National Fisherman

Navigating the Challenges: How the Offshore Wind Industry is Addressing the Impact on Whales

This winter has seen a tragic series of dead whales washing up on beaches along the East Coast of the United States. The situation has sparked a heated public relations battle between supporters and opponents of offshore wind energy projects, each trying to shape the narrative around the debate.

The issue was brought to the forefront of public attention when stranded whales began appearing on New York and New Jersey beaches in December and January. This prompted environmental group Clean Ocean Action, alongside allies from beach towns and commercial fishermen, to demand the suspension of all work on offshore projects while the whale deaths were investigated. The calls grew louder in recent days, with another humpback whale and a highly endangered North Atlantic right whale found in Virginia. And just this week, yet another whale washed up at Manasquan, NJ, much to the dismay of onlookers including Mayor Paul Kanitra of Point Pleasant Beach.

Mayor Kanitra was one of a dozen Jersey Shore mayors who signed a letter to federal officials demanding a moratorium on offshore wind work pending an investigation of the whale deaths. In a Facebook post, he addressed New Jersey Governor Phil Murphy, saying “It’s the size of a bus and it could easily come ashore in Point Pleasant Beach. I guarantee you if it does we will personally test it and get to the bottom of this. Governor, when do these stop becoming coincidences? How many more will it take?”

Opponents of offshore wind projects contend survey work on those projects using sonar could have contributed to the deaths. Officials with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) say there is no evidence for that, while they’ve been tracking an elevated level of humpback strandings since 2016 that are mostly blamed on ship strikes and fishing gear entanglement.

The situation has ignited a fierce debate between those in favor of renewable energy development and those who oppose offshore wind projects. On the one hand, environmental groups argue that climate change is an overwhelming threat to ocean life and that renewable energy is an essential tool for combatting it. On the other hand, opponents of offshore wind argue that the survey work and construction involved in these projects are a threat to marine life, and that the industry is unfairly shutting out commercial fishermen from longstanding fishing grounds.

The two sides have been working hard to shape news media reporting, sometimes with name-and-shame memos that point out what they see as conflicts of interest among their opponents. For instance, wind power advocates highlight links between their critics and groups that lobby against renewable energy development. The Save Right Whales Coalition, which brings together opponents in southern New England and New Jersey beach communities, works with writer and activist Michael Shellenberger of Environmental Progress, who contends offshore wind is a waste of resources when natural gas and nuclear power can be developed.

The Texas Public Policy Institute, a free-market advocacy group funded by oil and gas interests, has volunteered to help southern New England fishermen in their court challenge to federal agencies that issue permits for Vineyard Wind and other offshore developers.

In turn, opponents of offshore wind raise concerns about donations, sponsorships, and grants from offshore wind energy companies to groups that advocate for marine life protection. They point to the recent whale deaths as evidence of the harm these companies are causing. Fishing industry advocates, for their part, argue that offshore wind projects are a direct threat to their livelihoods and the survival of commercial fishing communities.

As the debate rages on, the situation for North Atlantic right whales is increasingly dire. With just about 340 animals left in the population, they are critically endangered. The warring groups are working to shape the narrative around their plight, with both sides issuing statements and taking action to further their positions. The situation has been further complicated by the fact that several post-mortems of the stranded humpback whales showed that they died after being struck by vessels.

This has led some to question whether offshore wind development is the true culprit behind the recent whale deaths, or if other factors such as ship strikes and fishing gear entanglement are more to blame. However, advocates for wind power argue that climate change, which is driving ocean warming and acidification, is the primary threat to marine life and that developing renewable energy is crucial to mitigating its impacts.

Despite the ongoing public relations battle, there have been some recent developments that may impact the future of offshore wind projects on the East Coast. In January 2023, the Biden administration announced plans to significantly expand offshore wind development in federal waters, which could create thousands of jobs and help the US transition to a clean energy economy. However, the administration also acknowledged the need to address environmental concerns and pledged to work with stakeholders to ensure that offshore wind projects are developed in a responsible and sustainable manner.

As the debate over offshore wind energy and its potential impacts on marine life continues, it is clear that there are no easy answers. It will likely require a collaborative effort between government officials, environmental groups, fishermen, and wind power advocates to find a way forward that balances the need for clean energy with the need to protect the ocean and its inhabitants.