Commission Joins Agencies In Whale Death Dispute

OCEAN CITY – As requests for a moratorium on offshore wind continue to grow, a scientific commission joined two federal agencies last week in disputing any link between offshore wind development and the slew of whale deaths occurring along the East Coast.

Last week, the Marine Mammal Commission became the third agency to reject a link between recent whale deaths and offshore wind energy activities. While there have been 16 reported humpback whale strandings along the Atlantic coastline this winter, the agency argued those deaths are not a new occurrence.

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

The commission’s statement comes weeks after the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM) reported having no evidence connecting recent whale deaths to offshore wind activity. However, federal lawmakers in Maryland and other East Coast states are calling for a moratorium on offshore wind energy development until the cause of those deaths can be determined.

“While NOAA insists that they have no scientific evidence pointing to offshore wind energy projects as the proximate cause of death, they can offer no scientific evidence that these projects are not contributory causes of death,” U.S. Congressman Andy Harris (R-Md.) wrote in a recent letter. “I am renewing my call for a windmill project moratorium until it can be definitively proven that windmill projects are not contributing to the repeated whale deaths we are now witnessing on almost a weekly basis.”

Harris’ calls were echoed throughout Worcester County in recent weeks. In early February, for example, the Worcester County Commissioners agreed to send off weekly letters to relevant officials expressing their concerns about the potential link between recent whale deaths and offshore wind. A week later, the Town of Ocean City called for a halt to the wind projects currently taking place off the coast.

“Like many other officials along the coast, we believe that the development of any energy type within our fragile coastal ecosystem must be done in a responsible manner,” Mayor Rick Meehan said. “Ocean City insists that all approvals and construction of wind farms off our coast be delayed until all environmental issues, economic concerns, and view shed options be fully explored, and these projects are relocated to more suitable lease areas further offshore.”

Over the span of weeks this winter, deceased whales of various sizes and species have been found along East Coast beaches, including on Assateague Island, where a nearly 34-foot humpback whale washed up in the over-sand vehicle area. In that case, preliminary necropsy results showed the whale suffered injuries consistent with a vessel strike, though official results are still pending.

In a statement last week, the Marine Mammal Commission noted 16 humpbacks and one North Atlantic right whale have washed ashore in recent weeks. The agency noted 40% of those humpback whales that could be examined at necropsy showed evidence of ship strike or entanglement.

“Although these strandings have generated media interest and public scrutiny, humpback whale strandings are not new … nor are they unique to the U.S. Atlantic coast,” the agency’s statement reads. “In fact, ten or more humpback whales have stranded each year during the UME (unusual mortality event), with a high of 34 in 2017.”

Ørsted and US Wind – two private-sector companies developing offshore wind projects off the Maryland and Delaware coastline – say their activities are closely monitored by third-party, independent observers and scientists trained and approved by NOAA.

“The commission’s findings are consistent with those of independent scientists, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management,” Maddy Voytek, Ørsted’s deputy head of government affairs and strategy for Maryland, said last week. “The offshore wind industry is subject to the most stringent level of protections for marine mammals and protected species. Every aspect of our surveys, construction, and operations are reviewed by multiple agencies and subject to protective conditions, including vessel speed restrictions, time of year restrictions and mandatory dedicated observers on vessels to monitor for protected species.”

While there have been shared concerns that geophysical surveys conducted by offshore wind companies have contributed to the recent string of whale deaths, officials at BOEM and NOAA Fisheries have disputed those arguments. Voytek added Ørsted has not conducted any sonar or seismic activity since last spring.

“Ørsted-contracted vessels have not experienced any whale strikes during offshore survey activity in the U.S. and are not conducting offshore survey activity for Skipjack Wind at this time,” she said. “Skipjack Wind’s geotechnical and geophysical surveys off the Delaware coast concluded in the Spring of 2022.”

About The Author: Bethany Hooper

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Bethany Hooper has been with The Dispatch since 2016. She currently covers various general stories. Hooper graduated from Stephen Decatur High School in 2012 and the University of Maryland in 2016, where she completed double majors in journalism and economics.