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John and Christine Yap drove over an hour from their Branchburg home in Somerset County to the boardwalk outside of Jenkinson’s Aquarium, where they held signs that read: “We are in the beginning of a mass whale extinction” and “Stop ocean floor sonar mapping. It’s killing the whales.”
The couple were among the hundreds of people who crowded the boardwalk to join a “Save the Whales” rally on Sunday afternoon, where environmentalists and elected officials called for a halt to offshore wind energy development along the Jersey Shore.
The rally, hosted by the environmental organization Clean Ocean Action, followed the deaths of numerous whales, and most recently, three dolphins along the coast.
“They’re so reliant on their sonar, so they’re in a state of panic all the time,” said Christine Yap.
The Yaps joined the ranks of New Jersey residents who say that the sonar used to map the seafloor for future windfarm development is responsible for the deaths of whales and dolphins along the shores of New York and New Jersey since Dec. 1, 2022.
During that timeframe, 12 whales have died in both states, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, or NOAA.
In addition, three common dolphins stranded in Sandy Hook on Saturday and died. Their deaths are being investigated by the Marine Mammal Stranding Center of Brigantine.
“They’re actually swimming blind, in a sense,” said Christine Yap. “A deaf whale is a dead whale.”
Atlantic Shores Offshore Wind, which is preparing to build a turbine farm off Long Beach Island, said on its website that seafloor mapping technology is regularly used by mariners, academics and government personnel and does not harm fish.
Marine mammal advocates and NOAA, which is monitoring unusual numbers of whale deaths all along the Atlantic Coast, said there is no evidence that noise related to the mapping and other offshore wind farm work is responsible for the whale deaths.
Rather, they say the whale carcasses indicate that ship strikes and entanglement with fishing gear account for many of the mortalities.
In humpback whales, ship strikes and entanglement account for about 40% of deaths, according to NOAA. The agency said unusually high death rates are happening in the Atlantic Ocean among humpbacks, minke whales and the North Atlantic right whale.
Those high mortalities predate offshore wind development in the Atlantic and started in 2016 and 2017, depending on the whale species, according to the federal agency.
But Noah Baker of Cape May Whale Watcher said he suspects offshore wind development is playing some role because of the timing of the whales’ deaths and the offshore wind work.
“It’s our responsibility,” he said. “As people, we (have) got to take care of things. We’re the ones causing this. We got to clean it up.”
Marine mammal experts said that the more likely cause is a combination of whales feeding close to shore, which puts them as higher risk of ship strikes. To help protect whales, NOAA set speed limits for boats over 65 feet around major harbors and urged smaller vessels to voluntarily travel under 10 knots through the region.
Staff at the Marine Mammal Stranding Center said on Facebook that they are continuing to investigate the whales’ deaths, and noted that a virus outbreak could explain the unusually high numbers.
But Rep. Chris Smith of New Jersey’s 4th Congressional District is not waiting for the results as he presses the federal government to halt offshore wind work. He introduced legislation on Friday that would spur the U.S. Government Accountability Office to investigate the environmental review process for the projects.
“It’s potentially going to, in my opinion, cause catastrophic damage,” Smith said after the Sunday rally. “I don’t see how it doesn’t.”
When the wind turbine supports are hammered into the ocean floor, Smith said the “extreme noise” is likely to kill “all kinds of marine life.”
“This thing is the size of the Statue of Liberty,” he said of each turbine.
Several hundred turbines are planned for the waters off New York and New Jersey.
Offshore wind developers said they will mitigate harm to ocean life as their farms move forward, by disrupting the sound waves with so-called bubble curtains, which help muffle the noise through the water. The companies also plan to ramp up noise to scare animals out of the area to reduce harm, and will have animal spotters on boats to halt work if marine mammals approach the work area.
Denmark-based Ørsted, which is preparing to construct a windfarm off Atlantic City, is funding a whale-tracking app to help reduce harm to the animals, according to the company’s website. Ørsted is also working with scientists to reduce construction noise and impacts on ocean habitats, according to the website.
But opponents of offshore wind point to NOAA granting “incidental takes,” or permission to disturb or harass marine animals, to both companies as evidence that the development work is not harmless.
“We don’t know what’s going to happen to our ocean and the whales are trying to tell us,” said Anne Muller of Brigantine, who held a sign at the Point Pleasant Beach rally that read “Defend Brigantine Beach. We say no.”
“It’s been such a rush to get everything through (the offshore wind approval process),” said Shannon Wolski of Point Pleasant, who attended also Sunday’s rally. “Stop. Figure out what’s going on. If it’s not them (offshore wind developers), we’ll figure that out. But if it is them, then we need to stop.”
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