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Humpback whale that washed up on the Atlantic City beach had a large head injury; groups call for wind turbine inquiry
A young humpback whale that washed up on an Atlantic City beach on Saturday had evidence of a head injury, a large hematoma located just behind the blow hole, an official from the Marine Mammal Stranding Center said Monday.
“The only thing we suspect may have happened is that it was hit by a large boat,” said Sheila Dean, executive director of the Brigantine-based center. “There was a big hematoma.”
With environmental and citizens groups calling for a federal investigation into whether sonar mapping related to future wind turbine projects off the coast may have played a role in four recent humpback whale deaths in New Jersey, Dean said it was premature to conclude about a cause of death.
Others noted that the National Marine Fishery Service has designated an unusual mortality event for humpback whales based on an increase in mortality that began in 2016, before any wind energy activity.
Dean said samples from the whale were being tested “to see what else might be going on.” She said the whale was partially decomposed, which might affect how much could be determined.
The whale was the second to wash up in Atlantic City in 15 days. Another washed up in Strathmere on Dec. 10 and a fourth in North Wildwood in July.
On Sunday, following the necropsy, the 30-foot whale was buried in the sand on the beach where it washed ashore, just in front of Jim Whelan Boardwalk Hall. Local officials will continue to add sand so that it does not resurface.
A coalition of groups expressing alarm about the impact of coming wind turbines gathered there Monday afternoon at a spot Cindy Zipf, head of Clean Ocean Action, called “a tragic, grim welcome mat,” to the coming offshore wind facilities, the smell from the buried whale still hovering in the air.
Zipf called on the Biden administration to conduct a full investigation into the whale deaths as well as into the overall impact of the wind turbine energy farms she says are being fast-tracked without proper pilot testing.
“It’s too much, too fast,” she said. “It’s outrageous and our ocean deserves better.”
The groups, including citizen groups Project our Coast and Defend Brigantine Beach, cited six whale deaths, including two in New York, in what they described as an “unprecedented wave of whale deaths.”
They noted that the companies have 11 active “Incidental Take Authorizations,” from the National Marine Fisheries, which amount, said Suzanne Hornick of Protect Our Coast NJ, to a “license to kill.”
A spokesperson for Atlantic Shores, one of two companies planning large-scale wind farms off the coast of New Jersey, declined to comment, and would not specify what testing the company might be conducting on the ocean floor.
Representatives for Ørsted, the other company with a lease to build the farms off the Jersey coast, would not immediately comment and referred any statements to an outside public relations firm, Thomas Boyd Communications.
An impact statement on the wind project from the Board of Ocean Energy Management said there are 1,369 humpback whales in the area.
Dean, of the Marine Mammal Stranding Center, noted that because of warmer waters, there still is a large population of whales off the coast of New Jersey, which might be a factor in the elevated number of deaths.
“It’s pretty much common sense,” she said. “They’re out there.”
She said it takes time for the samples to yield any information. “There’s still a lot of testing,” she said.
There were no samples taken from the whale that washed up on Dec. 23 near the Tropicana, she said, because it was an especially cold and windy day, with a possible tornado, and officials decided to bury the animal quickly.
Danielle Brown, lead researcher for Gotham Whale, a whale advocacy and educational group, said there has been an observed increase in whale deaths for at least six years.
”This is not something that just happened in 2022 or 2023,” said Brown, a Ph.D. candidate at Rutgers University’s Department of Ecology, Evolution and Natural Resources.
Brown said the primary cause of whale deaths has come when they collide with ships or get entangled in fishing gear.
Brown said that the number of whales in the area has increased over the past decade as they follow schools of menhaden for food. ”So it does make sense that an increase in whales in the area would lead to an increase in strandings.”
Still, the recent whale deaths have rallied calls to halt the wind farms off the coast of New Jersey, where Gov. Phil Murphy has set a goal of producing 11,000 megawatts of offshore wind by 2040.
“We’ve worked all those years to stop ocean pollution, to stop ocean dumping, to stop liquified natural gas facilities, to stop off shore oil drilling,” said Zipf. “And this ocean has come back so beautifully. Marine life is thriving. Now we’re going to be facing a huge industrialization.”
New Jersey has approved several utility-scale offshore wind projects: Ocean Wind 1, approved by the state’s Board of Public Utilities in 2019, is owned by the global company Ørsted and Public Service Enterprise Group, parent company of PSE&G – the state’s largest power company.
Their 98 turbines would span an area from 15 to 27 miles starting southeast of the Atlantic City coast and would generate 1,100 megawatts of energy, enough to power more than 500,000 homes. Construction has not yet begun.
The BPU has approved two other wind projects: a 1,510 megawatt wind farm by EDF/Shell called Atlantic Shores Offshore Wind, and a 1,148-megawatt wind farm also by Ørsted and known as Ocean Wind 2. Another project is up for approval in 2023.
The Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, BOEM, filed a draft environmental impact statement last year for the Ocean Wind 1 project, calling for testing on the impact sounds from construction would have on whales, such as pile driving for the massive monopiles that will serve as foundations for turbines.
For example, more than 10,846 strikes are expected per pile with a rate of 50 strikes per minute.
Bob Stern, of Save Long Beach Island Inc., said the group they had cautioned the National Marine Fisheries Service a year ago that they were significantly underestimating the noise impacts from those surveys on marine mammals.
Whales, most often endangered right whales, have been used as a rallying cry for conservative and fossil fuel industry aligned groups fighting offshore wind projects.
The groups that gathered on the beach in Atlantic City on Monday dismissed any connection to those interests, and said they only took donations from individuals.
Protect Our Coast NJ raises donations for the Ocean Environment Legal Defense Fund through its Facebook group and a webpage. The fund is administered by the Caesar Rodney Institute, a Delaware-based group that originated as a conservative nonprofit, but now bills itself as nonpartisan.
Hornick said the institute has no role in the group’s activities beyond holding its funds.
The Heartland Institute, a national libertarian think tank, recently filed comments with the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management against an offshore wind project in Virginia, “to protect the endangered North Atlantic right whale.”
The Heartland Institute has been closely aligned with fossil fuel and conservative groups in the past, including Exxon Mobil the Mercer family and Koch Industries, though it no longer discloses its funding sources, according to DeSmog, which tracks climate denial efforts.
The North Atlantic right whale is one of the world’s most endangered whales with fewer than 350 left. The Heartland Institute’s comment said that the 15-megawatt Virginia project “would generate noise levels far in excess of the 120-decibel level which National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) has determined is the maximum safe operational level for underwater sound.”
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