by Jon Sanders
Director of the Center for Food, Power, and Life, Research Editor, John Locke Foundation
On November 2, Save Long Beach Island released a report arguing that offshore wind energy vessel surveys were responsible for the recent spike in whale and dolphin deaths off the coast of New Jersey. The report showed the following (quoting from the conclusion):
A recent research brief discussed the alarming spike in whale deaths off the East Coast of the United States. Between December 2022 and August 2023, at least 60 dead whales had washed ashore. Even more concerning is the fact whale deaths go largely unnoticed, with estimates that only about one-third are actually observed.
That brief also cited explosive findings by environmentalists that activities related to offshore wind development were responsible. The only change in the areas suddenly witnessing dramatic increases in whale deaths was the granting of 12 “Incidental Harassment Authorizations” (IHAs) by the Biden Administration to the offshore wind industry to “harass” — i.e., undertake activities known to harm — a total of 190 critically endangered North Atlantic right whales (out of a known population of 340). Many more applications for IHAs are still pending.
Whales are dying from fatal human interactions, either being struck by vessels or getting entangled in fishing gear. Something is causing those deadly encounters to spike. Why are whales drifting into shipping lanes?
An acoustical study from the Save Right Whales Coalition (SRWC) found the offshore wind exploration activities were using sonar levels much louder and much more frequent than permitted — meaning their impacts would be much more widespread than stated by the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS). The IHAs implicitly grant what the U.S. Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM) has explicitly 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.
Nevertheless, the Biden administration and their allied media carry the line that there is no evidence of whale deaths from wind energy exploration and development activities, so the culprit must be “climate change.”
Absence of evidence is not, however, evidence of absence. Alarmed by a potential ongoing slaughter of endangered whales amid so much uncertainty, a senior consultant for the U.S. Department of Energy proposed a study to estimate whale deaths related to offshore wind development. The approach offered by Dr. David Wojick would proceed from information gathering on harassment estimates to avoidance behaviors, ship traffic and data (vessel strike threats), and then death estimates. On the back end, it would involve data refinement for better estimating and also be useful for estimating impacts on migration, foraging, and other impacts warned about.
It’s the kind of approach that one could expect from officials concerned about unstudied impacts on endangered whales and other wildlife that proposed large areas of new industrial siting, construction, and operations could have. Science fiction screenwriters with those concerns might propose time travel to bring extinct whales back to the present. But officials concerned only about “jump-starting” the offshore wind industry would go for something like what the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) just released.
The title of an Associated Press article about it cuts to the chase: “Whales and dolphins in American waters are losing food and habitat to climate change, US study says.” The article lists several things that climate change must be causing to happen in the oceans, which must require a government response:
The Biden administration knows that it is virtually impossible to prove that a whale was disoriented by loud sonar activity and blundered into shipping lanes where it was fatally struck. Such damage (known as “acoustic trauma”) would be microscopic — hard to detect even before the inevitable decomposition taking place even before a dead whale washes ashore. But a large amount of dead whales shortly after the issuances of several IHAs around the areas affected by the IHAs — as far as we know, it’s just coincidence.
Climate change, meanwhile, can be blamed for anything. It’s a culprit of convenience to weave an explanation around, as opposed to excessive noise invalidating the NMFS setback distances and therefore going beyond the 190 North Atlantic right whales the companies are legally allowed to “harass.” Sure, as SRWC noted, “the only mitigation for sonar noise is distance.” But … climate change can cause warmer waters that can change sound transmission and affect whale communications and make it harder for them to find food and force whales to show up in places they don’t normally go. Et voilà!
A disturbing new investigative film “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: