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Newly released data reveal record number of cetacean deaths in UK waters 

Credit:  Jason Endfield | May 2, 2024 | jasonendfield.medium.com ~~

Shocking: 3000 dead whales, dolphins and porpoises in just 3 years.

After months of asking the UK Department for the Environment, Defra, to share the data for cetacean strandings, at last some information is emerging.

I’ve been calling on Defra to share the data for some time, and now I’m pleased to see that the 2019 and 2020 reports have been published. At the time of writing this, we are still awaiting the 2021 and 2022 data, but already the figures are terribly alarming and raise many questions.

3000 deaths in just three years

Tragically, more than 1000 whales, dolphins and porpoises were stranded around the UK in 2018 – and it was a similar number the following year with 980 cetaceans reported to the Cetacean Strandings Investigation Programme (CSIP) in 2019.

But in 2020, there was an unprecedented number of cetacean strandings with the highest figures ever recorded in the UK by the CSIP since its inception – a shocking 1102 cetaceans, comprising at least 16 species.

Even allowing for some animals that were re-floated, it means that more than 3000 whales, dolphins and porpoises perished around the UK’s coast in just three years.

The extraordinary upward trend in whale, dolphin and porpoise deaths suggests something is very wrong in the seas around Britain.

Biggest mass stranding event since records began

The 2020 figures included a mass stranding of at least seven Sperm whales in Yorkshire, on the North Sea coast.

This particular tragedy was the largest Sperm whale mass mortality event ever recorded in England since routine recording of strandings began in the UK in 1913.

Post mortem sampling was carried out on a few of the animals, and there was no sign of recent ship strike or fishing gear entanglement. In addition to this, the whales were thought to be in reasonable nutritional condition.

What is causing the huge upturn in cetacean deaths around the UK?

There could be a number of factors of course, there are many theories out there, but at least in the case of the Sperm whales in Yorkshire, we can largely rule out ship strike and entanglement, often casually blamed for the deaths of marine mammals. Whatever your hypothesis, whether you choose to blame climate change, naval sonar, fishing, pollution or plastics, don’t ignore the elephant in the room – industrial offshore wind farms.

The North Sea – an industrial development zone – at the expense of wildlife?

There has long been a general denial that offshore wind farms might be associated with the increase in whale deaths, but it should perhaps be noted that the aforementioned Sperm whales were stranded in an area where at least two offshore wind farms were operational at the time of the mass stranding event, both of them within just a few miles of where the whales were found, near the town of Withernsea. Meanwhile, other North Sea wind farm projects were under construction that year and a vast area of the North Sea had by then been designated a ‘development zone’ with further industrial offshore wind projects in the pipeline. Countries bordering the North Sea have hugely ambitious plans to vastly increase offshore wind capacity in the coming years.

The North Sea is rich in wildlife, but I believe that large areas of important ecosystems are under imminent threat as the industry rapidly expands.

Any debate over the cause behind the increase in strandings must include public discussion surrounding the rapid expansion of the offshore wind industry and the potential damage being done to marine ecosystems in its wake.

The offshore wind industry – and the “potential to kill”

A report, entitled ‘An Approach To Impulsive Noise Mitigation In English Waters’, commissioned by Defra and published in 2022, examined the management of underwater noise during wind farm construction. The report acknowledged that “construction of offshore wind farms has the potential to harm the marine environment.” It went on to say that “a key area of concern is impulsive noise … that is often loud and has a sudden onset, primarily generated from activities such as clearing wind farm sites of unexploded ordnance, installing wind turbine foundations and when undertaking seismic and geophysical surveys.” It also pointed out that “marine mammals are sensitive to these noise sources, which have the potential to kill, injure or disturb without appropriate mitigation.”

“Potential to kill” – it’s there in black and white.

The report summarised the outcome of a workshop which examined ways to mitigate the problem of underwater noise caused by the planned expansion of wind farm construction. Those involved in the workshop, including representatives from academia, the offshore wind industry, policy makers, regulators, and noise abatement technology providers, generally acknowledged that the issue will become especially relevant with the UK’s ambitious target of installing 50GW of offshore wind capacity by 2030. In order to achieve this target, the UK has to build thousands of additional offshore wind turbines.

The matter of industrial ocean noise caused by human activities has been cited as a threat to marine life for a long time, though those involved in the wind industry would doubtless maintain that they have always responsibly implemented noise management during their operations. The problem is that the current noise management approach might not be sufficient moving forward.

Indeed, the report noted that “developers are already required to implement marine mammal mitigation when undertaking noisy activities,” but added that “additional levels of mitigation may be needed in the future when constructing wind farms to reflect the increasing size of turbine generators and their associated foundations, and to manage in-combination effects which are are a major concern given the number of developments required over the next ten years and beyond.”

To avoid the deaths of more marine mammals, the mitigation discussed at the workshop would have to be flawless. That seems unlikely without extraordinary levels of monitoring and constant assessment, given the huge scale of industrialisation planned.

This makes it a moral and ethical issue. We’ve already heard suggestions that thousands more seabirds could perish if the North Sea wind industry expands. Can we really be sure that cetaceans won’t face the same fate? Selling the idea of green energy, while knowing that your work might be killing wildlife, would be a conflict too far for many – but not apparently for the wind industry.

To think that the whale used to be the very symbol of environmental conservation and now it may well become a victim of ill-conceived environmental policy.

Looking forward, unless the government monitors the industry constantly and takes rigorous action when environmental misdemeanors take place, then I think we might well look back in a few years and see a wholesale destruction of wildlife in the name of green energy. It’s an appalling thought.

Now with the stranding data finally emerging, we can clearly see that the numbers of cetacean deaths continues to increase in line with the industrialisation of our seas.

It’s really not rocket science, it looks very much like common sense to me. Sometimes you just have to call a spade a spade – and call out the fact that placing vast arrays of industrial wind turbines in a natural environment must be damaging to that environment. It’s a fact, surely? How could it be otherwise?

On land or at sea, the principle remains the same. If you industrialise a space where nature exists, that nature will be adversely affected when its habitat is compromised. So it is with any natural environment, including the ocean.

Marine habitats are home to delicate ecosystems so complex that we don’t fully understand them – yet in our rush to solve a manmade energy crisis, (and for some, dare I say, in their haste to make money), we are destroying vast swathes of ocean and causing potentially catastrophic damage in the process. It is utter folly and inexcusably reckless.

Moving forward, it is imperative that the wider public are part of the discussion about industrial development that affects the natural environment.

While we await the next annual reports, due shortly, we can perhaps reflect on the fact that reported cetacean deaths have never been higher, that something is clearly wrong in our oceans – and that industrialisation of our seas continues at a rapid pace with scant regard for wildlife. It’s not that difficult to put two and two together to get a quite rational answer.

I think it’s something of a national scandal.

Source:  Jason Endfield | May 2, 2024 | jasonendfield.medium.com

This article is the work of the source indicated. Any opinions expressed in it are not necessarily those of National Wind Watch.

The copyright of this article resides with the author or publisher indicated. As part of its noncommercial educational effort to present the environmental, social, scientific, and economic issues of large-scale wind power development to a global audience seeking such information, National Wind Watch endeavors to observe “fair use” as provided for in section 107 of U.S. Copyright Law and similar “fair dealing” provisions of the copyright laws of other nations. Send requests to excerpt, general inquiries, and comments via e-mail.

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