A closer looks: can right whales and offshore wind safely coexist?

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The tugboat is gearing up to tow 5120 off the Edgartown beach. A buoy has been affixed to her flipper by IFAW researchers to monitor the whale’s movements.

Patrick Flanary: Offshore wind developments and the presence of critically endangered right whales are now coexisting in the same waters off our coast. This raises a crucial question: how safely can they coexist? CAI’s Eve Zuckoff has been extensively researching this topic and debunking misinformation. Today, she brings us some insights. Hi Eve.

Eve Zuckoff: Hello, Patrick!

Patrick Flanary: Vineyard Wind is currently erecting 62 turbines south of Martha’s Vineyard, with each towering as tall as the Eiffel Tower. More such projects are in the pipeline. What concerns arise regarding the implications of these developments for right whales?

Eve Zuckoff: Well, Patrick, there are four primary areas of concern when it comes to right whales, especially considering their dwindling population of approximately 360 individuals worldwide.

Firstly, the increased maritime traffic associated with offshore wind farms raises the risk of ship strikes, posing a significant threat to right whales. Additionally, there’s the danger of entanglement in marine debris originating from these wind farms. Thirdly, there’s the potential impact on the copepod population, a vital food source for right whales, due to alterations in ocean circulation caused by wind farms.

Lastly, exposure to noise during the construction phase is a concern, with loud pile driving activities potentially causing temporary hearing loss and behavioral disturbances in right whales.

It’s important to note that while these concerns are valid, there haven’t been any documented cases of right whale deaths directly attributable to offshore wind activities, according to NOAA.

Patrick Flanary: So, despite these concerns, there haven’t been any fatalities among right whales due to offshore wind projects?

Eve Zuckoff: That’s correct. NOAA has explicitly stated that there are no known links between large whale deaths and ongoing offshore wind activities, even with major projects like South Fork Wind and Block Island Wind being completed.

Patrick Flanary: While researchers continue to assess the risks, there has been a surge in misinformation regarding offshore wind’s impact on right whales. Can you shed some light on this?

Eve Zuckoff: Certainly. In recent years, various local groups, such as Nantucket Residents for Whales, have emerged, expressing concerns about the impact of offshore wind on whales and filing lawsuits against wind projects. However, research has revealed potential connections between these grassroots groups and larger organizations with vested interests in fossil fuel industries.

Dr. Timmons Roberts from Brown University, who studies climate change disinformation, highlighted evidence suggesting a coordinated effort by certain think tanks to disseminate misleading information through seemingly independent local groups.

Moreover, while offshore wind is often demonized, experts emphasize that climate change poses a far greater threat to right whales by altering their habitats and food sources due to rising temperatures.

Patrick Flanary: Despite these challenges, do scientists believe that offshore wind and right whales can coexist safely?

Eve Zuckoff: There is cautious optimism among scientists that offshore wind projects can be conducted in a manner that minimizes harm to right whales. Developers have implemented various measures, such as noise reduction strategies and seasonal construction restrictions, to mitigate potential risks.

However, ongoing research and regulatory oversight are essential to ensuring the continued safety of right whales amidst offshore wind development. Ultimately, if managed responsibly, offshore wind farms have the potential to not only coexist with right whales but also play a crucial role in combating climate change.

Patrick Flanary: Thank you, Eve Zuckoff, for your insights on this complex issue. We look forward to hearing more on NPR’s Science Friday tomorrow.


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