual mortality events”).

Of those deceased whales, about 87 were examined and about 40% of those examined were found to have died due to a ship strike or entanglement, NOAA said. It is not known how the others died but the federal agency previously said decomposition can prevent examinations in all cases and research remains ongoing on the cause of death of some of the whales to recently wash up.

Before a whale washed up in Brigantine on Jan. 12, two humpback whales washed up in Atlantic City on Dec. 23 and Jan. 7. A humpback whale also washed up in Amagansett, New York, on Dec. 6 followed by a female sperm whale in Rockaway Beach in Queens, New York, on Dec. 12.

A 12-foot infant sperm whale was found here in Keansburg on Dec. 5 and a juvenile humpback whale on Strathmere Beach five days later.

Data previously released by opens in a new window the Marine Mammal Stranding Center showed 12 whales washed up in the Garden State both in 2019 and 2020. Since 2002, according to the center, the state has averaged 7 dead whales each year. Five have washed up in New Jersey since Dec. 5, as well as two in New York.

Offshore wind turbines have been in the works for years in and around New Jersey, but  opens in a new windownone have begun construction.

Organizers Tuesday included members of non-profits New Jersey League of Conservation Voters, New Jersey’s Sierra Club chapter and the New Jersey Organizing Project.

Activists speak out against offshore wind work stoppage

Sharon Quilter holds a sign in Atlantic City as activists spoke out against a pause on offshore wind projects in New Jersey despite a recent string of whale deaths. Jan. 17, 2023.

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opens in a new windowSteven Rodas may be reached at  opens in a new windowsrodas@njadvancemedia.comcreate new email. Follow him on Twitter  opens in a new window@stevenrodasnj.

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