On April 4, 2023 Citizens Campaign for the Environment hosted “Lunch & Learn: Whale Tales and Whale Facts”. I have published a couple of articles about whales and offshore wind development recently so I am providing this for more information. I have incorporated comments from a retired fisheries expert who was a colleague of mine and an update of all the recent dead sea mammals washing ashore along the NY/NJ coastline.
I have been following the Climate Act since it was first proposed. I submitted comments on the Climate Act implementation plan and written over 300 articles about New York’s net-zero transition because I believe the ambitions for a zero-emissions economy embodied in the Climate Act outstrip available renewable technology such that the net-zero transition will do more harm than good. The opinions expressed in this post do not reflect the position of any of my previous employers or any other company I have been associated with, these comments are mine alone.
Climate Act Background
The Climate Leadership & Community Protection Act (Climate Act) established a New York “Net Zero” target (85% reduction and 15% offset of emissions) by 2050 and an interim 2030 target of a 40% reduction by 2030. The Climate Action Council is responsible for preparing the Scoping Plan that outlines how to “achieve the State’s bold clean energy and climate agenda.” In brief, that plan is to electrify everything possible and power the electric gride with zero-emissions generating resources by 2040. The Integration Analysis prepared by the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority (NYSERDA) and its consultants quantifies the impact of the electrification strategies. That material was used to write a Draft Scoping Plan. After a year-long review the Scoping Plan recommendations were finalized at the end of 2022. In 2023 the Scoping Plan recommendations are supposed to be implemented through regulation and legislation. The net-zero transition plan anticipates extensive offshore wind development. The Climate Act mandates 9 GW of offshore wind by 2035 and the Integration Analysis recommends 14 GW by 2040. Note that the NYISO projection for offshore wind is 9 GW. I am particularly concerned because the state projects 14GW of offshore wind but has only attempted to address the cumulative environmental impacts of 9 GW – a more than 55 increase.
Dead Sea Mammal Holocaust
There is no question that there has been a marked increase in sea mammal deaths since 2016. Mark Sertoff compiled the following list of recent deaths and suggested that I publish it.
- www.nytimes.com/…/east-coast-whale-deaths.html In all, 23 dead whales have washed ashore along the East Coast since early December, including 12 in New Jersey and New York, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration….
- www.app.com/story/news/local/land-environment/... Across the Jersey Shore, 10 dead whales — mostly humpbacks — washed ashore or have been seen off the coast since Dec. 1, 2022. The strandings are part of what federal authorities are calling…
- www.usatoday.com/story/graphics/2023/03/15/east... USA TODAY Since Dec. 1, 23 whales have been found dead along the Atlantic Coast, part of a trend in unusually high deaths among three whale species since 2016-2017. The National Oceanic and…
- www.usatoday.com/story/news/nation/2023/02/15/... 78 dead whales were reported in 2017, including humpbacks and right whales, and 59 in 2018, 2019, and 2020. An average of 52 whales have died each year along the coast since 2007. In 2022,…
- More Number Dead Whales Nj images
- www.app.com/story/news/local/land-environment/... Six dead whales washed ashore in the past 33 days across New Jersey and New York, according to the environmental group Clean Ocean Action, one of five groups who called for an investigation….
- www.wshu.org/long-island-news/2023-01-11/6-dead... Six endangered whales have washed up dead on the shores of Long Island and New Jersey over the past month, an unprecedented number for this area in the last half century. These whales…
- nypost.com/2023/02/13/dead-whale-washes-onto... A dead whale was found on a New Jersey beach Monday — the ninth one to wash ashore in the New York-New Jersey area since early December in what activists are calling an alarming uptick. The…
- www.nj.com/news/2023/02/another-dead-whale... Since January 2016, 181 dead stranded humpback whales were reported across 13 states, including 24 in New Jersey and 35 in New York. A ship strike or entanglement with fishing gear accounted…
- newjersey.news12.com/16-dolphins-dead-along-new... Eight dolphins died Wednesday after getting stranded along a beach in Cape May County. According to the Marine Mammal Stranding Center, a pod of eight dolphins became stranded on the beach on Tuesday. Two dolphins died and the other six were euthanized to prevent further suffering of the animals.
- www.nytimes.com/2023/03/22/nyregion/dolphins... March 22, 2023 Eight dolphins were dead after a pod of the marine mammals washed ashore in a mass stranding in Sea Isle City, N.J., on Tuesday, the authorities said, prompting questions over…
- www.npr.org/2023/03/22/1165249049 A pod of eight dolphins washed ashore in New Jersey, all of which have died, according to a local animal rescue organization. Two common dolphins, an adult and a calf were first found on a…
- abcnews.go.com/US/8-dolphins-dead-after-washing... Eight dolphins were stranded on a beach in Sea Isle, N.J., on March 21, 2023. WPVI A pod of eight dolphins died after being stranded on two beaches in New Jersey on Tuesday, according to an animal rescue and rehabilitation center.
- abcnews.go.com/US/wireStory/officials-8-dolphins... Marine animal welfare officials say eight dolphins have died after they became stranded on a beach in New Jersey By The Associated Press March 21, 2023, 4:51 PM SEA ISLE CITY, N.J. — Eight dolphins have died after they became stranded on a beach in New Jersey, marine animal welfare officials said.
- www.reddit.com/r/newjersey/comments/115mw4u/wtf... WTF is happening with dead whales and dolphins in NJ? So I just saw that 3 dolphins beached themselves and died in Sandy Hook during low tide TODAY, literally about an hour ago. This on top of the dead whales we’ve seen so far in the past few weeks and also in Long Island.
- abc7ny.com/dead-dolphins-sandy-hook-bay-new... The dolphin deaths come after a surge of whales washing up in both New York and New Jersey in recent months. Since the beginning of December, there have been at least nine whale deaths.
- www.usatoday.com/story/news/nation/2023/03/21/... 1:15. Six dolphins found off the shore of New Jersey were euthanized Tuesday and another two were found dead after a pod was discovered in a “mass stranding event,” according to a non-profit …
Whale Tales and Whale Facts
As a result of all these sea mammal deaths supporters of offshore wind set up a webinar to provide their side of the story. On April 4, 2023 Citizens Campaign for the Environment hosted a virtual forum entitled Whale Tales and Whale Facts.
Since 2016, we have witnessed an increase in whale strandings and whale deaths off the coast of America’s shores. These endangered species are under threat from several sources, including ship strikes, fishing gear, plastic pollution, and climate change. Unfortunately, misinformation about whale deaths and an association with offshore wind development has led to concerns about transitioning from fossil fuels to renewable energy. These local wind projects are crucial to combat climate change, which is not only a threat to whales but also to marine mammals, fisheries, and our communities.
Citizens Campaign for the Environment, NY League of Conservation Voters and NY Offshore Wind Alliance hosted a virtual educational forum with whale experts from Atlantic Marine Conservation Society, the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation and the US Bureau of Ocean Energy Management. Thank you to the almost 400 people who joined us for these great presentations and a lively Q &A. If you missed it, check out the video to learn more about the recent whale strandings and deaths, what is being done on the local, state, and federal level to protect whales.
The presentations from the virtual forum are also available: Citizens Campaign for the Environment, US Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, NYS Department of Environmental Conservation, and Atlantic Marine Conservation Society.
The Citizens Campaign for the Environment (CCE) is concerned with climate change and energy policy:
CCE works at the local, state, regional, and federal level to advance solutions to the climate crisis. We advocate for comprehensive energy policies that support renewable energy (such as offshore wind and solar power) and energy efficiency, while ending our dependence on dirty, polluting fossil fuels.
In addition, Wind Works Long Island collaborated with CCE for the meeting. Wind Works Long Island is a coalition of environmental, labor, clergy, and community groups, and the force behind educating the Long Island community on the benefits of renewable energy, particularly offshore wind.
The virtual forum had “whale experts” from Atlantic Marine Conservation Society, the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation and the US Bureau of Ocean Energy Management. They talked about the recent whale strandings and deaths, what is being done on the local, state, and federal level to protect whales.
Before the “whale experts” spoke three hosts introduced the topic. Adrienne Esposito, Executive Director, Citizens Campaign for the Environment was the moderator. She argued that there are factors (what are the factors)that have increased the number of whales close to shore and that there are causes of whale deaths that are more likely causes for the observed whale strandings and deaths. Julie Tighe, President, New York League of Conservation Voters, said that disinformation is a problem for the offshore wind industry. Fred Zalcman, Director, New York Offshore Wind Alliance, emphasized that the developers are committed to responsible offshore wind development.
I encourage interested readers to watch the video. I learned a lot and have a better understanding of the situation. However, I still have concerns. In the following I summarize my notes.
Meghan Rickard, Marine Zoologist, NYS Department of Environmental Conservation described the baseline monitoring program that the state did (video at 11:55 of the recording). She said there is no long-term data but they seem to be increasing especially in the New York Bight. The emphasis of the DEC has been on baseline monitoring but they are planning to continue to monitor. Unfortunately, she noted that the funding available is half of what was available for the baseline.
Erica Staaterman, Division of Environmental Assessment and Center for Marine Acoustics, US Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM) described the fisheries regulations (video starting at 26:51). She explained:
“The term take means to harass, hunt, capture, or kill, or attempt to harass, hunt, capture, or kill any marine mammal” – MMPA. In general for BOEM activities, very little lethal take is ever authorized by NOAA. NOAA is not authorizing any lethal take for offshore wind activities. NOAA fisheries can authorize incidental (unintentional) take of small numbers of marine mammals for certain activities, like offshore wind development. Two types of incidental take:
- “Level A” = injury. For acoustics, this is auditory injury, i.e. permanent hearing loss. Acoustic thresholds are established by NMFS and differ by species group.
- “Level B” = behavioral disturbance. For acoustics, this includes behavioral disturbance from a sound source and possibly temporary (i.e. recoverable) hearing loss. Threshold is 160 dB re 1 µPa for all species.
I found her presentation very enlightening. She explained that most of the offshore wind activities to this point are mapping the seafloor using high-resolution geophysical (HRG) sources. They are lower in energy and have key characteristics that set them apart from most other manmade noise sources. Importantly they are directional. She stated that “There is no evidence that HRG sources used by offshore wind companies could cause mortality of whales, nor any evidence that they are responsible for the recent whale strandings.” The following slide presents her conclusions.
Robert DiGiovanni, Founder and Chief Scientist, Atlantic Marine Conservation Society convinced me that this is a complicated issue in his presentation (video starting at 42:18). He explained that the environment has changed recently there are simply many more whales although inter-annual variability of whale locations makes counting the whales difficult. He said that most deaths are due to ship strikes and noted that we cannot use the experience in the European offshore wind farms to project what might happen here because whales there are different.
The question and answer session (video starting at 1:00:00) was interesting but I am not going to take the time to go over it.
I am not a fisheries biologist do I asked a former colleague who is an expert to review this post. My takeaway was that that even though there is a correlation between the recent uptick in whale mortality and the offshore wind site characterization work that I do not disagree with the BOEM conclusion that there is no evidence that work is the cause of the recent whale strandings. However, that does not mean that this is still not an issue.
My expert reviewer said that the presentation missed a few key points:
What are the studies underway to identify and build upon the European experience given the ecosystem differences. Do they have the funding to do this work adequately. As we work to decrease the impact of vessel strikes and fishing gear do we understand what the windfarms will do to migratory patterns; feeding; prey behavior etc. Will offshore windfarm noise when the turbines become operational become a problem with new noise pollution. They failed to acknowledge NOAA research identifying chronic anthropomorphic noise as a significant issue for marine mammals.
The presentation showed that there are several reasons that the site characterization work is not a likely cause of the recent observed whale morality. Those reasons include the following: the sounds generated by the mapping equipment do not overlap much with whale hearing ranges, the sounds are intermittent, the mapping uses short pulses of sound with relatively long periods of silence, and the sounds are directional into the seafloor. The problem not addressed in this forum is that these reasons are not characteristic of offshore wind turbine construction. The BOEM is focusing their work now on construction impacts including a sound level limit for impact pile-driving, acoustic exposure tradeoffs of impact vs. vibratory pile-driving, impacts of substrate vibration/particle motion on fishes and invertebrates, and auditory recovery time for impulsive sounds. The following table shows that construction impacts overlap whale hearing ranges.
My reviewer pointed out that the lack of funds for this important effort is appalling (only $2.6 M for both the Great Lakes and Ocean). With billions allocated to green initiatives this makes no sense given the potential impacts. The real issue is what happens when construction starts on the offshore turbines with sound characteristics that are very likely to disorient the whales. The whales may not die from the cacophony of construction noise throughout the New York bight but the likelihood that the din could disorient the whales so that they could become much more susceptible to vessel strikes was not addressed in this forum.
The New York Offshore Wind Alliance claims that the developers are committed to responsible offshore wind development. It is time to stop the slogans and prove it. They should ensure that the New York whale monitoring program is fully funded and be prepared to stop development if their construction activities do adversely affect whales until such time that mitigating activities can be incorporated into their construction plans.
Given all the unknowns the rational approach would be to determine if there are adverse construction impacts before starting the development of the all the infrastructure necessary to build the offshore wind resources proposed. Clearly it is appropriate to accelerate the BOEM analyses of potential construction activities. Moreover, given the immense political pressure to develop offshore wind there should be an independent evaluation of the impact of construction activities. If that work indicates that there any adverse impacts can be mitigated then the development should be allowed to proceed.
My reviewer made some other relevant points.
The lack of funding for independent research is criminal given the enormous public tax funded budgets behind offshore wind development. In a nutshell, why race to install a tiny fraction of electrical resource of offshore wind development that will have no demonstrated impact on the global climate just to feel good or as a symbolic gesture? The Climate Act proposal for 9 GW can in no way be adequate to keep pace with current electrical demand let alone the push for electrification of everything (cars, heat, and cooling) but can have an irreversible impact on the coastal offshore environment.
We clearly have vast information concerning the impacts of terrestrial onshore wind development and operation, primarily because we are terrestrial. The terrestrial environment is comparatively extremely easy to study, we can touch, feel, measure, and observe with our own eyes. This is not so with the ocean and its biota of which we only understand a miniscule amount. We are naïve to think we can hastily dive headlong into the abyss we know so little about to develop a very limited resource when we know we cannot accurately measure the effect of this development on global climate. The use of terms such as misinformation or disinformation in the current political environment when whales are dying and people have common sense concerns is disingenuous and only leads to more distrust. The whale experts provided some valuable insight into the current knowledge of acoustic survey work and its minimal potential to be the cause behind whale deaths. Moving to actual construction should be the primary concern and this was not addressed. Additionally, the current level of funding for monitoring alone was discussed and it appears wholly inadequate for such a significant project and raises concerns that cumulative impact analysis for the proposed offshore wind development will never be sufficient to determine if there are unacceptable adverse impacts.
I have observed that the more vociferous/louder the criticisms made by a stakeholder the more likely that the stakeholder is guilty of the same thing. The introductions to the webinar mentioned that disinformation is a problem for the offshore wind industry. They went on to state that “these endangered species are under threat from several sources, including ship strikes, fishing gear, plastic pollution, and climate change”. They offered no proof how climate change could affect whales but their emotional attachment to that disinformation narrative that the existential threat of climate change affects everything is such that it is just presumed.
They are facing a quandary now that there is a correlation between whale deaths and offshore wind site surveys. They state that it is disinformation to claim that this correlation suggests that there are concerns about transitioning from fossil fuels to renewable energy. The organizers of the forum clung to the conviction that the site survey characteristics are unlikely to be the cause of the whale strandings observed to date. Based on the specific information provided by the experts who spoke I tend to agree. However, I also want to point out that their existential threat narrative is based on a similar correlation between GHG emissions and climate change. If they were willing to consider the possibility that might be similarly flawed then the fact that correlation does not necessarily mean causation could destroy the entire rationale for risking the welfare of the whales.
Ultimately the problem with the forum is that they ignored the fact that construction noises will be substantially different than the ongoing site surveys and will probably be much more extensive when the massive planned construction starts. Those differences are more likely to impact whales. Despite all the talk of responsible offshore wind development no one has offered a plan to ensure that if construction impacts are found that they will change their plans. In my opinion, it is irresponsible to continue the headlong dash to develop offshore wind resources without first determining whether the construction and operation of the massive number of wind turbines will unacceptably affect the whale’s future.
The forum did clearly inform listeners about the lack of funding for monitoring necessary to address the many concerns with massive offshore wind development to allay the concerns of the public. It is particularly galling that the offshore wind proponents who claim to be in favor of responsible offshore wind development are not stepping up to ensure that future monitoring efforts are adequate. Maybe they don’t want to know the answer if the concerns are real.