January 10, 2023
Over the weekend, a 30-foot humpback whale washed ashore in Atlantic City, its cause of death unknown. It was the third dead whale to appear on the Jersey Shore since December — fanning the flames of protestors who say wind farms are killing marine life.
A group called Protect Our Coast NJ, comprised of "residents, homeowners, business owners, fishermen and visitors," has been logging whale deaths along the coasts of New Jersey and New York, attempting to link them to a proposed wind power project. Though its website lists a host of concerns including utility and tax hikes, Protect Our Coast NJ claims that wind farms will decimate the habitat of the endangered North Atlantic right whale. Current seismic studies, it argues, have already "debatably" caused the recent whale deaths.
But according to Ed Hale, assistant professor of marine science at the University of Delaware, the science doesn't quite support this theory.
"I don't foresee a high level of mortality associated with just generating electricity itself," he said. "Unless they were laying (cables), or dredging or doing some associated maintenance to that infrastructure. ... If it's just a question of the electrical generation itself, I think it would be unlikely that that is what caused the particular mortality."
Ocean Wind 1, the wind farm project from PSEG and the Danish energy company Ørsted, is still in the research stage of development, putting it roughly four years away from actual installation. An impact statement from the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management released this summer said the project would have minimal impact on ocean life, including marine mammals, but could adversely affect commercial fisheries.
Though these findings and Protect Our Coast NJ's promotion of fossil fuels — a video from Shell Oil titled "Why is natural gas good?" is embedded on its website — undercut its environmental claims, Hale stressed that current research on electromagnetic fields and marine life is "lacking." The real-world effects of EMF on marine mammals is "largely unknown," he said, and requires further study.
"There's varying degrees of electrosensitivity that we're aware of," he explained. "We know that some of our cartilaginous fishes, like sharks and skates, are really quite electrosensitive. Hammerheads can pick out batteries in the sand.
"We're not sure where marine mammals fall on that spectrum but I suspect it's toward the other end. ... I think if there's going to be an impact, I think there's a higher likelihood of potential impact for migration in general, in terms of some level of disruption to how the animals themselves actually navigate."
Electromagnetic waves also could potentially impact early life history development, Hale continued, but not necessarily for whales. Current research points more toward "larval fishes" that drift along the ocean and could interact with EMF fields.
The results of the latest whale's necropsy are still pending, and could take months to process, but the Marine Mammal Stranding Center noted "marks from a suspected ship strike" near the blowhole, along with a "large hemotoma (bruise)" and "scars from a possible entanglement." A surfer who spotted a dead humpback in Strathmere on Dec. 10 also described markings indicating a collision.
"Severe injuries from ships traveling at accelerated speeds, particularly for trans oceanic migrations and then through coastal ports is probably a higher concern, on my radar anyway," Hale concluded.
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