A committee of scientists and experts convened this week to begin a monthslong process of independently evaluating potential impacts of offshore wind development on the critically endangered North Atlantic right whale and its primary food source.

The Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM), the lead regulator on offshore wind, called for an independent review by a committee under the National Academies of Science, Engineering and Medicine.

The committee has a technical name, “Evaluation of Hydrodynamic Modeling and Implications for Offshore Wind Development: Nantucket Shoals,” but in simpler terms, it will evaluate the scientific models BOEM uses to inform assessments of wind turbine impacts.

According to an agency spokesperson, BOEM recognized the need for an independent evaluation of existing science on potential impacts of wind development as it relates to right whales and availability of the tiny crustaceans they feed on, also called zooplankton.

The Light first reported an inter-agency letter from a NOAA Fisheries scientist to BOEM last year that expressed concern on impacts of wind development on right whales. The scientist recommended restricting turbines in some parts of the Massachusetts-Rhode Island wind energy area, particularly those abutting the Nantucket shoals — a region that has become a critical area of foraging, breeding and calf rearing for right whales during much of the year. 


Sean Hayes, chief of the protected species branch at NOAA’s Northeast Fisheries Science Center and the letter’s signatory, previously proposed a 20-kilometer buffer between wind lease areas and the shoals. He represented NOAA Fisheries during the committee’s first meeting on Tuesday, introducing its members to the issue at hand. 

“To combat climate change … the Biden administration has announced a new goal to produce 30 gigawatts of offshore wind by 2030,” Hayes told the panel of scientists. “The 30-30 commitment is really targeted for development as we’ve seen in the southern New England and mid-Atlantic regions, and this region is home to the North Atlantic right whale.”

The objective of the committee’s study is to understand potential effects of turbines on “marine hydrodynamics,” and resulting impacts on mammals. Hydrodynamics is the movement of fluids, which in this case would be ocean waters.

“As far as our statement of this issue, I’m giving you some understanding of where we are today and why this has become an issue,” Mary Boatman, chief of environmental studies for BOEM’s renewable energy program, told the committee.

“This is why we have a sense of urgency with getting this information and understanding it,” she said, discussing wind projects under review or nearing approval. “You can see Nantucket shoals is just to the east of this development area. And there’s been concern expressed about if all of this development occurs, how will it affect the hydrodynamics.”

This map shows a major portion of the Nantucket Shoals in relation to planned wind lease areas. The location of geographic features and wind lease areas is approximate. Credit: Kellen Riell / The New Bedford Light. Sources: Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, Paper: “Spatial ecology of long-tailed ducks and white-winged scoters wintering on Nantucket Shoals”

Research has found turbines will likely affect tidal currents and the water column in which zooplankton are found. Boatman explained offshore turbines extract kinetic energy as they spin, which in turn creates a wind wake that can alter water flow.

Whales require dense collections of zooplankton, and disruptions to density or abundance could have “significant energetic and population consequences,” Hayes wrote in his 2022 letter. 

Right whales are slow-moving filter feeders, “which is energetically very expensive and dependent on getting enough plankton,” Hayes told the committee. “In a sense, these animals are specialists and they have very little resilience to change.”

He laid out a simple equation: the energy content of the plankton the whales consume must exceed the energy they expend searching for it. 

“Plankton need to be able to overcome any mixing and turbulence in the water column to become aggregated in dense enough layers to offset whales’ swimming costs,” he said.

A spokesperson for NOAA Fisheries, which consults with BOEM on wind development, said understanding impacts of offshore wind on ecosystem dynamics “is a complex challenge,” and that the committee can offer “some needed clarity on one factor — hydrodynamic changes associated with wind turbine generators.”

Hayes said he would “sleep a lot easier” if the committee concluded that wind development wouldn’t add much to the many challenges right whales already face. However, whatever conclusions they reach will weigh “heavily” into how the federal scientists advise the agency managers and decision makers. 

Some questions NOAA Fisheries management “needs” addressed:

  • What is the potential change to zooplankton?
  • What is the spatial and temporal scale of potential risk or change to zooplankton due to wind farms?
  • How will this vary at the scales of a turbine, a lease area and an entire wind energy area?
  • What is the anticipated time delay between wind farm operations and impacts on zooplankton?
  • If impacts are expected, what measures are needed to mitigate impacts?
  • What is the range of impacts for a specialist that has experienced 50% mortality in the past decade and reduced calving?
Source: April 25, 2023 presentation by Sean Hayes, with some questions paraphrased

Some projects abutting the shoals are at various stages of review by BOEM. One is SouthCoast Wind (formerly Mayflower Wind). Asked if the company is considering turbine-free areas in its lease site amid concerns over the right whale, Daniel Hubbard, director of external affairs, said they are continuing geotechnical work “to determine the exact number and location” of the turbine positions, “which will provide further detail on what is and isn’t feasible.” 

SouthCoast Wind, like other wind developers, is adopting several measures to avoid or minimize impacts, including using protected species observers, following vessel slowdown rules, and restricting pile driving during certain months, per Hubbard. 

“SouthCoast Wind shares the concerns regarding the status of the [North Atlantic right whale] population and is actively prioritizing the protection of this critically endangered species along with other marine mammal species,” he said in a statement. 

NOAA Fisheries issued comments this month to BOEM for its ongoing environmental review of the SouthCoast Wind project. The fisheries agency reiterated its concerns over turbine impacts to right whales and their prey, and requested BOEM reconsider the 20-kilometer buffer zone, as well as the removal of up to 17 turbines from the northeast portion of the site.

“Without the implementation of robust and effective mitigation measures, it is our view that significant impacts on North Atlantic right whales may occur from project construction and operation,” reads the letter, signed by NOAA Regional Administrator Michael Pentony. 

“NMFS provided a recommended alternative that would have precluded development of [wind turbine generators] within a 20-km buffer of the Nantucket Shoals 30-meter isobath, which was not carried forward by BOEM based on the determination that it was not economically feasible,” he continued. 

Asked about discussions with NOAA Fisheries and wind developers regarding potential areas of no turbines, a BOEM spokesperson said consultations on such measures to protect marine mammals around the Nantucket shoals are ongoing, and that the results of the committee’s study will inform BOEM’s future assessments.

The committee will meet several times throughout the summer and deliver a “prepublication report” in October. Per BOEM, the committee will provide a final report by March 1, 2024.

The National Academies has previously undertaken other research and review for the federal government regarding offshore wind development. Last year, a different committee released an 82-page report on how offshore wind farms can interfere with vessel radar. 

BOEM will provide information upon request to the committee, but will otherwise be left out of most discussions to keep the process independent, an agency spokesperson said. 

The federal agencies are finalizing a strategy for mitigating impacts of wind development on right whales. According to the draft version, BOEM will consider recommendations from NOAA Fisheries and attempt to avoid issuing new leases in areas of importance to the whales. BOEM may also require a developer to submit a revised plan if previously authorized activities are discovered to be inadequate to protect the whales.

The North Atlantic right whale, which was hunted into the 20th century, has in recent decades been harmed by modern threats: vessel strikes, lethal and sub-lethal entanglements with fishing gear, and climate change. Offshore wind development, a tool to address the urgent climate crisis already changing ocean ecosystems, is now presenting another possible threat.

Scientists in a 2022 study found an increasing trend of right whales in the waters off of Martha’s Vineyard and Nantucket during all seasons, and cited climate change as a possible driver shifting the whales’ feeding and migration patterns. Further, there is concern that warming waters may lead to lower energy content in the whale’s food source.

“Most, if not all of us, are conflicted about wanting more time to work through this process. However, climate change and the most recent reports that we might exceed 1.5 [degrees Celsius] in less than a decade are not going to wait. And we must acknowledge that climate change is as great a threat to right whales and the rest of the ocean ecosystem as it is to humans,” Hayes said.

“The agency understands that any effective solution to climate change at this point will have consequences both economic and ecological,” he continued. “Hopefully with the insights provided by this panel, we can make the most informed decisions possible to meet our national energy security and carbon reduction goals while ensuring minimum impact to the marine environment.”

Email Anastasia E. Lennon at alennon@newbedfordlight.org.

Editor’s note: This story was modified on Thursday, April 27, 2023, to add comments made this month by NOAA to BOEM repeating its concerns over turbine impacts to right whales and their prey.

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1 Comment

  1. Your article about the panel of scientists conducting an “independent review” of the impacts of offshore wind on right whales is an important piece. However, I would suggest investigating the actual “independence” of the scientists and questioning BOEM’s decision to include them on the panel. A quick check of its members shows some of the scientists are employed at universities like Duke and Rutgers, both of which have taken big dollars from offshore wind developers. One might suggest that their voices, like those of so many local and national environmental NGO’s who have also taken money from Big Wind, are far from “independent”.

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