A local citizens group has announced the creation of the Save Right Whales Coalition, which is determined to stop offshore wind turbine projects that members say could harm whales.
“Any species whose numbers are this low requires that we not take any additional action that could harm these whales,” political and environmental author and activist Michael Shellenberger said of the endangered North Atlantic right whales. “Particularly given that we have an abundance of nuclear and natural gas resources that would provide a sufficient alternative to these large industrial wind turbines.”
During a Zoom teleconference last week, he said the coalition is composed of members from organizations that include Nantucket Residents Against Turbines, the national Wildlife Energy & Community Coalition, and California-based Environmental Progress (for which Shellenberger is founder and president).
The Save Right Whales Coalition is seeking a moratorium on all offshore wind projects “until further scientific research can be conducted” on their impact on the North Atlantic right whale population, Shellenberger said.
In addition, he said, the group is addressing the record of decision that recently granted Vineyard Wind federal approval to move forward with a large-scale offshore wind energy installation in Nantucket Sound.
Vineyard Wind employees and supporters celebrated a groundbreaking ceremony Nov. 18 on Covell Beach in Centerville for its 800-megawatt wind farm, the first utility-scale project in the country. Vineyard Wind’s lease area is approximately 12 miles south of Martha’s Vineyard. Federal officials said they could build up to 62 turbines at this location to produce 800 megawatts of power.
Nantucket resident Mary Chalke said last week that she is a member of Save Right Whales Coalition and Nantucket Residents Against Turbines, which filed a lawsuit in August against the U.S. Bureau of Ocean Energy Management to block construction of offshore wind turbines in the region. She said she was concerned about the impact of wind farms on “pristine unspoiled ocean, ironically, in the core habitat of the critically endangered North Atlantic right whale.”
“I saw pictures of white blades spinning in unison over a glistening sea, as natural as the breeze,” Chalke said. “But what was less visible, is a planned industrialization and transformation of the natural seabed into concrete metal, high voltage, electrical cables, and rock by federal agencies who are charged with protecting our endangered species.”
What scientists say
Mark Baumgartner, a senior scientist and marine ecologist at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, said in a phone interview that he understands vessel activities and associated construction can seem alarming, but said he doesn’t “envision a lot of impact” on the right whale from wind farms.
“The plans that I have seen for wind farm construction show the turbines about a mile apart from one another and I don’t envision a lot of impact that would affect food resources,” he said. “Offshore wind is just one more industrial activity that these animals that live in the ocean have to deal with. I absolutely understand the concern. But hopefully we are doing our part trying to help these industries figure out how to minimize their impact on a species like the right whale.”
During the press conference, Shellenberger pointed to a 2019 agreement between the National Resources Defense Council, National Wildlife Federation and Conservation Law Foundation and Vineyard Wind. The agreement outlined protective measures Vineyard Wind must take during all phases of construction, such as comprehensive monitoring.
Per the agreement, these measures have the potential to keep right whales safe as operating turbines are installed, he said. In that agreement, Vineyard Wind also pledged to cease construction if right whales migrate close to construction sites.
But Shellenberger said the agreement will expire after five years unless it’s amended or renewed. The safety measures listed in the agreement are “insufficient,” he said, especially since large offshore wind farms were “already scrutinized heavily” by the same organizations in a 2017 written assessment.
“Initially these entities (that entered the agreement with Vineyard Wind) said that no additional risk or harm to these whales would be acceptable,” he said. “We were distressed to learn that these organizations signed off allowing this wind project to move forward.”
Lisa Linowes, a longtime wind energy opponent and member of Save the Whales Coalition, also addressed the agreement and said the “federal government is pressing too quickly to get these (wind farm) projects built.”
“We, unfortunately, have environmental groups that stayed in favor of these projects being built with very limited understanding of the impacts, and various limited understanding as to whether or not the mitigation that they’re talking about will be submitted,” Linowes said.
The effect of climate change
Jessica Redfern, senior scientist and EcoMap chair at Anderson Cabot Center for Ocean Life at the New England Aquarium in Boston, said in a phone interview, the situation for right whales is dire. The latest estimates show the total right whale population at 336 in 2020, an 8% percent decrease from 2019 and a 30% decrease since 2011, according to the New England Aquarium website.
Recent research has linked the decline of North Atlantic right whales to human interactions that include net entanglements and vessel strikes. And Redfern said it’s chiefly climate change that’s influencing right whales’ critical endangerment.
While the impact of offshore wind projects “remains largely unknown,” Redfern said, Vineyard Wind hopes to eliminate 1.68 million metric tons of carbon dioxide emissions annually – the equivalent of taking 325,000 cars off the road, according to Vineyard Wind’s website.
“One of the stressors for right whales is climate change and offshore wind is something that will help reduce climate change – which we know for sure is having negative impacts on the right whales,” Redfern said.
Baumgartner said that human populations need to be less reliant on fossil fuels in order to successfully boost right whale populations.
“Continuing to rely on fossil fuels is not good for the planet and not good for right whales – we know that,” he said. “They are likely already responding to climate change as conditions in the ecosystem change in the Gulf of Maine and in the wider northwest Atlantic Ocean.”
Climate change is already having a profound effect on right whale populations as a rapidly warming Gulf of Maine is believed to be the cause for changes in the timing and location of zooplankton blooms that are the primary source of food of the right whales, researchers say. Since 2010, right whales have been harder for researchers to find in areas where they were regular seasonal visitors.
Instead, right whales are on the move, seeking food, and moving farther offshore where the lobster gear is heavier and more durable and harder for right whales to break free from. They also venture into Canada where they had been rarely seen before. The Canadian snow crab and lobster fisheries and their shipping industry did not have the right whale protections that existed in the U.S., and that has resulted in a dozen right whale deaths in Canadian waters in 2017 alone. Scientists have determined that less than one right whale a year can die from human causes if the species is to recover.
In order for offshore wind development to move forward, Redfern said, development must be done in a manner that “minimizes potential impacts” to the right whale and advocates for visual observations in the air and on the ocean, as well as passive acoustic monitoring.
The importance of monitoring
“Passive acoustic monitoring is when we have devices in the water. Scientists are listening and recording the vocalizations of animals,” Redfern said.
Because the New England Aquarium has been flying aerial surveys in “wind energy areas” such as Martha’s Vineyard since 2011, Redfern said “time series data” – also known as a collection of observations – has already been collected about marine mammals, with a particular focus on large whales.
“It’s really important for time series data to continue because it gives us this nice baseline of data that we can build from, to understand if there’s any changes in right whale distributions when wind energy construction starts,” she said. “It will also give us insight into what we might need to do to mitigate.”
The U.S. Department of Energy recently awarded $13.5 million to various universities and research institutions to investigate environmental impacts of wind farms.
Despite federal approval for Vineyard Wind’s offshore wind turbine project, Shellenberger said, the Save Right Whales Coalition will continue to push back, expand the coalition and make connections with other anti-wind farm groups along the East Coast.
“Obviously, Vineyard Wind is just one part of a potential offshore wind expanded projects and our ambition will be to continue to seek a moratorium – not just for Vineyard Wind but all pieces of this,” he said. “We feel like it’s important to highlight the unique impacts of this species, which I don’t think people appreciate. We have the science showing that this is a species that can’t withstand any more impacts and we felt like we needed to come together as conservationists to address it.”
Doug Fraser contributed to this story.
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