A closer look: can right whales and offshore wind safely coexist?

by 24USATVMarch 28, 2024, 2 p.m. 18
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Patrick Flanary: Offshore wind developments and critically endangered right whales are sharing the same waters off our coast, which has raised the question: how safely can they coexist? CAI’s Eve Zuckoff has spent the last few months talking to scientists and cutting through misinformation. Today, she brings us some answers. Hi Eve.

Patrick Flanary: Vineyard Wind is building 62 turbines south of Martha’s Vineyard – each stands as tall as the Eiffel Tower. There are more projects to come. What are the concerns about what this means for right whales?

Eve Zuckoff: Well, Patrick, there are four main categories of concern for right whales, and they’re important to define because there are just about 360 of these animals left in the world.

The first concern points to the fact that wherever offshore wind farms are being built and maintained, there will be more boats in the water, which increases the chances of a ship strike, or collision between a boat and whale. There’s also a risk that more right whales could get entangled in marine debris that’s coming from the wind farms. The third concern has to do with how wind farms could possibly affect the copepods – these little crustaceans right whales like to eat – by changing ocean circulation.

And finally, exposure to noise is a concern. The concerns have a bit less to do with what happens once wind farms are built because right whales are incredibly used to a loud ocean; they spend a lot of time in shipping lanes. But during construction there are worries that loud pile driving that’s done to anchor wind turbines to the ocean floor could result in hearing impairment, mask right whales’ vocal communication, stress them out, and affect behavior.

That said, more and more research is addressing those concerns. I talked to a professor from the University of Rhode Island who said whales will often swim away from loud sounds, but the worst case scenario is that a loud sound could create temporary hearing loss.

Patrick Flanary: And to be clear: none of these concerns have meant death for right whales.

Eve Zuckoff: Correct. NOAA has said, “There are no known links between large whale deaths and ongoing offshore wind activities.”

That's true even as the bigger projects like South Fork Wind and Block Island Wind have finished construction, and Vineyard Wind is a year and change into building.

Patrick Flanary: So researchers are working to fully understand the risks … but meanwhile, misinformation about offshore wind killing right whales has run rampant online. Tell us about that.

Eve Zuckoff: Sure. In recent years we’ve seen these grassroots, very local groups start to form, saying they oppose offshore wind because of concerns about whales. One of the more local groups would be Nantucket Residents for Whales (formerly Nantucket Residents Against Turbines). They’re among a few groups that have filed lawsuits fighting offshore wind.

And these researchers from Brown University put out a paper that found links between 18 of these small groups – through funding, membership, legal representation, and more – to bigger think tanks and conservative donors who are known to block climate policy in support of fossil fuel interests.

Though, I learned something interesting about this talking with Dr. Timmons Roberts who studies disinformation around climate change at Brown. He said the local groups may or may not know there’s a larger strategy going on.

"We found some evidence of a planning memo from 2012 that really laid out the game plan that they would use local groups that appear entirely local, but are being fed information from a centralized set of think tanks," Roberts said.

Meanwhile, we know climate change is killing right whales. Because right whales – like most animals – decide where they’ll go by chasing their food, those copepods I mentioned earlier. But as waters have gotten warmer, we’ve seen copepods shift into different areas where there aren’t protections like boat speed limits and fishing rules to protect whales.

If the worst impacts of climate change aren’t mitigated, right whales may continue to be displaced, and, as a result, get hit by more boats, get entangled in more gear

Patrick Flanary: Much of the misinformation about right whales and offshore wind may be originating by those with a financial dog in the fight, but here locally you’ve seen it spread by people who just worry about the right whales. What do scientists think about this?

Well the half dozen right whale scientists I talked to for this story said they are uneasy when it comes to risks of offshore wind. But in my interviews, that feeling of unease was always quickly followed by this really important point about the bigger risks of climate change. I think someone who said it well was Stormy Mayo from the Center for Coastal Studies in Provincetown, who’s studied right whales for more than 45 years. Full disclosure: His youngest son works for Vineyard Wind, but Stormy’s clear: he doesn’t particularly like offshore wind, and yet he still thinks it’s the way forward.

"I've personally always felt very much concerned about the industrialization of the sea. And offshore wind is just another one of those cases. But, having watched these animals as long as I have," he said, "it is clear to me now, that the biggest looming issue confronted by right whales is the impact of climate change on the sea. "

So instead of making a villain out of offshore wind, right whale experts like Mayo say they wish people would turn their attention to entanglements and boat collisions … which are solvable problems

Patrick Flanary: So back to the first question: Can we expect right whales and offshore wind to safely coexist?

Eve Zuckoff: Look, we’ve seen offshore wind developers limit noise to protect right whale hearing, slow down their boats, only do major construction outside of the whales’ peak migration season, among other protections, and the federal government is making steps to codify these and other protections into law.

That said, this good work can only continue if scientists get more funding to research offshore wind impacts, and, they say, they need regulators to listen to the best practices as they develop.

But if that all goes well, offshore wind farms could be safe for right whales and they could become huge climate change mitigation tools, putting us on track to get the ocean and planet’s rapid warming under control.

Patrick Flanary: Eve Zuckoff, climate and environment reporter from CAI. She’ll be talking about offshore wind and right whales at length on NPR’s Science Friday, tomorrow at 3:20 pm. Eve, we’ll be listening.

This conversation has been lightly edited for time and clarity.

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