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Humpback and Right Whales are Dying: Are Ocean Wind Farms Energy Projects Killing Whales

Ocean wind energy farmsAre Ocean Wind Farms Killing Whales?

Overview

Whale deaths have skyrocketed since wind farms have been erected in the Atlantic Ocean of the east coast on the U.S. NOAA has been studying what it calls unusual mortality events of 174 humpback whales along the entire U.S. East Coast since January 2016. Ocean Wind Farms generate noise in a frequency that is believed to adversely affect whales, and the physical structure of the structures may also pose other hazard to migrating whales.

Background

The first ocean wind farm constructed off the east coast of the United States was the Block Island Wind Farm, constructed in 2016 off the coast of Rhode Island. It produces 30 megawatts. Since then, unexplained whale deaths have occurred near ocean wind farms.

What's happening with Right Whales?

"Right whales" is actually the name of a species of whale, a species that had almost been hunted to extinction because whalers thought it was the "right" whale to hunt (hence the name).

 Right whales

Dead whale on a NJ beach in December 2022Dangers to whalesCable and w hales

Early on, the dangers were thought to be limited to

  • Ships running into whales during the construction period, and
  • Risks that the massive underwater structures and transmission cables might present to the whales. Anchoring floating wind platforms to the seabed requires multiple mooring lines that pass through the water column from platforms at the surface to the sea floor. Electrical cables also will be draped in the water column between wind platforms. Concerns have been raised that large cetaceans might encounter lines from an offshore wind array, potentially causing harm, including entanglement, to the whales.

But recently, other dangers have emerged.

Sonic harm: The low-frequency sounds generated by the wump-wump sounds of the rotating wind turbine blades is now thought to be so loud, and of a frequency harmful to the whales that it actually damages their hearing and causes deaths in the whales. One theory holds that whales sensitive hearing organs are irrevocably damaged by the sounds from the wind farms and this causes the disoriented whales to beach. Research shows that many beached whales had hearing damage. Right whales, and other large cetaceans such as humpback, fin and minke whales, are of particular concern regarding the construction and operation of wind turbines because of the relatively low frequency at which they vocalize.

NewportBuzz reports:

When workers construct offshore wind turbines, they use a loud pile driver to anchor the windmill to the seabed. Water magnifies sounds, so underwater the pile driver’s noise can reach levels up to 220 decibels. Putting this number into perspective, 150 decibels of sound can burst human eardrums, and 185 to 200 decibels is the range usually considered to be the threshold for causing human death.

Electromagnetic fields produces by the turbines and their cables are also of concern. It is thought that many marine life rely on natural electromagnetic fields for location and orientation. This artificially produced fields could disrupt this. An impact statement from the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management said the NJ project would have minimal impact on ocean life, including marine mammals, but could adversely affect commercial fisheries.

Where are whales dying?

U.S. Northeast

Roughly 46 dead humpback whales have washed ashore on the Atlantic coast since January, prompting concern from NOAA.

New Jersey US Ocean wind farm areas

The whale was found around 6:30 a.m. Monday at Lido Beach West Town Park, located in the town of Hempstead, Nassau County police said.In December 2022, a 30-foot humpback whale washed ashore in Atlantic City, NJ, its cause of death unknown. It was the third dead whale to appear on the Jersey Shore since December

New York State

On January 30, 2023, a huge 35-foot-long male humpback whale washed up on the shore of Lido Beach West Town Park, in Hempstead, NY, which is on Long Island in Nassau County, NY.

The New York Energy Research and Development Authority has awarded contracts for offshore wind farms, with the first phase expected to be complete by 2024. The first phase includes dozens of wind turbines in two different offshore locations which are the largest offshore wind farms in North America and among the largest in the world. They are expected to generate 1700 megawatts. That is enough to power more than 1 million homes. The next phase, to be completed by 2035, would include hundreds of turbines and generate 9,000 megawatts.

California

Six whales washed ashore in northern California in a two month period in 2015.

United Kingdom

Marine environmental experts blame offshore wind turbines for the deaths of three minke whales that washed up on British beaches in May near several offshore wind farms.

2017-2021 North Atlantic Right Whale Unusual Mortality Event Locations

Whales are at greater danger every yearUndersea Wind turbine cables

According to Rutgers University whale researchers, humpback whales return to locations off the coast of New York and New Jersey every year. And more whales come each year as whales will learn and copy the migration behavior from other whales. . At present, no one can prove what the cause of death of the whales, both humpback and Right whales, is. It could be:

  • the wind turbines sound,
  • electromagnetic fields produced by the wind farms,
  • construction activities,
  • physical obstacles like the cables and structures or
  • something completely unrelated to the wind farms.

What are government agencies saying?

About the unusual frequency of whale deaths, NOAA says:

Since January 2016, NOAA Fisheries has been monitoring an Unusual Mortality Event for humpback whales with elevated strandings along the entire East Coast. To date, there are 178 humpback whale mortalities included in the UME. Partial or full necropsy examinations were conducted on approximately half of the whales. Of the whales examined, about 40 percent had evidence of human interaction, either ship strike or entanglement. Vessel strikes and entanglement in fishing gear are the greatest human threats to large whales.

NOAA concludes the whale deaths::

The preliminary cause of mortality, serious injury, and morbidity (sublethal injury and illness) in most of these whales is from rope entanglements or vessel strikes.

NOAA official say offshore wind-farm work not to blame for East Coast whale deaths, January 18, 2023

"NOAA officials said they have been studying the phenomenon of humpback whales dying at elevated rates along the East Coast since January 2016. During that period, 178 of the animals have washed ashore dead between Maine and Florida.
In no case, authorities said, has a whale been proven to have been killed by offshore wind activity."

What to do if you discover a stranded whale

Immediately report any sightings of injured or stranded whales (dead or alive).

In the United States, call the Greater Atlantic Marine Mammal Stranding Hotline at (866) 755-6622 or the Southeast Marine Mammal Stranding Hotline at (877) 433-8299. You can also contact the U.S. and Canadian Coast Guards on VHF Channel 16. Do not approach injured or dead animals.

In Canada, call the Marine Animal Response Society at (866) 567-6277 or the Quebec Marine Mammal Emergency Response Network at (877) 722-5346.

Divisions among environmental groups

The issue is controversial, even among groups which are normally allied.

The Clean Ocean Action environmental group is opposed, saying said building ocean wind farms typically involves exploring the ocean floor using focused pulses of low-frequency sound in the same frequency that whales hear and communicate.

A group of of residents, homeowners, business owners, fishermen and visitors called "Protect Our Coast NJ", has been documenting the whale deaths on the coasts of New Jersey and New York, concerned that wind farms will destroy the habitat of the endangered North Atlantic right whale.

 

In early 2020, StopTheseThings.com noted:

With research showing that beached whales were stranded after becoming deaf, it’s surely time to stop the madness and reassess the wind industry. Damaged hearing – the ‘primary reason’ for the beaching of whales
In April last year, a headline in Taiwan’s Taipei Times read “Beached whales’ hearing badly damaged”.

But, the Sierra Club's New Jersey director, Anjuli Ramos-Busot said “"Blaming offshore wind projects on whale mortality without evidence is not only irresponsible but overshadows the very real threats of climate change, plastic pollution, and unsustainable fishery management practices to these animals,".

Type of ocean wind turbines

In shallow waters, wind turbines may be on fixed platforms that go down into the ocean floor. But, in deeper waters, as shown in the diagram, ocean wind turbines can be floating (tethered to the sea floor), Buoy-like, or more-or-less anchored to the sea floor.

How wind turbines work

The U.S. Dept of Energy has a nice animated graphic that explains the process.

Animation: How a Wind Turbine Works, U.S. Department of Energy

Here is a simple schematic that explains how an ocean wind turbine generates power and transmit it to the shore.

References:

Many references are incorporated into the text above, by the links to the sources. Below are additional references/

  1. Pause sought in wind farm ocean prep off East Coast after 7th dead whale, By WAYNE PARRY (Associated Press) BRIGANTINE, N.J. Jan. 13, 2023

    "... another dead whale washed ashore in the area. ...The death was the seventh in a little over a month. The spate of fatalities prompted an environmental group and some citizens groups opposed to offshore wind to ask President Biden earlier this week for a federal investigation into the deaths. The latest death Thursday was that of a 20- to 25-foot-long (6- to 7.6-meter-long) humpback whale. Its remains washed ashore in Brigantine, just north of Atlantic City"How a wind turbine works

  2. Philly Voice - JANUARY 10, 2023 "Protestors claim N.J. wind farm project is killing whales, but a marine scientist says that's 'unlikely' Three whales have washed ashore on New Jersey beaches since Dec. 10. Though the effects of electromagnetic fields on marine life are not well studied, their deaths likely were caused by other factors".

  3. Impacts of Noise from Wind Farm Construction and Installation on Large Whales A Brief Summary Karen Stamieszkin Provincetown Center for Coastal Studies

  4. Associated Press - Groups seek probe of N.Y.-N.J. whale deaths amid wind power prep
    By Wayne Parry, January 10, 2023

  5. NPR, "Offshore Wind May Help The Planet - But Will It Hurt Whales?", December 5, 2019
  6. EnergyCentral - Are U.S. offshore wind farms killing endangered North Atlantic right whales?
  7. Downbeach.com - Six dead whales: Are offshore wind farms to blame?
    Published by Nanette LoBiondo Galloway on January 9, 2023
  8. NationalFisherman.com, January 9, 2023, Offshore wind critics call for investigation of New Jersey whale strandings
  9. CBS News - Dead whales washing ashore prompt local activists to call on President Biden to halt offshore wind energy activity, NY BY VANESSA MURDOCK, JANUARY 10, 2023
  10. Humpback Whale Encounter with Offshore Wind Mooring Lines and Inter-Array Cables.
    BOEM Pacific Northwest National Laboratory (PNNL)
  11. BLOCK ISLAND WIND FARM MAY HAVE KILLED YOUNG HUMPBACK WHALE
    CHRISTIAN WINTHROP·JUNE 24, 2017, The NewportBuzz
  12. Philadelphia Inquirer - Two whales that died in January and were stranded in Atlantic City and Brigantine showed evidence of blunt force trauma associated with vessel collisions. Opponents of offshore wind have suggested survey vessels are to blame, but officials suggest otherwise.
  13. NOAA North Atlantic Right Whale Update
  14. NOAA Frequent Questions: Morbidity (Sublethal Injury or Illness) CasesHow wind turbines work
  15. NOAA Thirty-seven Morbidity Cases Added to the North Atlantic Right Whale Unusual Mortality Event
  16. NOAA January 9, 2023, North Atlantic Right Whale Unusual Mortality Events Factsheet


Ocean Wind Farm Leases

There is a full listing of all (land and sea) wind energy projects supported by DOE’s Wind Energy Technologies Office (WETO), at the Projects Map and select Program Area: Environmental Impacts and Siting.

Below is a list of leases and grants that the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM) has executed since the inception of its renewable energy program, as well as links to the necessary administrative forms and studies that have informed BOEM's wind energy lease sales.

Individual Lease Sales

Noncompetitive Leases

Interim Policy (IP) Leases

Right-of Way Grants

Lease, Grant and Administrative Forms

Leasing Studies/Reports

BOEM has studied different auction systems for issuing renewable energy leases, easements, and rights-of-way on the Outer Continental Shelf (OCS). BOEM issued a contract to Power Auctions, LLC to study different types of auctions for this purpose. BOEM published the study in three parts, and is available at the links below:

BOEM also published a paper (Summary of Renewable Energy Auction Formats under Consideration by BOEM) to facilitate public comment on auction format options, as presented in the Auction Format Information Request (AFIR) published by BOEM in the Federal Register on December 2, 2011.

Since these studies were conducted, BOEM conducted significant outreach and developed a revised auction format, which can be found in Final Sale Notices for specific wind energy lease sales, as shown below.