by Jon Sanders
Director of the Center for Food, Power, and Life, Research Editor, John Locke Foundation
Something is killing whales off the East Coast. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Fisheries division has identified several Unusual Mortality Events starting around 2016-17 for several species of whale, including minke whales, humpback whales, and the critically endangered North Atlantic right whales.
Other dead marine creatures might be easy to miss, but whales, being so massive, are not. Nevertheless, the many more that die in the ocean’s deep go unobserved. According to NOAA Fisheries, for example, “only one third of North Atlantic right whale mortalities are actually detected.”
What’s killing the whales? In September, the Save Right Whales Coalition (SRWC) issued a press release calling on NOAA to halt all sonar activities tied to offshore wind energy development after a shocking acoustical study found that “the noise produced by offshore wind sonar activities is much louder than NOAA Fisheries’ National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) has reported.” The danger of such excess noise is that “the setback distances adopted by NMFS to protect ocean life from the noise are too short and place whales and other marine mammals at a high risk of encountering harmful levels.”
The coalition of “long-time environmental activists dedicated to protecting the critically-endangered North Atlantic right whale from the industrialization of its ocean habitat” issued a letter to NOAA Director Richard Spinrad alerting him to the findings. As SRWC explained (emphasis added):
According to the letter, “inadequate mitigations during a sonar survey could result in marine mammals experiencing sound levels that may injure or kill.” Since the only mitigation for sonar noise is distance, the shortened distances enforced by NMFS have “rendered any expected mitigations useless.”
SRWC’s finding is supported by a sound study conducted by Rand Acoustics, LLC, a leading acoustics firm in Maine. Earlier this year, Rand captured actual high decibel noise levels at a wind survey site approximately 43 nautical miles east of Barnegat Light, NJ. Rand found that the frequency and sound power levels he recorded did not match the equipment NMFS and the project sponsor said would be used. Rand’s data show the noise emitted from the sonar was much louder. This finding prompted a comprehensive review of the incidental harassment authorizations (IHAs) issued by NMFS which revealed a regular pattern of NMFS applying mitigations based on quieter sonar devices than those actually in use. …
This finding suggests that there has been a complete breakdown in the system designed to protect marine wildlife and protect the North Atlantic right whale from extinction. SRWC has requested emergency action by NMFS and BOEM to address this matter beginning with the immediate revocation of IHAs now active.
Noise levels from offshore wind sonar activities were much louder and more frequent than the government reported, putting whales and other marine wildlife in much greater danger.
According to the Biden administration and their sympathetic media, however, these are the likely causes of whale deaths:
CNN, for example, wrote earlier this year about how scientists and government officials were still “trying to figure out” why there has been such an unusually large number of whale deaths around the areas being sounded and prepared for offshore wind energy development. A NOAA Fisheries spokesperson proposed “[c]limate change and warming oceans” as the possible culprit. Nevertheless, CNN had enough certainty about one thing to make it headline news: “What’s killing whales off the Northeast coast? It’s not wind farm projects, experts say.”
The New York Times suggested that Americans’ online shopping habit plays a role — after climate change, of course. Something is causing whales to get into shipping lanes and be struck by vessels, and the pat answer is climate change with the novel twist being that increased cargo shipments are being made on “far bigger ships.”
Such speculation is perhaps to be expected with so much unknown as to why there has been such a sudden increase in whale deaths, but it can be jarring to see it followed by adamant conclusion that wind energy development activities happening when and where the whales are washing ashore are not to blame. The Times:
This winter’s quick succession of stranded whales also coincides with work being done in advance of the installation of roughly a dozen large offshore wind farms from Massachusetts to Virginia. Opponents of offshore wind have said that the sonar used by energy companies to map the ocean floor or the noise from seabed rock sampling might be contributing to the whale deaths, though NOAA and the Marine Mammal Commission say there is no evidence that this is true.
NOAA Fisheries has a special page devoted to the issue of offshore wind development and whales. The page asks, for example, “Is U.S. offshore wind development linked to any whale deaths?” The answer required some hedging: “At this point, there is no scientific evidence that noise resulting from offshore wind site characterization surveys could potentially cause mortality of whales. There are no known links between recent large whale mortalities and ongoing offshore wind surveys.”
Here’s what I mean by “hedging.” The phrase “At this point” is not definitive. The word “evidence” requires a level of proof that is very difficult to achieve — scientists would have to show conclusively that, for example, the whale was disoriented by sonar activity and blundered into shipping lanes where it was fatally struck, and the page even explains that “acoustic trauma” is extremely hard to find after any decomposition whereby “microscopic changes in the ears are generally no longer detectable.” Use of “could potentially” is unnecessarily redundant to cast further doubt. Finally, “no known links” is also not definitive.
Contrast that carefulness with NOAA Fisheries answering the question “Is climate change a factor in the number of whales we’re seeing close to shore?” with absolute certainty: “Yes. Our climate is changing, and one of those key changes is the warming of our oceans. …”
While the main causes of whale deaths are boat strikes and fishing gear entanglements, the question is why have those deadly encounters suddenly spiked? The administration’s assertion is climate change, which is said to have caused the water to warm, which is said to cause the whales to follow prey closer to land, which is said to cause the fatal human interactions.
The Biden administration recently gave wind companies permission to ‘harass’ 190 critically endangered North Atlantic right whales — out of a population down to 340.
But what if sonar mapping and loud pile-driving are driving whales away from offshore wind energy sites — either trying to escape the noise or suffering from acoustic trauma and disorientation — and into harm’s way?
There is no direct evidence, as hedged by NOAA Fisheries, but the finding of much louder noise levels is a major piece of circumstantial evidence. After all, the possibility for offshore wind energy development activities for sudden, dramatic disruption of whale habitats has for years been acknowledged as a real danger in research and even by the U.S. Bureau of Ocean Energy Management. BOEM has also acknowledged that the disruption on the whales could lead to shifts in migration, foraging, and calving, and therefore increase the dangers of boat strikes and fishing entanglements, as well as perinatal complications.
Environmentalist, author, and Time “Hero of the Environment” Michael Shellenberger calls it “The Biggest Environmental Scandal in the World.” He discussed the whale deaths with Cindy Zipf, executive director of the Long Branch-based nonprofit Clean Ocean Action (COA), who looked into what had changed recently:
The only thing she and other researchers found was offshore wind exploration. “We looked at shipping, and shipping didn’t seem to be any different,” said Zipf. “The same fishermen were fishing. And the only thing we noticed was the number of IHAs that had been issued.”
IHAs are “incidental harassment authorizations,” or permits to harass whales. In the period since June 2022, the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) has, bizarrely and cruelly, given the wind industry 12 separate, 1-year IHAs, that collectively permit the harassment of 190 critically endangered right whales. Another ten applications for additional IHAs are currently pending.
For reference, the latest population update showed only about 340 right whales remaining.
If that’s not bad enough, the IHAs are based on the unverified sonar sound levels stated by offshore wind developers. If those are wrong, then so are the actual harassments occurring — meaning many more whales’ lives are threatened than even permitted by the federal government.
As SRWC cofounder Lisa Linowes noted, “Had NMFS applied the correct sonar sound levels when issuing the IHAs, the number of takes” — i.e., the number of whales harmed through the activities covered by the IHAs — “would have been materially greater.”
Shellenberger and Leighton Woodhouse are executive producers on a newly released film that “documents surprisingly loud, high-decibel sonar emitted by wind industry vessels when measured with state-of-the-art hydrophones” and shows that “the wind industry’s increased boat traffic is correlated directly with specific whale deaths.”
The 30-minute documentary is viewable here. The trailer is below: