Groups Investigating Death Of Critically Endangered Whale Take Wind Industry Money
Feb 2, 2024 .Paid
∙Rope, not the wind industry, killed the critically endangered North Atlantic right whale found dead last Monday, claim scientific organizations, the US government, and the news media. “This case highlights the ongoing threat right whales and other whale species have been facing from fishing gear entanglements for decades,” said Amy Knowlton of the New England Aquarium, which is working with the North Atlantic Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) to identify the cause of death.
But neither Knowlton nor anyone else knows if the rope killed the three-year-old female whale, who is known only as “5120.” Whales can live long lives with a rope embedded in their bodies. Indeed, nearly 90 percent of right whales have been entangled in rope at least once, and others as often as nine times. This young whale was first observed to have rope around her tail in August 2022.
It’s true that, in the past, rope entanglements were the primary cause of death for North Atlantic right whales, and late today, NOAA reported that “The necropsy showed no evidence of blunt force trauma.”
But NOAA did not address whether high-decibel sonar, measured at illegal levels last year, played a role. Nor did NOAA establish a cause of death. “Cause of death is pending further histological and diagnostic testing of collected samples, which can take weeks to complete.
Three-year-old North Atlantic right whale, known only as “5120,” daughter of Squill.
As such, it is inappropriate for the New England Aquarium, which is participating in NOAA’s investigation of the cause of the whale’s death, to suggest that rope entanglement killed the whale before NOAA has completed its investigation.
And this is particularly inappropriate since the threats to the whales have increased as boat traffic related to offshore wind development increased.
Since 2016, NOAA has declared three “Unusual Mortality Events” involving large whale species in the Atlantic Ocean, including the North Atlantic right whale. The beginning of those declarations coincides with increased wind industry boat traffic near dead whales, found Lisa Linowes, co-founder of Save the Right Whales Coalition (SRWC), in a recent study.
The report by Linowes and Eric Turner documents geographic and volume-based evidence of marine mammal deaths that correlate directly to wind industry boat activity from 2016 forward.
Three active industrial wind energy projects — Vineyard Wind 1, South Fork Wind, and Revolution Wind — surround Martha’s Vineyard, where the dead whale was found.
NOAA has offered no information for why so many whales, including North Atlantic right whales, are dying. And yet vessel track data show intensive wind industry work coincided with the deaths of seven North Atlantic right whales on or near Martha’s Vineyard in Massachusetts between August 2017 and August 2018.
A separate investigation by SRWC into recent whale deaths in the Atlantic found that the noise produced by offshore wind sonar activities is much louder than NOAA Fisheries’ National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) has reported. Consequently, the setback distances adopted by NMFS to protect ocean life from the noise are too short and place whales and other marine mammals at a high risk of encountering harmful levels.
SRWC’s finding is supported by a sound study conducted by Rand Acoustics, LLC, a leading acoustics firm in Maine. Last year, Rand captured actual high-decibel noise much louder than NMFS, and the project sponsor said it would be.
“This finding suggests that there has been a complete breakdown in the system designed to protect marine wildlife and protect the North Atlantic right whale from extinction,” said Linowes. “We have requested emergency action by NMFS and BOEM to address this matter.”
Given all of that, why did New England Aquarium rush to judgment?
Wind Industry Pays For Autopsies
In 2021, Vikki Spruill, the President of New England Aquarium, told a reporter, “We are getting contracts with all of the wind developers, again, who are helping to underwrite our research: We’re going to look at what’s happening with the ecosystems and the fish populations in the areas where wind turbines are going to be sited.”
The New England Aquarium received a donation pledge of $250,000 in 2018 from Bay State Wind. In 2019, Vineyard Wind donated an undisclosed amount to the Aquarium. In 2020, Equinor also donated an undisclosed amount, and in 2021 and 2022, Vineyard Wind, Equinor, Orsted, and Southcoast Wind Energy gave money.
The New England Aquarium had made no statements supporting offshore wind before the pledged donation from Bay State Wind in 2018, but has since publicly supported offshore wind. Before Spruill was president of New England Aquarium, she was the president of SeaWeb, an organization that campaigned against the fishing industry.
Linowes expressed surprise that the US government allows the New England Aquarium to participate in the whale autopsy, given that it takes money from the wind energy industry. But the New England Aquarium is not alone. SRWC has found that at least four of the entities involved with the young whale’s necropsy have taken money directly from offshore wind developers, including Atlantic Marine Conservation Society, Center for Coastal Studies, and the Virginia Aquarium.
“We don’t trust groups funded by the tobacco industry to evaluate deaths from lung cancer,” said Linowes. “Why would we trust groups funded by the industrial wind industry to evaluate whale deaths that occur in proximity to the wind projects? It’s a clear conflict of interest.”
A spokesperson for the New England Aquarium told Public, “The Aquarium provided one biologist from our Animal Care team… Our scientists would prefer to let NOAA and those more immersed in the necropsy speak to the specifics of this case, such as the cause of death and the work that is needed to further investigate that.”
There are only 360 North Atlantic right whales left and fewer than 70 reproductively active females. The mother of 5120 is named “Squill.” The three-year-old, 5120, was her only calf.
Any additional death could result in extinction. Any US government official, wind industry official, or NGO executive who is participating in activities resulting in the death of an endangered species can be sentenced to prison.
Linowes said the government and its industry-funded allies inappropriately blamed rope.
“Within 24 hours of the news reaching the public about the dead whale,” she said, “NOAA released images of the rope around the whale’s tail, suggesting that entanglement was the cause of death. And yet NOAA still has not officially determined a cause of death?” NOAA appears more concerned about conducting psychological operations than independent science.
Over the past year, both the US government’s NOAA and the Bureau of Oceanic Energy Management (BOEM) have refused to evaluate and, instead, disparaged the evidence that correlates industrial wind boat traffic and whale deaths, as well as sonar research finding unpermitted levels of sound by the wind industry.
Residents on Martha’s Vineyard reported that roughly three nights before the whale was found, they heard large blasts of noise. These same individuals heard the pile-driving at the Vineyard Wind I project, which was 12 to 14 miles away.
Ocean vessel tracks in the Atlantic prior to 2016 show that very little marine traffic beyond fishing and pleasure boats occurred within the wind lease areas. Annual aggregate vessel tracks within established shipping lanes and in areas close to shore appear relatively constant over the period from 2015 to 2023, with nominal changes year-over-year.
The change in vessel activity after 2015 coincided with the U.S. Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM) finalizing lease agreements with OSW developers. Traffic within the lease areas materially increased.
“This added vessel activity obviously raised the risks of vessel strikes,” said Linowes, who coauthored the analysis. “The traffic has also increased noise levels in southern New England waters, which is proven to stress whales and separate mothers and calves.”
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