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Why are more whales getting stranded on the East Coast?

A sudden rise of humpback whales and North Atlantic right whales stranded along the East Coast has stirred speculation on what's the real cause.
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Posted at 9:02 PM, Apr 19, 2023
and last updated 2023-04-26 15:51:39-04

There's a maritime mystery brewing along the East Coast.

According to federal data, more than 30 whales have been found washed up along the eastern shore since Dec. 1, with over a dozen of them off the coast of New York and New Jersey. 

To get a sense of just how unusual that is, take a look at this data from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration: Since 2016, NOAA has recorded unusual strandings for species like humpback whales or the endangered North Atlantic right whale. There's been a sudden jump in just the first few months of this year, already almost matching the total strandings for all of 2022. 

And the debate over what's causing the strandings has turned political.

The development of offshore wind farms has taken off in recent years in the North Atlantic, and some activists have called to halt the projects, believing the wind farm construction is what's causing the deaths. 

"Stop all the noise and make sure that the offshore wind activity is not contributing to these whale deaths," said Cindy Zipf, executive director of Clean Ocean Action. "As we have said for years, we're not opposed to the idea of offshore wind development, but we want to make sure it's done right."

Opponents of the renewable energy projects have seized on the story as proof the projects are doing more harm than good, but three federal scientific agencies have disagreed.

In January, NOAA and the U.S. Bureau of Ocean Energy Management said there was no evidence linking the whale deaths to the wind farms. In late February, the Marine Mammal Commission agreed with those findings, even pushing back on the idea that the number of whale deaths is unusual.

Early this month, NOAA determined at least one project off the coast of New Jersey "is likely to adversely affect, but is not likely to jeopardize, the continued existence of any species."

So what is the wider context for these findings, and what else could explain the whale strandings?

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Shipping and boat traffic on the East Coast has ramped up dramatically in the last couple of years. Last year, the Port of New York and New Jersey became the busiest port in the United States for the first time in over 20 years. It held the title for four months last year, then reclaimed the throne earlier this year.

This is coinciding with an increase of whales in the area. Just ask Joy Reidenberg, who is an expert on comparative anatomy and marine mammals in particular.

"We are upset about so many whales dying, but we're also slightly happy because that means we have so many whales," Reidenberg said. "We've done such a good job protecting the whales that the population has grown tremendously."

Reidenberg is one of many researchers that gets called to the scene to try and figure out why the whale died, and she explained the biggest problem here is just the lack of concrete knowledge.

"Trying to do the detective work to pin that down means we have to have a fresh carcass," she said. "If the carcass is decomposed, there's very little information we can get, and a very large number of the carcasses that we get are in that condition, which means that it's a little bit of a mystery."

There's been speculation online that the noise from the construction has been enough to disrupt whale communication, which relies on complex "whale songs" and calls. The theory is that the disruption leads to more collisions. However, most of the whales that have been found are humpback whales, which don't use sound for navigation, and some experts note the sounds of the seismic surveys used to build wind farms are at a tolerable level for humpback whales.

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"A seismic survey is sound put into the water to investigate the substrate of the ocean floor and figure out whether that's a good substrate upon which to build a wind farm. So you don't want to put it on sand; you want to put it on rock," Reidenberg said. "Whales had been observed feeding around seismic survey ships. They don't seem to care about the seismic survey ships, so that's a pretty good indicator that the frequencies that these ships are using are not bothering whales because it's not interfering with their normal behavior of feeding."

Wind farm activity is also much quieter than the drilling and seismic surveys typically used to search the ocean floor for oil and gas. Since those are deeper under the ocean floor, the sound wavelengths need to be louder and at lower frequencies.

"Seismic surveys have been in use, and they've been in use for many years now," Reidenberg said. "So if there was an uptick in whale strandings, we would have noticed it a long time ago, so I really don't think seismic surveys are any issue."

Ultimately, as Reidenberg pointed out, there just isn't enough data to be completely clear about the causes here, so lawmakers are calling for further research to determine what's behind the sudden deaths for whales.

In late March, a group of Democratic senators urged NOAA to further research causes behind the whale deaths. Across states, from Maine to South Carolina, more funding has been put into research and monitoring for the wind farms' operation.

And although there is currently no evidence linking the preparation for offshore windfarms with the sudden, recent rise of whale deaths, that won't stop the debate from dominating headlines, and it won't stop activists on both sides of the issue from demanding answers.


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