Deceased whale

Workers from the Virginia Aquarium Response Team, assisted by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, prepare to dispose of a dead 30-foot humpback whale found near the Hampton Roads Bridge Tunnel in February 2017. (U.S. Army Corps of Engineers)

Recent strandings of whales along the East Coast of the United States have generated a lot of alarm and misinformation concerning the cause of mortality.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration investigated the recent deaths of humpback, minke and extremely endangered North Atlantic right whales and concluded that, of those they examined, the most common causes of death were ship strikes and entanglement in fishing gear.

Even so, some groups have claimed that whale mortalities are somehow associated with wind turbines. When such claims come from groups with names like Save Our Beach View and Clean Ocean Action, it makes those concerns appear to be legitimate, when they are not supported by data.

Maryland Republican Congressman Andy Harris and Rick Meehan, mayor of Ocean City, MD, have jumped on that bandwagon, calling for a moratorium on wind turbine construction in the area.

All of this handwringing is occurring despite the fact that no wind turbines have been built in the area, and surveying activities have not been conducted since spring of 2022. To set the record straight, here are some verifiable facts.

Fact: Wind turbines have not killed any whales. Anywhere. Ever. More than 5,000 offshore wind turbines have been built around the world, yet no whale mortalities have ever been observed in association with the surveying, construction or operation of these turbines. A search of the scientific literature turned up no studies associating whale deaths with offshore wind power.

Fact: Ship strikes are the leading cause of death for North Atlantic right whales. Many of those occur in New England, where ship channels run close to summer feeding grounds for right whales. Although most of the recent local strandings were of humpback whales, the primary causes of those deaths, where known, were ship strikes and fishing gear entanglements.

Fact: The major source of mortality for whales worldwide is fishing gear, primarily lobster and crab trap lines. Such entanglement causes 82% of total whale mortalities, according to a 2019 study led by Mark Baumgartner of the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in Massachusetts. And NOAA scientists estimate that 85% of North Atlantic right whales have been entangled at least once, and 26% of them are entangled every year.

Fact: From 2016 to 2023, more than 180 humpback whales have died along the U.S. East Coast, along with 36 North Atlantic right whales. NOAA includes both in its running tally of “unusual mortality events” among marine mammals, of which there have been 72 since 1991. The majority of the most recent whale deaths have occurred in North Carolina, Virginia, New Jersey, New York and Massachusetts, which have a combined total of two wind turbines. These deaths started well before any turbine construction or surveying activities off the Mid-Atlantic coast.

Fact: Whales and other marine mammals avoid loud noises, including areas where wind turbines are under construction. But there is no evidence they avoid turbines after construction, and even some evidence of increased abundance.

Fact: Noise levels produced by operating turbines are lower than ambient ocean levels and much lower than noise created by ship traffic, which is much more likely to disturb whales.

Fact: Much of the anti-turbine disinformation is supported by “dark money” that is connected to conservative anti-environmental organizations. Two of those, Protect our Coast New Jersey and Save Our Beach View, purport to be grassroots organizations but are actually funded by the Ocean Legal Defense Fund, which is controlled by the Caesar Rodney Institute. That organization is in turn a member of the State Policy Network, which the Center for Media and Democracy’s SourceWatch describes as “a web of right-wing think tanks.” It is funded in part by the Donors Trust and Donors Capital Fund, which strongly support climate change denial, according to SourceWatch. Follow the money.

One last fact: The preponderance of scientific evidence suggests that offshore wind turbines have a net positive impact on marine ecosystems. The coastal seafloor is mostly bare sand and mud with little habitat for fish. Wind turbines attract fouling organisms and small fish, which in turn feed larger fish. Fish such as black sea bass and tautog need vertical structure for shelter. And many pelagic fish, like tuna, are attracted to large underwater structures — likely just because they are there.

And, by providing refuge from ship traffic, noise and trap lines, turbine farms may actually help whale populations recover.

This is not to say that offshore turbines have no impacts; any large-scale development will affect its environment. But whale mortality is not one of those impacts.

So there you have it. According to the best evidence available, whales are killed by ship strikes, fishing gear entanglement and disease, but not wind turbines. And operational noise is a non-issue.

Then what can we do to prevent whale mortalities? A variety of mitigation efforts are in the works. These include rerouting ship traffic to stay clear of whale migration routes and enforcing slow speeds in areas where ships and whales cross paths.

More importantly, major research efforts are underway to develop whale-safe fishing gear, such as ropeless traps that don’t require buoy lines. This development will probably lead to even greater reductions in whale mortality and may even be the future of trap fishing.

If Rep. Harris really wants to help, he should ask for increases in funds to develop whale-safe fishing gear. That would have a greater impact on reducing human-caused whale deaths than any other solution.

Bradley Stevens, PhD, is a professor emeritus of marine science at the University of Maryland Eastern Shore.

The views expressed by opinion columnists are not necessarily those of the Bay Journal.

(2) comments

David Wojick

Sustained sonar harassment of whales began in 2016, likely causing increased ship strikes and entanglements. What is the mortality rate of harassment?

See my https://www.cfact.org/2023/01/23/evidence-says-offshore-wind-development-is-killing-lots-of-whales/

Clay Ferguson

Dr. Stevens,

I'm curious to know if anyone has modeled or otherwise forecasted to what degree recreational-offshore boat traffic (e.g. recreational fishers, charters, wildlife viewers) will increase following establishment of Dominion's wind farm? I have to imagine the traffic will increase substantially. If so, will this pose a greater threat to these marine mammals? I'm just not sure what vessels are more prone to striking whales, large cargo ships or bay/offshore fishing vessels? Appreciate any feedback.

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