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Whales and offshore wind can coexist — if we give them space

Earlier this year, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change released a dire warning to humanity: We must rapidly transition from fossil fuels to renewable energy to avoid the most catastrophic impacts from climate change.

One of the most promising ocean-based solutions to reduce greenhouse gas emissions is the development of offshore wind, which Oceana strongly supports. However, these new projects must be responsibly sited, constructed and operated throughout their lifespans. If we sacrifice caution for the sake of rapid expansion, we could risk the extinction of an iconic and important species.

Today, only about 340 critically endangered North Atlantic right whales remain, and the population is continuing to decline. While they are found along the East Coast of the United States and Canada, there is a particular area that is highly important and unique to these whales: the waters of Nantucket Shoals, south of the Islands of Nantucket and Martha’s Vineyard off Massachusetts. In March of this year alone, there were 291 North Atlantic right whale sighting in this exact area. An expert working group convened by the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) has deemed this area “year-round core habitat” because it is such an important foraging area for these whales.

It’s also the area slated for several offshore wind projects.

On multiple occasions, NMFS has raised serious concerns that offshore wind development in the Nantucket Shoals area could have “population-level” disruption to the North Atlantic right whale. Government scientists estimate that if we want the species to recover, we can’t lose even one whale in a given year from human-caused mortality. This is why we need to be cautious when building offshore energy developments in areas that are important to these whales.

With North Atlantic right whales already being driven toward extinction by human causes, primarily boat strikes and fishing gear entanglements, it’s more critical than ever to reduce the impact of these and other emerging threats to give these whales a fighting chance, especially in their year-round foraging grounds. With some modification to the wind projects south of Nantucket and Martha’s Vineyard, as recommended by the NMFS, we can avoid potentially disastrous effects to North Atlantic right whales, allowing both offshore wind and whales to coexist.

Oceana is calling on President Biden to follow the government’s own advice and require a 20 km “conservation buffer zone” between wind turbines and the whales’ foraging area south of the Islands. This would provide some space for the whales while allowing the wind projects to move forward. In light of the NMFS recommendation and the year-round presence of North Atlantic right whales, Oceana believes this area deserves a more precautionary approach than other offshore wind development areas along the Atlantic coast.

Recently, some groups have attacked offshore wind development, claiming wind exploration has been killing humpback whales off New Jersey and New York. While some of these accusations come from those with sincere concerns about the whales, others appear to be from fossil fuel industry cover groups. It’s important to note that there is no scientific evidence backing their claims — these whales are facing the same threats as North Atlantic right whales: speeding ships and entanglement in fishing gear. Oceana remains supportive of responsibly developed offshore wind. Wind and whales can coexist, but development must be done with potential impacts and strong mitigation in mind.

It’s not too late to save North Atlantic right whales or prevent the worst impacts of the climate crisis. We must stop killing these critically endangered whales with speeding boats and ropes from fishing gear. And we must take a precautionary approach when building new industrial projects in their core habitat areas. We can easily make space for these whales with a conservation buffer zone off Nantucket Shoals, as recommended by the federal government’s own experts. 

Responsible offshore wind development will take vision and leadership from President Biden and his administration. We must develop offshore wind responsibly and we must save this critically endangered species from extinction. Offshore wind and North Atlantic right whales can coexist if we give them space.

Beth Lowell is Oceana’s vice president for the United States.

Tags Humpback whale Joe Biden North Atlantic right whale Oceana offshore wind

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