ASSATEAGUE – Despite a preliminary finding suggesting blunt trauma could have caused the death of a humpback whale that washed up on Assateague last week, U.S. Congressman Andy Harris (R-Md.) called for a moratorium on all offshore activity related to wind energy farms.
A nearly 34-foot humpback whale washed up on the beach at the Assateague Island National Seashore in the oversand vehicle (OSV) area last week, prompting early speculation that the whale’s death, adding to the recent rash of similar whale strandings along the beaches in New Jersey and New York in recent weeks, was somehow related to offshore wind activity off the coast in those states.
Environmental advocacy and conservation groups quickly fired off statements pointing fingers at the companies developing offshore wind energy projects off the Maryland and Delaware coasts and farther north off the coasts of New Jersey and New York where whale mortality has spiked. And last week, the Worcester County Commissioners voted unanimously to send a letter of concern to relevant state officials following the recent events.
Last Thursday, Harris issued a strongly worded statement calling for a halt to any activity until agencies such as the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) could determine affirmatively that the spike in whale deaths was not related to any offshore sonar or seismic testing.
“Following the death of yet another whale, this time on Assateague Island, I am calling for an immediate moratorium on windmill construction and related underwater geotechnical testing until it is definitively proven that this construction and testing are not the cause of repeated whale deaths,” he said. “NOAA has offered zero evidence that this construction, including geotechnical testing is not the cause of death.”
Again, the preliminary results of the necropsy conducted on the deceased whale that washed up on Assateague revealed a hemorrhage that could have resulted in the whale’s death. However, those results were just that – preliminary – and it remained uncertain this week if tissue samples taken during the necropsy conducted by the Maryland Department of Natural Resources (DNR), in cooperation with the National Aquarium team, would point to a definitive cause of death for the badly decomposing whale on Assateague.
“Examination of the whale was limited by decomposition,” a statement from stranding team partners reads. “However, findings included that it was a subadult female of 33.8 feet in length with an area of hemorrhage along the left side of the whale. This hemorrhage could be consistent with suspect blunt force trauma (vessel strike). Samples were collected to determine if those lesions occurred before or after death.”
Nonetheless, Harris last week in a statement called for complete transparency in the findings of the necropsy.
“I am also calling for a full and transparent release of necropsy results, including the necropsy results of the whale ear structures, which should be removed for examination to determine whether sonar activity contributed to the cause of death,” he said. “Even if a vessel strike is still consistent with injury from seismic testing as that testing may interfere with the whale’s hearing and senses, some think causing lasting damage.”
In the statement, Harris called for a pause in all offshore wind energy related activity until the necropsies of the whale at Assateague and the half a dozen or so others in the mid-Atlantic region were completed and definitive.
“We need to take the time to gather proper scientific data, act in full transparency and not relay of FAQ platitudes for these projects, their construction and the impact they may have upon our environment,” he said. “Until such actions occur, I am calling for a complete shutdown of windmill construction.”
For their part, the two private-sector companies in the process of developing offshore wind projects off the Maryland and Delaware coasts this week continued to dismiss any connection between the spike in whale deaths in the mid-Atlantic region and activity off the coast related to wind energy projects. Both US Wind and Ørsted have said they have not been conducting any sonar or seismic activity or ocean floor exploration since last spring.
Both companies have said their activities off the coast are closely monitored by third-party, independent observers and scientists who are trained and approved by NOAA to detect protected species such as whales. For its part, NOAA has said there is no evidence that the whale strandings have anything to do with current offshore wind activity off the coast.
The two offshore wind energy development companies have said their industry is subject to the most stringent level of protections for marine mammals and protected species and every aspect of their surveys, construction and operations are reviewed by multiple agencies and subject to protective conditions including vessel speeds, time of year restrictions for construction activities and mandatory protected species observers.