The sighting of North Atlantic right whales in Nantucket Sound this week has tripped another round of debate over whether the proposed Cape Wind project would put the endangered animals at risk.
Fishermen on one vessel reported the whales in the Sound on Monday to both the Alliance to Protect Nantucket Sound and the National Marine Fisheries Service.
Audra Parker, president of the alliance, the leading organization opposed to the proposal to erect 130 wind turbines in the Sound, said the whales were reported about three miles off Dennis and swimming toward Horseshoe Shoal, where the turbines would be located.
Fisheries Service aerial survey teams did spot three right whales in the Sound on Monday, which prompted a voluntary mariner speed reduction to 10 knots or less, NMFS spokeswoman Teri Frady said Wednesday.
Tanya Grady, a spokeswoman for the Provincetown Center for Coastal Studies, called the fishing vessel’s sightings unconfirmed but said a team hopes to fly over the Sound today to try to spot the whales.
This has been a record spring for right whales in local waters. More than 200 right whales – about half the known population – have been spotted off the Cape over the past few weeks. Most are feeding in Cape Cod Bay, with some off the Outer Cape and to the north off Stellwagen Bank.
Parker pointed to the speed restrictions as an indication that the Sound is too environmentally sensitive for the construction of large wind turbines.
“From our perspective, we are concerned about the impact of Cape Wind on right whales,” she said Wednesday.
The Alliance to Protect Nantucket Sound is a co-plaintiff in a lawsuit that contends Nantucket Sound turbines will negatively affect birds, sea turtles and right whales.
With fewer than 500 known individuals, North Atlantic right whales are the most endangered of the great whales in the North Atlantic. The death of even one whale from human causes sets back the recovery of the species, especially if the lost whale is a female.
Parker said her major concern over the whales is with turbine construction, specifically the underwater noise caused by pile drivers installing turbine towers. She also mentioned the possibility of ships colliding with whales during increased vessel traffic to the site during the construction effort.
But Cape Wind spokesman Mark Rodgers said the nine-year environmental review of the project incorporates the possibility that right whales could be in the Sound and proposes mitigation strategies to protect the marine mammals.
“Right whale sightings in Nantucket Sound are comparatively rare compared with neighboring water bodies,” Rodgers said. “There are protocols we’ll have to follow during construction to make sure there aren’t any marine mammals in close proximity, particularly for acoustics.”
When former state Secretary for Environmental Affairs Ian Bowles certified the final environmental impact report for Cape Wind in 2007, he noted that construction vessels would travel at 14 knots or less in an area with low concentrations of rare or endangered species. To minimize the impact of noise, Cape Wind has proposed posting an observer and suspending operations if marine mammals are seen within 500 meters of construction activity. The company has committed to keeping sound levels below 180 decibels beyond a 500-meter safety zone as required by the Fisheries Service, even during pile driving.
The voluntary speed restrictions established this week will continue until at least May 10. The Fisheries Service hopes that by then, the whales will have moved on.
Although rare in Nantucket Sound, right whales have been observed there in the past. Five separate sightings were reported in the Sound last year, for a total of about 15. Those observations and the discovery of 98 right whales immediately south of Nantucket Sound in Rhode Island Sound last April – the largest group ever documented in those waters – prompted the Fisheries Service to review its 2008 biological opinion on Cape Wind, Frady said. But that review reached the same conclusion: Cape Wind is not likely to jeopardize the continued existence of right whales or other whale species.
Nantucket Sound is not included with Cape Cod Bay and the Great South Channel off Chatham as critical right whale habitat, according to the Fisheries Service.
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