We love whales and all life in the ocean so much. We hate to see them disrespected, even when deceased. In particular, we dislike all the pictures of dead whales being politicized and propagandized for personal gain. Imagine if they were pictures of recently deceased people. This would certainly not be tolerated. You would then understand how we feel.
Absolutely no proof exists, no evidence, no data, no documentation, not even inside tipoffs or traces to suggest offshore wind turbines and their development in the Atlantic Ocean is the cause of death for recently washed-up whales and dolphins in New Jersey or New York. All this nonsense takes away from what is truly destroying the whale population.
Here is what we understand for sure:
In August 2022, researchers at Gotham Whale, a nonprofit citizen-science organization that tracks whale populations around New York Harbor, indicated they spotted more than 260 whales (mostly juvenile humpback whales) in the New York City area so far that year. A decade ago, it was just five whales. It was the most whales that have been seen in generations around New York Harbor.
Additionally, in July 2022, a study co-authored by Rutgers University, Gotham Whale, the Center for Coastal Studies and 21 other organizations in the western North Atlantic, found that 58.4% of whales spotted in the New York Bight Apex – the coastal area between Long Island and the New Jersey coast – between 2011 and 2018 were seen more than once, either within the same year or between years. The average length of stay was 37.6 days.
The numbers of humpback and other species of whales in New York and New Jersey waters have grown over the past decade thanks, in part, to cleaner waters and increasing amounts of smaller bait fish, including menhaden or bunker. Humpback whales have become year-round residents in New York and New Jersey waters in the last decade as they feed in the area for longer periods of time and return for consecutive years.
But as luck would have it, at the same time as the whale population is expanding in the area, so, too, is ship traffic.
On beaches around the New York Bight, there have been more than 62 reported mortalities of humpback whales between 2016 and early 2023, with many showing signs of death from a ship strike. Additionally, between 2017 and 2023 in New York and New Jersey, ship strikes killed or injured over 15 North Atlantic right whales. Analysis of automatic identification system data from passing vessel traffic also showed that in 2016, 95% of sightings were within 328 feet of at least one vessel in transit.
Ship traffic has increased more than 34 percent in the last five years. It doubles every 10 years, putting under pressure the entire ecosystem where whales travel and feed. Worse still, modern vessels have increased their speed, making it more difficult to avoid a strike if, by chance, ships can spot a whale in their path, which doesn’t happen often. According to research carried out by nonprofit Friends of the Sea, ship strikes kill more than 20,000 whales every year globally. This is nearly 55 whales every day.
Why are there so many ships off the New Jersey coast?
There are over 26 million people living in New York City, New Jersey and Long Island (that’s like the entire population of Australia within a small corner of the East Coast). With that many consumers, it is no wonder the Atlantic Ocean is the busiest international maritime trade route in the world. There are large ships coming and going all the time.
The Port of New York and New Jersey is ranked as the busiest port in the U.S. The port first overtook the Port of Los Angeles as the nation’s busiest port in August 2022 and has maintained its lead ever since. Moreover, the Port of Philadelphia is one of the largest shipping areas along the East Coast.
Another major threat facing our marine mammals is climate change. Recent studies suggest one reason for the recent rise in humpback whale sightings along the Jersey Shore is climate change, which could influence where humpback whales spend their time. Farther north on their traditional feeding grounds, like the Gulf of Maine, the waters are warming very quickly, which may affect fish and plankton populations.
In 2022, the Gulf of Maine Research Institute announced the warmth of inlet waters adjacent to Maine and northern Massachusetts was the highest on record between September and November — nearly 0.5 degrees warmer than 2012, which previously held the title for warmest fall. Sea surface temperatures during the season hovered above 60 degrees through almost the end of October, about 6 degrees above normal.
Increasing amounts of greenhouse gases released from the burning of fossil fuels is causing the temperature of the North Atlantic Ocean, where whales reside to feed, to get much hotter. According to a 2021 study published in Oceanography, warmer ocean waters have killed off or significantly decreased plankton populations that North Atlantic right whales depend on to forage for food. As a result, the whales have abandoned traditional feeding grounds along New England to migrate farther into areas that are used heavily for commercial fishing activities.
Still another major threat to the life of marine mammals is plastic pollution. In July 2022, the Earth Island Institute’s International Marine Mammal Project released a report detailing the harmful impacts of plastics on marine mammals. The study found plastic pollution and fishing gear to be the leading threat to marine mammals, killing more than 300,000 dolphins, porpoises and small whales every year, not to mention other species.
In May 2022, a male sperm whale that was 47 feet in length died off the Florida Keys. A necropsy found a mass of intertwined plastic fishing line, pieces of plastic fishing nets and plastic bags in the whale’s stomach. This debris likely interfered with the whale’s ability to digest food and absorb nutrition. Furthermore, in 2020, researchers examined seven beluga whales harvested by Inuvialuit hunters in northern Canada. Their study found microplastics in the digestive systems of every whale. There is no doubt that our ocean and coastal waters are filling up with plastic, which in turn is filling up the stomachs of whales and other creatures in the sea.
Many threats are putting great stress on our marine mammal population along the Jersey Shore. This in turn is shrinking populations of whale species by reducing their breeding rate, thus slowing the rate of population replacement. This is particularly true for the North Atlantic right whale, which feeds and migrates along the Jersey Shore and is one of the most endangered whale species in the world. The latest preliminary estimate suggests there are fewer than 350 individual North Atlantic right whales in the world and out of this number only around 70 are reproductive females. If nothing is done to protect North Atlantic right whales, they will likely go extinct.
As for offshore wind, after the nation’s first offshore turbines were built off Virginia Beach in 2020, local media reported that the wind towers’ metal foundations provided a source of “artificial reefs” for schools of fish, algae, sea turtles and more. In addition, studies in 2006 along the coast of Germany and Denmark found that noise involved in turbine development – including echolocation for initial ocean-population surveying, pile-driving for turbine establishment, and the actual spinning of rotor blades – did not harm marine mammals’ auditory organs. The countries did find, however, that sound from the construction process could affect whales’ general behavior, in that they avoid swimming near noisier areas.
When the evidence changes, so will our thinking. That is the beauty of science; it is ever-changing when new information arises.
Still, going forward, offshore wind developers will need to exercise extreme care to reduce the risk of wildlife disruption and disturbance. After all, just because wind power has no ties to whale deaths doesn’t mean there are zero harmful impacts. Any type of development is going to pose risks to the environment, and ocean life is already struggling due to shipping traffic, climate change, plastic pollution and many other environmental problems.
People have the absolute right to be against offshore wind and other forms of renewable energy, and to believe what they want to believe. We don’t have a problem when people disagree with us. In fact, we respect the right for people to have their own opinions. We have always appreciated a diversity of thoughts and ideas. But we don’t care or appreciate the half-truths and misrepresentation of whales and other marine life in people’s personal or propaganda games. Please respect wildlife!
If you wish to save whales along the Jersey Shore, please check out this website: change.org/Savewhales-nynj.
Joseph Reynolds is director of Save Coastal Wildlife, a nonprofit group devoted to protecting New Jersey’s biodiversity and coastal environment that grew out of monitoring efforts along Raritan Bay and Sandy Hook Bay.
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