Conservation groups and offshore wind critics are calling for an investigation into the deaths of two humpback whales that washed up on the shores of Martha’s Vineyard last week.
On Monday, June 12, a decomposing humpback whale was found in the surf on the south-east tip of Martha’s Vineyard. Early the next morning, a second humpback whale carcass was discovered about 5 miles away on the island’s eastern shoreline.
Federal scientists say that the cause of the deaths remains unclear. In an email, a spokesperson for the Greater Atlantic Regional Fisheries Office (NOAA), which is leading logistics, said that it will not be performing an autopsy on either whale and that “any type of partner supported exam is being stood down.”
The first whale was stuck in the surf, making an autopsy difficult, a NOAA spokesperson said. The agency had plans to do a “limited internal exam,” but abandoned efforts last week as the carcass drifted north along the shoreline.
The decision has frustrated conservation groups curious about the unusual occurrence of two whale deaths discovered in two days. The carcasses were found about one week after construction began on the nation’s first utility-scale wind farm — which is being built in waters 15 miles south of Martha’s Vineyard — and has fueled speculation that the deaths may be connected to offshore wind development.
NOAA concluded in a January report that there is “no known connection” between offshore wind activity and whale deaths. But some remain skeptical. Without an investigation, they say there is no way the agency can stand by its claim.
“They [NOAA] said there is no evidence linking whale deaths to wind development. But they aren’t investigating the scene in any way to prove that,” said Eric Hansen, a New Bedford representative to the regional fisheries management council and board member of the Responsible Offshore Development Alliance (RODA).
“There should absolutely be an investigation,” said Buddy Vanderhoop, a charter fisherman and member of the Wampanoag Tribe, which according to NOAA is an authorized responder to whales stranded on the island. He said it is rare for one whale to wash up on the island, let alone two in one week. “It doesn’t seem like a coincidence,” he said. “If offshore wind did this, we deserve to know.”
“To ask for more information would seem reasonable,” said Michael Moore, a senior scientist at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute, where he focuses on marine mammal research. “If a diagnosis can not be obtained, anything said about these animals will be speculation.”
NOAA has said the whale deaths are part of what they call an “unusual mortality event,” in which at least 200 dead humpback whales have washed up along the East Coast since 2016.
The number of humpback whales has rebounded since the 1980s, when the population faced near extinction. As a result, more are likely to come in contact with potentially fatal objects, scientists say. About 40% of the dead humpback whales reported since 2016 showed evidence of vessel strikes or entanglement with fishing gear, according to NOAA.
The unusual spate of whale deaths also coincides with the early stages of a massive expansion of offshore wind in waters off the East Coast. Vineyard Wind this month became the first of over a dozen offshore wind developers to begin construction.
Siting for these projects involved using large ships and powerful forms of sonar to map the ocean floor. For Vineyard Wind’s 62 turbines, each as high as 837 feet, construction includes driving 34-foot-wide steel piles deep into the ocean floor using a hydraulic hammer. Many critics of offshore wind believe both the sonar and pile-driving could contribute to whale deaths. NOAA and the Marine Mammal Commission say there is no evidence to support the link between offshore wind activity and whale deaths.
It has become a polarizing issue.
In New Jersey, state and federal officials opened their own investigation this month to determine if wind developers are responsible for the 39 whales that have washed up on their shoreline since December. Meanwhile, the oceans director of Greenpeace told USA Today that groups attempting to link offshore wind to whale deaths are part of a “cynical disinformation campaign,” exploiting whale deaths as a way to prevent renewable energy development.
“The oil companies have recruited some of the more extreme environmentalists to their cause. It’s kind of an unholy alliance,” said Les Kaufman, a professor in Boston University’s marine program and a fellow with the New England Aquarium.
Yet NOAA has issued an “incidental harassment authorization” to Vineyard Wind, which went into effect in May, and allows the developer to “injure” marine mammals or “disrupt” their behavioral patterns, including: “migration, breathing, nursing, breeding, feeding or sheltering.”
Vineyard Wind is authorized by NOAA to “take” as many as 66 humpback whales during its first year of construction. It is further authorized to “take” 100 minke whales, 38 fin whales, 20 critically endangered right whales and thousands of seals and dolphins.
The authorization does not allow the developer to kill the marine mammals, which could result in the company being forced to pause construction. Offshore wind critics and conservationists say that if NOAA doesn’t investigate these whale deaths, the agency could be failing to enforce the parameters of its own rules.
“They [NOAA] are intentionally avoiding getting information,” said Lisa Linowes, who is part of the Save Right Whales Coalition. “The timing is tight. One right after the other. But we won’t have an answer if there is no necropsy.”
A spokesperson for Vineyard Wind directed questions to NOAA’s fact sheet on the interaction between offshore wind energy projects and whales.
Others say that the blame is misplaced, and that delaying offshore wind development will ultimately do more damage to the ecosystem than offshore wind construction.
“If you are worried about wind farms killing whales, and I certainly am, what about the numbers of whales and legions of other species that are being driven out of the Gulf of Maine because the water is warming?” Kaufman said. “How do you keep that in perspective?”
Email Will Sennott at firstname.lastname@example.org.