THE TRUTH ABOUT THE COEXISTENCE OF OFFSHORE WIND FARMS WITH MARINE MAMMALS
Are offshore wind farms linked to marine mammal deaths? This question has been raised by many, with some speculating that seismic surveys and offshore wind turbines cause harm to marine life. However, repeated studies and investigations have demonstrated that there is no direct link between these activities and the deaths of marine mammals.
In fact, offshore wind developers and other companies safely conduct their operations with an overlapping suite of mitigation measures designed to protect whales and other marine mammals. These measures include the use of acoustic monitoring to detect and avoid marine mammals, slowing or shutting down operations when they are nearby, and using trained observers to monitor marine mammals in the area.
At this point, the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM) along with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), the lead federal agency for marine mammal science and management, have found “no evidence to support speculation that noise resulting from wind development-related site characterization surveys could potentially cause mortality of whales, and no specific links between recent large whale mortalities and currently ongoing surveys.”
Consistent with the findings of NOAA, the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, Marine Mammal Commission, and the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection have also determined that there is no evidence that these early-stage wind development activities have resulted in serious harm to whales. Past and current research show that vessel strikes and entanglements in fishing gear are the predominant cause of whale deaths and continue to pose a dangerous, life-threatening risk.
What Do NOAA Experts Say About Whale Deaths?
According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), offshore wind farms are unlikely to pose a significant risk to marine mammals. Utilizing recent research, NOAA addressed some of the misinformation surrounding offshore wind farms and their impact on marine life. They state that while some marine mammals have been observed near offshore wind turbines, there is no evidence of harm to these animals. NOAA writes:
At NOAA Fisheries, we work with our partners to analyze and understand the causes of death when we are able, following the science and data. At this point, there is no evidence to support speculation that noise resulting from wind development-related site characterization surveys could potentially cause mortality of whales, and no specific links between recent large whale mortalities and currently ongoing surveys.
We will continue to gather data to help us determine the cause of death for these mortality events. We will also continue to explore how sound, vessel, and other human activities in the marine environment impact whales and other marine mammals.
NOAA also looked at the specific strandings and deaths off New York and New Jersey and examined any evidence that may suggest it is related to offshore wind development, including seismic exploration. NOAA finds that the rise in these unfortunate and tragic events began well before any offshore wind development in the region:
At this point, there is no evidence that noise resulting from wind development-related site characterization surveys could potentially cause mortality of whales, and no specific links between recent large whale mortalities and currently ongoing surveys. These are geological and geophysical surveys conducted by wind energy developers. We will continue to gather data to help us determine the cause of death for these mortality events.
In 2017, NOAA Fisheries declared an Unusual Mortality Event for humpback whale strandings along the Atlantic coast from Maine to Florida. The event is ongoing, and includes animals that stranded since 2016. As of February 8, 2023, there are 181 humpback whale mortalities included in the UME. Partial or full necropsy examinations were conducted on approximately half of the whales. Of the whales examined, about 40 percent had evidence of human interaction, either ship strike or entanglement. Vessel strikes and entanglement in fishing gear are the greatest human threats to large whales.
What Mitigation and Safety Measures Are Used to Protect Whales?
Seismic surveying activity has been ongoing for over four decades worldwide, and extensive scientific research related primarily to marine mammals has revealed no evidence of physical or auditory injury to any marine mammal species from seismic activities. Additionally, there is no scientific evidence showing significant adverse impacts on marine mammal populations. Despite this, the industry has implemented several mitigation measures to further reduce any potential harm to marine mammals, such as visual monitoring using marine mammal observers (MMOs), soft-starts, passive acoustic monitoring (PAM), and power-downs or shut-downs of the seismic array when marine animals enter the exclusion zone.
- Before seismic operations begin, visual monitoring is carried out to check for the presence of marine mammals and other species in a specified precautionary or exclusion zone.
- Soft-starts are also used, which involve gradually increasing loudness to allow animals close to the sound source to move away and reduce the risk of exposure to high sound levels.
- In addition to visual monitoring, mitigation measures also include passive acoustic monitoring (PAM) to listen for marine mammal vocalizations, power-downs, and shut-downs of the seismic array when marine animals enter the exclusion zone.
- Finally, risk assessment and management are continuous and iterative processes performed as early as possible in the project lifecycle to minimize any potential harm to marine mammals.
Does the Department of Energy Have A Role in Protecting Whales and Marine Species?
Wind energy is a crucial component of the U.S. Department of Energy's (DOE) plan to develop a diverse energy mix, combat the climate crisis, and attain net-zero carbon emissions by 2050. By collaborating with federal, state, Tribal, and private partners like BOEM and NOAA, DOE is actively promoting the deployment of offshore wind energy.
DOE's strategy highlights its critical role in funding research to better comprehend the impact of offshore wind energy on living marine resources and habitats. DOE-funded research, both ongoing and future, will ensure that offshore wind energy development is carried out in a sustainable and equitable manner, while minimizing and mitigating any potential negative effects on marine life.
- DOE maintains a database of research on environmental effects of wind energy and is working to identify and address research gaps.
- DOE is funding projects that will provide critical environmental and wildlife data to support sustainable offshore wind development and ocean co-use.
- DOE is supporting innovative technology, such as real-time acoustic monitoring platforms, to protect marine mammals.
- DOE funding is supporting ocean-area co-use projects that monitor protected marine mammals and design floating arrays for fishing compatibility.
What Can I Do to Protect Whales and Marine Life?
According to NOAA, there are several actions you can take to help protect our neighbors in the sea. If you see a dead or injured marine mammal or sea turtle, please call the NOAA Greater Atlantic Marine Mammal and Sea Turtle Stranding Hotline at (866) 755-6622 to be directed to a trained responder. The best way to assist these animals, and keep them and yourself safe, is by calling trained responders and maintaining a distance of 150 feet.
Please remember that all marine mammals are protected by the Marine Mammal Protection Act, which makes touching, feeding, or otherwise harming these animals illegal. It is also illegal to take any marine mammal part from live or dead animals including bones and teeth.
What Else Can I Do To Protect Whales?
If you are a boater, download the Whale Alert app for real time updates on management areas and whale sightings on digital nautical charts. When you are boating in these areas, slow down and keep a watchful eye on the water.
What’s the Conclusion?
Offshore wind farms and seismic surveys are not linked to marine mammal deaths. Companies use various mitigation measures to ensure the safety of marine life during their operations. It is important to rely on accurate information and research when discussing the impact of offshore wind farms on marine mammals, and not to jump to conclusions based on speculation and misinformation.
NOAA -Frequent Questions—Offshore Wind and Whales
Department of Energy: Addressing Misinformation on Offshore Wind Farms and Recent Whale Mortalities
EnerGeo Alliance - Marine Mammal Strandings
EnerGeo Alliance - Seismic Surveys and Protecting the Marine Environment