Almost a quarter of the remaining North Atlantic right whale population may be present between December and May in some of the southern New England waters designated for offshore wind development, leading to additional concerns for the beleaguered and dwindling species.
In a new study published July 29 in “Endangered Species Research,” researchers from NOAA Fisheries, the New England Aquarium and the Center for Coastal Studies lay out the importance of the region to migrating North Atlantic right whales and raise the potential for conflicts between whales and the development of the massive marine wind farms.
“We found that right whale use of the region increased during the last decade, and since 2017 whales have been sighted there nearly every month, with large aggregations occurring during the winter and spring,” said Tim Cole, a co-author of the study and the leader of the whale aerial survey team at NOAA’s Northeast Fisheries Science Center. “Considerable uncertainty still exists regarding how the development of the region could have an impact on right whales just as they are becoming more reliant on the region.”
The study’s conclusions, based on aerial survey data from 2011 to 2015 and 2017 to 2019 in offshore waters that include the Massachusetts and Rhode Island wind energy areas, depict an escalating presence of right whales – including large percentages of reproductive females.
“It showed that between December and May, almost a quarter of the right whale population may be present in the region,” NOAA Fisheries said in a release describing the study and its conclusions. “The study also found that the residence time for individuals in the area during winter and spring has increased to an average of 13 days over the last decade.”
Whale researchers estimate the current population of North Atlantic right whales at about 360, with fewer than 100 reproductively active females remaining.
The study stated the first documentation of large numbers of right whales in the waters of southern New England in 2010 came from aerial surveys by the Northeast Fisheries Science Center. The aquarium’s visual and acoustic monitoring during 2011to 2015 “found consistent use of the region by more than one-third of the population, including 30% of the reproductive females.”
Researchers have pointed to ship strikes and whale entanglements in commercial fishing gear – such as lobstering gear – as the two prominent human causes for the decline of the stock.
The construction of the planned wind farms, according to the study, potentially expands the list of threatening impacts to the right whales.
Those include increased ocean noise and vessel traffic, as well as possible habitat changes and alterations to foraging opportunities.
“Increased vessel traffic in the region will bring with it a greater risk of vessel strikes,” NOAA Fisheries said in its summary of the study’s findings. “Increased noise from wind turbine construction, operations and vessels could also directly impact important whale behaviors and interfere with the detection of critical acoustic cues.”
The study’s conclusions also established the importance of mitigating measures to protect the whales.
“Implementing mitigation measures by all companies holding leases will be crucial, and should be adapted and reevaluated continually in relation to the whales’ use of the area,” Cole said. “A variety of studies will be needed to understand potential changes in right whale distribution patterns and to inform appropriate strategies for future wind energy development.”
There are at least a dozen offshore wind projects in the review pipeline. The Vineyard Wind project has emerged as the nation’s first commercial-scale project and the darling of the burgeoning U.S. wind industry.
The project calls for the installation of 84 wind turbines about 12 miles south of Martha’s Vineyard. Developers expect the wind farm will produce about 800 megawatts of electricity, or enough to satisfy the electricity needs of 400,000 homes. Developers also estimate the project also will create 3,658 full-time jobs in Massachusetts between 2019 and 2047.
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