A Tale of Two Whale Protection Groups

Published September 19, 2023
whale tail fluke

There are two groups specializing in trying to protect the severely endangered North Atlantic Right Whale, of which only about 340 critters remain alive, fewer every month, it seems. One is new and small, while the other is old and big.

The small group says that offshore wind development is killing whales, which I, too, believe, but NOAA denies. The big group, which includes NOAA and some of their funded researchers, is now up to thinking about the possibility that offshore wind might actually affect the whales. This dramatic difference is worth exploring a bit.

The small group is the Save Right Whales Coalition (SRWC) at https://saverightwhales.org/. The really big group, founded in 1986, is the North Atlantic Right Whale Consortium (NARWC) at https://www.narwc.org/. The members of NARWC are a wealthy lot indeed.

The small Coalition is focused on wind, saying, “We are an alliance of grassroots environmental and community organizations, scientists, and conservationists working to protect the critically endangered North Atlantic right whale and other marine life from the industrialization of our ocean habitat through large-scale offshore wind energy development.”

The big Consortium says its mission is to “Eliminate human-caused mortality to right whales in critical habitats and migration corridors”. But their focus is on the old threats of fishing gear entanglement and ship strikes, never mentioning that both can be caused by the new and ongoing whale harassment noise from wind development.

Mind you, the big Consortium is now at least thinking about offshore wind. Their upcoming annual meeting has a session on it. Here are the presentations:

Session 2: Offshore Wind Interactions and Mitigation

— Upcalling behavior and patterns in North Atlantic right whales, implications for wind energy development

— Recommendations for real-time passive acoustic monitoring near offshore wind energy development activities to help mitigate risks to North Atlantic right whales

— From wind to whales: Potential hydrodynamic impacts of offshore wind on Nantucket Shoals region ecosystems

— Exploring overlap between NARW and ocean features: An autonomous-based oceanographic and ecological baseline

— BOEM-NOAA North Atlantic right whale and offshore wind strategy

Not exactly ‘save the whales from death’ stuff. Note that two of the five talks are by NOAA people, and the rest are their well-funded researchers. Regarding the so-called strategy in the last talk, I wrote about that here. There is no strategy.

In dramatic contrast, the Save Right Whales Coalition recently sent a letter of deep concern to NOAA Administrator Richard Spinrad. The Coalition has been doing its own research on harmful sonar noise, with disturbing results. Here is the beginning of their letter:

“Dear Dr. Spinrad: We are writing to alert your attention to urgent and credible information involving offshore sonar activity occurring within wind lease areas in the Atlantic. Specifically, our data show that the sonar is producing Level B harassment noise levels at distances that exceed those set by NOAA Fisheries (NMFS). Consequently, the protective distances adopted in NMFS issued Incidental Harassment Authorizations (IHAs) for offshore wind sonar work are not protective at all. Rather, marine mammals are likely getting much closer to the sonar than should be allowed. We believe this is a major factor behind the recent spate of whale deaths in the Atlantic Ocean since December 1, 2022 and the ongoing Unusual Mortality Events (UMEs) dating back to 2017-18. The only mitigation for noise is distance. The shortened Level B the IHAs have, in effect, rendered any expected mitigations useless.”

A 5-page summary of these disturbing findings follows. See here.

This is by no means the first time NOAA has been given technical information regarding the threat of excessive noise from offshore wind development. Such noise can easily cause deadly behavior by whales, including ship strikes, entanglements, and reproductive decline.

We shall see how NOAA responds to this serious letter of concern from the Save Right Whales Coalition. Their ongoing research is also of great interest to us, especially since the rich North Atlantic Right Whale Consortium seems to be doing little or nothing about offshore wind.