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Marine commission: Whale deaths not linked to wind prep work

February 22, 2023 Wayne Parry, Associated Press
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An independent scientific agency that advises the federal government on policies that could impact marine mammals said there is no evidence linking site preparation work for offshore wind farms with a number of whale deaths along the U.S. East Coast.

In a statement released Tuesday, the Marine Mammal Commission became the third federal agency to reject a link between the deaths and the offshore wind energy industry, despite a growing narrative among offshore wind opponents that probing the ocean floor to prepare for wind turbine projects is killing whales.

Last month, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the U.S. Bureau of Ocean Energy Management said there is no evidence linking offshore wind development with whale deaths.

The commission said 16 humpback whales and at least one critically endangered North Atlantic right whale have washed ashore dead on the East Coast this winter.

“Despite several reports in the media, there is no evidence to link these strandings to offshore wind energy development,” the commission said.

The deaths are part of an “unusual mortality event” involving humpback whales declared by the National Marine Fisheries Service in 2016. The agency said 40% of the whales that could be examined at necropsy, or post-mortem, showed evidence of a ship strike or entanglement with fishing gear. Others were floating at sea or otherwise inaccessible.

The commission said the number of whale strandings is not unusual. Ten or more humpback whales have stranded each year since 2016, with a high of 34 in 2017, it added.

It said the number of whales in the northeast is growing, something other agencies have noted as well. As the population grows, more whales are choosing to spend the winter in the northeast, where they are more vulnerable to being struck by ships or entangled in fishing gear, instead of migrating to warmer areas.

On Feb. 12, a dead North Atlantic right whale washed ashore in Virginia Beach, Virginia. It was a 20-year-old, 43-foot male.

A necropsy was conducted by numerous state and city agencies and a private stranding response program, determining that the whale suffered a catastrophic blunt force traumatic injury, impacting its spine. The injuries, which are consistent with those often found in animals that have been struck by ships, included multiple vertebral fractures that would have resulted in death shortly after the injury.

Today, there are fewer than 350 North Atlantic right whales in existence, with fewer than 95 mature females in the population. An unusual mortality event was declared for these animals in 2017.

The commission’s report comes as offshore wind opponents are pushing for investigations into whether offshore wind is killing whales, even though the federal government has been investigating whale deaths since 2016.

Earlier this week, two Republican Congressmen from New Jersey announced legislation aimed at investigating, pausing or halting offshore wind projects.

Rep. Chris Smith’s bill would require an investigation into the environmental approval process for offshore wind projects. A bill by Rep. Jeff Van Drew would impose a moratorium on all existing offshore wind projects and prohibit all future projects.

About 30 New Jersey mayors have signed a letter calling for a moratorium on offshore wind projects and an investigation into whether the whale deaths are related to such work.

The Marine Mammal Commission is an independent government agency charged by the Marine Mammal Protection Act to further the conservation of marine mammals and their environment. Its website says it provides “science-based oversight of domestic and international policies and actions of federal agencies with mandates to address human impacts on marine mammals and their ecosystems.”

“Our role is unique,” the agency’s mission statement said. “We are the only U.S. government agency that provides comprehensive oversight of all science, policy, and management actions affecting marine mammals.”

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