With three wind farms already planned for the waters south of the Vineyard, the New England Aquarium has launched a yearlong study to help mitigate the effects of construction on North Atlantic right whales.
“Nobody has put a wind farm in an area where you have a lot of large whales,” said Scott Kraus, senior marine mammal scientist at the aquarium, which has teamed up with the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution and Center for Coastal Studies on the project, which began this winter. “So this is a bit of an experiment.”
Researchers hope to create a baseline for understanding marine mammals in the area, including leatherback and loggerhead turtles, but with a focus on critically endangered North Atlantic right whales, whose western feeding grounds extend from Massachusetts to Nova Scotia.
The new study could inform the federal government’s decision as to when to allow construction in the Massachusetts wind energy area that begins about 14 miles south of the Vineyard, and a smaller area to the west. Two projects are planned for the larger area (with two leases still available) and and one in the smaller area.
North Atlantic right whales are often observed feeding in Cape Cod Bay, but their presence south of the Vineyard came as a surprise to researchers during a four-year study beginning in 2011. Mr. Kraus said the whales tend to move west from the south side of Nantucket, past Martha’s Vineyard and toward Rhode Island in the spring. He said understanding food sources in the area could allow researchers to predict when the whales will arrive and depart.
The aquarium will conduct aerial surveys over the next year, using photographs to create a catalogue of individual whales. At the same time, the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution and Center for Coastal Studies will conduct boat-based research on food density and composition in the area.
Mr. Kraus said the surveys have revealed about two dozen right whales so far, although it’s hard to get a clear picture. “They are quite cryptic,” he said. “They can dive for 20 minutes at a time. So you could see a few animals at the surface; there could be a lot more below.”
In contrast, he said, more than 112 right whales – an unusually high number – were spotted in Cape Cod Bay in a single day last week. (One juvenile was found dead and towed into Sesuit Harbor in Dennis on Thursday.) According to the North Atlantic Right Whale Consortium, the worldwide population is around 524 – up from 490 in 2010, although calving rates have declined in recent years.
The Massachusetts Clean Energy Center, which is funding and managing the study, has been working since 2011 to examine the barriers to offshore wind development in the state and keep the process moving forward.
MassCEC offshore wind director Bill White, who has been visiting the Island periodically since 2009 to conduct public meetings, said it could take years for developers to collect all the data necessary for their permits. He said the group’s advance-planning approach to offshore wind has informed both siting and the federal permitting process and is the first of its kind in the country.
The New England Aquarium has been doing aerial and acoustic surveys related to offshore wind development for about six years, but it’s still unclear how the proposed wind farms will affect right whales.
“The biggest concern is really about the construction phase, when you are doing pile driving, producing quite a bit of noise,” Mr. Kraus said. Boat traffic is also a concern, he added, although the additional boats would be traveling mostly at low speeds. “Beyond that, these wind turbines are going to be spaced pretty far apart, so it’s a little difficult to know how they are going to affect the habitat,” he said. “These are just open questions. We don’t have any red flags, but we don’t know.”
Meanwhile, MassCEC is working with the WHOI, the University of Rhode Island and the federal Bureau of Ocean Energy Management on a pilot study that could provide real-time acoustic data about the presence of right whales. Mr. White said a buoy has already been deployed for the purpose.
“When a right whale is detected in a certain radius, the idea is to alert the offshore developers who are building the farm,” he said. “We would basically stop construction while a North Atlantic right whale was in the area.”
But for now, he said, the focus is on determining a time-of-year restriction for developers based on the available data. He said the restriction would likely apply from around November to April.
The New England Aquarium-led study could have implications beyond offshore wind development in the region. Mr. Kraus said researchers knew little about the study area before 2011. “It’s hard to know what role it plays in the way right whales move around the North Atlantic,” he said. “But I think we are going to get a handle on it.”
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