More research is needed to determine whether offshore wind turbines will affect North Atlantic right whales’ food source around the Nantucket Shoals, scientists have concluded in a new report. And it may be challenging to divorce those impacts from those brought by climate change.
Right whales, a critically endangered species, are using the shoals, an area of shallow waters, for breeding and feeding. The shoals lie east of several planned offshore wind projects. Last year, federal scientists expressed concern that wind projects could disrupt right whales’ food supply: dense collections of tiny organisms, called zooplankton.
In response, the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, the lead agency on offshore wind development, convened an independent committee in April to evaluate what impacts wind turbines might have on the shoals and the whales’ prey.
However, due to knowledge gaps and a lack of research on this side of the Atlantic, the answers remain elusive.
“The studies available about the effects and implications of wind farms on local ecosystems are not sufficient to say with absolute certainty whether the turbines would have effects,” said committee chair Eileen Hofmann, a professor at Old Dominion University and chair of the scientific committee, which worked under the National Academies of Sciences.
“But with everything we do know at this time, we conclude that those effects are difficult to compare to the impacts of all the other forces … especially with the existing and future effects of climate change,” she said in a statement.
The committee’s 100-page report, released last month, recommends studies to measure potential offshore wind impacts on right whale prey. Studies also need to isolate those possible impacts from other drivers like climate change and natural variability, the report said.
The committee focused on the “hydrodynamics” of the shoals, meaning the movement of water. Turbine blades spinning hundreds of feet above the ocean’s surface extract energy from the air, which can affect surface currents. The towers, rooted in the seafloor, can cause an “ocean wake,” which will make the water behind the turbine more turbulent.
How significant those turbine effects might be, and whether they will be positive, benign, or negative for right whales and their food source, remain unanswered and complicated questions.
However, the wind industry, which funded a separate study on the question, has concluded that climate change remains a bigger threat to the whales, and one that would outweigh potential impacts from wind turbines.
Kyle Baker, a marine geologist with the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, spoke on the need for more research during a talk about right whales at a wind industry conference last month.
“There’s lots of uncertainties,” Baker said ahead of the report’s release (which he hadn’t seen), “but there’s also lots of information we do know … that are leading us to ask better questions.”
How right whales feed
Right whales need to feed on dense collections of zooplankton, and disruptions to zooplankton could have “significant energetic and population consequences” for the whales, wrote federal scientist Sean Hayes in a 2022 letter to the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management.
Changes to ocean currents from turbines could affect how densely the plankton aggregate, and in turn, how effectively the right whales feed.
How turbines may affect zooplankton remains unclear. Wind turbines could cause an increase in zooplankton aggregation (which would support right whales), a decrease in zooplankton (which would harm the whales), or have no appreciable impact, the report states.
The report issued recommendations to federal agencies, including the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management and the National Marine Fisheries Service, on what monitoring they should require before, during, and after wind farms are installed. Only seven offshore wind turbines are operating so far in the United States, so data on their effects is limited or absent, particularly for the shoals region.
The committee also highlighted the need for more research and scientific models to identify where right whales and zooplankton are found, and why.
The government agencies should support studies and data collection during all phases of offshore wind development at various scales -– from a single wind turbine to a series of wind farms, the committee recommended.
“Studies at Block Island, Dominion, Vineyard Wind I, and South Fork Wind should be considered as case study sites given their varying numbers of turbines, types of foundation, and sizes and spacing of turbines,” the report states.
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Both Vineyard Wind and South Fork Wind are under construction and expected to start pumping power to the Massachusetts and New York grids, respectively, before 2024.
“As planning and construction of offshore wind facilities in the Nantucket Shoals region continue, further study and monitoring of the oceanography and ecology of the area is needed to fully understand the potential impacts,” a Bureau of Ocean Energy Management spokesperson said by email.
“Advancing understanding of these potential impacts is especially important as North Atlantic right whale use of the Nantucket Shoals region continues to evolve,” the agency spokesperson said.
“We’re gonna digest [the report] and look at what research needs to be done and potential management steps we need to take moving forward,” said Baker, the marine biologist with the bureau, during the wind conference panel last month.
A National Marine Fisheries Service spokesperson in an email said the agency is currently evaluating the report and its recommendations.
Wind industry responds, releases separate report
The American Clean Power Association, which lobbies for offshore wind development, released a separate report on right whales and potential turbine impacts shortly after the National Academies report, emphasizing knowledge gaps and the impact of climate change on right whales.
“Hydrodynamic effects” from climate change will likely “dwarf any possible effects that offshore wind turbines have on the flow of ocean water” and on right whale prey, said the association in a release on its report.
Right whales face many modern threats. They are dying from vessel strikes and entanglements with fishing gear. They are birthing fewer calves and facing stressors from climate change. There are only about 350 North Atlantic right whales left.
This fall, NOAA released a report that stated more than 70% of marine mammals are facing major threats from warming waters, with right whales among the most vulnerable. Climate change affects mammals’ ability to find food and reduces suitable habitats.
More right whales are spending the entire year in the waters off Martha’s Vineyard, scientists found in a study last year. The study cited climate change as a possible reason, with a warming ocean shifting the whales’ feeding patterns.
The whales’ current foraging areas border and overlap with planned wind farms. But the wind-development association said the whales may again shift their foraging areas, as waters continue to warm due to climate change.
“ACP is calling for these results to allay federal regulators’ concerns regarding several offshore wind projects off Southern New England, while bringing federal regulators into compliance with their obligation to act on the best available science and not the most pessimistic assumptions,” said Josh Kaplowitz, the association’s former vice president for offshore wind, in a statement on the report.
Kaplowitz appears to be referring, in part, to the letter from Hayes, the federal scientist, which recommended a 12-mile turbine-free buffer zone to minimize potential impacts to whales. The wind-development association has said such a measure would threaten the commercial viability of projects.
The industry-funded report, written by a consulting firm and Rutgers University scientists, also recommended the wind industry fund research and coordinate with scientific organizations to monitor potential turbine impacts.
The Bureau of Ocean Energy Management and National Marine Fisheries Service are still finalizing their joint strategy, which will guide how regulators and developers will avoid, minimize, and mitigate potential impacts of wind farms on right whales. A spokesperson with the fisheries service said the agencies anticipate releasing the final strategy in the coming months.
Email Anastasia E. Lennon at firstname.lastname@example.org.