Uptick in dead whales along East Coast sparks intense debate among environmentalists over offshore wind

The recent uptick of endangered whale deaths along the East Coast has sparked a vigorous debate between environmental groups over the role offshore wind development.

Nine whales – including two sperm whales and seven humpback whales – have been found dead off the coasts of four East Coast states in less than two months, according to federal environmental officials. The discovery of the whales, five of which were beached in New Jersey, sparked calls from environmentalists to halt offshore wind development until more information was known about their deaths.

‘The wave of dead whales is the ocean sounding the alarm and we must heed the warning,’ Cindy Zipf, the executive director of Clean Ocean Action, said in a statement on Jan. 9. ‘These tragic multiple deaths of mostly young, endangered whales are of no apparent cause, however, the only new activity in the ocean is the unprecedented concurrent industrial activity by over 11 companies in the region’s ocean, which allows the harassment and harm of tens of thousands of marine mammals.’ 

‘Moreover, federal and state agencies have been recklessly fast-tracking offshore wind development projects,’ Zipf added. ‘These three coinciding factors raise suspicions, and a responsible and reasonable response is the action plan for which we are calling.’

Clean Ocean Action led a coalition of groups, including Protect Our Coast NJ, Save Long Beach Island and Defend Brigantine Beach, calling for an investigation and a ‘hard stop’ on all existing offshore wind industry development activities and all wind development permitting activities. The groups sent a letter with their demands to President Biden.

Lisa Daidone, the president of Defend Brigantine Beach, added that the current offshore wind development process is ‘critically lacking in adequate communication, sufficient time allowed for public understanding and input, and rigorous research which will result in the suffering of our economy, ecology, environment, marine mammals including endangered species, and the health and wellbeing of our residents.’

However, days later, a series of other environmental groups – led by the Sierra Club and joined by the League of Conservation Voters (LCV), Surfrider Foundation and Clean Water Action – slammed the calls to halt offshore wind development. They said it would be irresponsible to assume offshore wind infrastructure caused the whale deaths without evidence, but suggested vessel strikes and fishing equipment was to blame.

‘Blaming offshore wind projects on whale mortality without evidence is not only irresponsible but overshadows the very real threats of climate change, plastic pollution, and unsustainable fishery management practices to these animals,’ Anjuli Ramos-Busot, the New Jersey director of the Sierra Club, said on Jan. 13.

‘New Jersey LCV continues to advocate for responsible offshore wind development that is in full compliance with the Marine Mammal Protection Act,’ Allison McLeod, the policy director at New Jersey LCV, added. ‘We are confident that the professionals involved will determine an accurate cause of death for each of the mammals, as ship strikes and entanglements from abandoned fishing gear continue to be a concern for our marine life.’

Earlier this month, New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy said the state’s government would investigate the excess whale deaths.

And on Jan. 18, federal officials with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM) held a press briefing to address the issue. The officials said they were studying the cause of deaths for the nine whales recently discovered, but that no whale mortality has been attributed to offshore wind activities yet.

‘NOAA Fisheries is dedicated to minimizing risks to protected resources, habitats, and managed fisheries throughout the life cycle of offshore wind energy projects,’ NOAA spokesperson Lauren Gaches told reporters.

Other environmental groups, though, have sought a middle ground, suggesting that the current offshore wind development permitting process needed to be scaled back, but not scrapped altogether.

‘I’m skeptical that either side is correct,’ Brett Hartl, the government affairs director for the Center for Biological Diversity, told Fox News Digital in an interview. ‘I saw environmental groups saying wind definitely isn’t the cause of this and then others are saying wind is definitely the cause of this. These things take a lot of time – they’re going to do autopsies and necropsies to figure it out.’

‘I think both sides in the recent debate in New Jersey were being more than a little bit irresponsible in their rhetoric about what is causing this,’ he continued.

The Center for Biological Diversity, which has taken a hard-line stance against a wide range of projects that threaten endangered species and wildlife, submitted comments to BOEM last year, warning of the threats offshore wind projects present to various marine mammals.

Hartl said the group would continue to advocate for responsible wind development.

‘We believe that it is possible to do offshore wind in a way that does address the real threats to whales,’ he told Fox News Digital. ‘Part of it is better research, part of it is better sort of standard operating procedures. Part of it may be – frankly, some of the leases that Interior have done and offered in these call areas are probably just too large and too many.’

‘We shouldn’t assume a deployment of wind that ignores all the other really important values of the ocean,’ Hartl added. ‘The Biden administration has to probably reevaluate Sullivan to address these threats better.’

But the Biden administration and East Coast states like New Jersey continue to push for aggressive clean energy development including offshore wind projects as part of their climate agenda. 

In July, President Biden argued that offshore wind would create jobs and power millions of homes in the future. And the Department of Interior has expanded plans for offshore lease sales for wind development along the nation’s eastern and western coastlines and in the Gulf of Mexico.

There are currently three offshore wind projects being constructed off the coast of New York in federal waters and another four projects in federal waters off the coast of New Jersey, according to BOEM.

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