“Tail! Tail!” shouts Dr. Howard Rosenbaum, a marine biologist, before grabbing his crossbow, as we close in on a humpback whale.
Rosenbaum gets into position on the bow of the boat, stands firmly with legs apart, takes aim, and fires at the 40-foot cetacean. The arrow that he releases doesn’t have a point – it has a hollow 2-inch tip to collect skin and blubber, and a cork-like stopper to prevent it from penetrating too deeply.
“Oh, yeah!” come shouts from the small research crew. The hit looks clean. Sure enough, when they scoop the floating arrow out of the water, its tip is filled with a small white sliver of whale flesh, containing DNA that will help identify the humpback and its pod and potentially say something about its migratory patterns.
This is the sort of research that Rosenbaum, the director of the Wildlife Conservation Society’s “Ocean Giants” program, has been doing for decades around the globe. Recently, though, whale monitoring has taken on a new urgency in Rosenbaum’s own native habitat – the Atlantic waters off New York City and Long Island.
As whale populations have grown, the WCS and its collaborator, the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, have been monitoring them, with an eye toward mediating conflicts with the ocean’s heaviest users: cargo ships, commercial fishing trawlers and the U.S. military.
Now, the whales are poised to get many new, potentially disruptive neighbors: hundreds of skyscraper-high wind turbines, rising from the ocean floor.
The New York Energy Research and Development Authority has awarded two large contracts for offshore wind and anticipates several more in the coming years. The first phase, expected to be complete by 2024, involves dozens of wind turbines in two different offshore plots, leased by energy companies from the federal Bureau of Ocean Energy Management. They would generate 1700 megawatts – enough to power more than one million homes.
These would be the largest offshore wind farms in North America and among the largest in the world. Subsequent phases are slated to build hundreds of turbines to generate 9,000 megawatts by 2035.
Rosenbaum’s mission is to share information about the whales, in particular their feeding and migratory patterns, with regulators and the energy developer, a Norwegian multinational corporation called Equinor, and together craft strategies to mitigate damage to the whales’ habitat.
“Everyone is interested in the benefits of renewable energy and what that does for our climate and for society,” Rosenbaum says, as the boat motors to Equinor’s lease area, an 80,000-acre triangle 20 miles south of Queens and Nassau County. “We also want to protect the wildlife and these habitats.’
Equinor is primarily a fossil fuel developer, drilling for oil and natural gas around the globe. A spokeswoman for the company’s North American operation says the company has a “zero harm mandate” when it comes to extracting natural resources – which they hope to exceed in this project.
Environmentalists are naturally skeptical of such energy producers, but the major groups in the region believe the risks posed by climate change, to ocean life and all life, are so vast that they justify whatever risks to local habitat might come from offshore wind farms. They’re hopeful the trade-offs will be minimal.
“It’s possible to harmonize protections for marine life with ambitious efforts to fight the climate crisis,” says Francine Kershaw, from the Natural Resources Defense Council.
Catherine Bowes, from the National Wildlife Federation, praises Equinor for committing to a new construction technology that will lower enormous prefabricated cement foundations for the wind turbines, rather than pile-driving into bedrock to hold the 850-foot-tall steel towers in place.
Whales are extremely sensitive to noise, she says, so avoiding the extremely noisy process of pile-driving is a big step.
“These ‘gravity foundations’ are a really exciting technology that could change how everyone puts up turbines,” says Bowes, who is a member of the Environmental Working Group overseeing New York’s two projects. “They could potentially take one really large threat to whales off the table.”
But Bowes would also like to see Equinor and the other company that won a New York contract, the Danish corporation Orsted, put into writing strict commitments comparable to one made recently by a Massachusetts developer, Vineyard Wind, especially on how they manage their boats during construction and then later, during the multi-decade-long operational period.
“Ship strikes are the single greatest risk to whales,” she says. “We need to get all developers to commit to actively monitoring for whales and to reducing ship speeds to avoid hitting the animals.”
In one study, NOAA estimated that 37 whales were killed by boat strikes between 2010 and 2014, from the Gulf of Mexico up the Atlantic coast to Canada, but more recent monitoring by the Atlantic Marine Conservation Society found roughly that many whales killed by boats in a two-year period – off New York alone.
“We believe we can actually be part of the solution here in bringing back whales and improving the whole ecosystem,” says Julia Bovey, Equinor’s director of external affairs in New York. “The data Howard and his team are collecting can make a massive difference in how we affect the marine environment.”
Equinor is underwriting much of the research. The company declined to say how much it is spending, but Rosenbaum estimates that two sophisticated buoys they will soon deploy will cost “hundreds of thousands of dollars.” These “near-real-time acoustic monitors” record whale calls and relay them to on-shore scientists via satellite.
“We need to be able to stop construction when the whales are in the area and be able to construct responsibly when they’re not there, and the information from these buoys will be crucial,” Bovey says.
While all whales are considered vulnerable, the North Atlantic Right Whale is among the most endangered animals on earth. There are only about 400 of them, according to the latest research by the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration.
There are two sets of dangers to whales that Rosenbaum hopes the data he’s collecting will mitigate. The first is ship strikes during the construction period. The other is the long-term danger the massive underwater structures and the transmission cables might pose to the whales. That is largely unknown, as whales do not migrate through the massive offshore wind farms in Europe.
“Does it create better foraging areas for whales? Does it disturb an area they might use?” Rosenbaum wonders aloud. “I think these are all questions that are all going to be borne out in the years to come.”
The wind farm project predates a massive greenhouse gas reduction package the state government passed earlier this year, but it has become a centerpiece of what Gov. Andrew Cuomo is calling New York’s ‘Green New Deal.’ The legislation calls for 100% renewable energy by 2040, with a plan for reaching that goal to be mapped out in the next two years.
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