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6 dead whales wash up in a month. Stop offshore wind for investigation, N.J. groups say.

NJ.com 1/9/2023 Steven Rodas, nj.com
Roseanne Serowatka Gunn, from Protect our Coast NJ, holds a sign during a press conference just off Florida Avenue in Atlantic City and the Boardwalk, to demand specific actions from President Biden to the alarming increased whale deaths, Monday, Jan. 9, 2023. In a span of 33 days, six whales washed-up in the New Jersey and New York coastal region. © Tim Hawk/nj.com/TNS Roseanne Serowatka Gunn, from Protect our Coast NJ, holds a sign during a press conference just off Florida Avenue in Atlantic City and the Boardwalk, to demand specific actions from President Biden to the alarming increased whale deaths, Monday, Jan. 9, 2023. In a span of 33 days, six whales washed-up in the New Jersey and New York coastal region.

Tire tracks in the sand marked the burial ground of a massive humpback whale Monday.

The dead 30-foot female whale washed up ashore Saturday and two days later lay buried underneath, leaving behind a decaying rotten smell.

“What a sad end to an animal in the prime of her life,” Cindy Zipf, executive director of Long Branch-based non-profit, Clean Ocean Action, told NJ Advance Media while walking on the beach. “The federal government should have been here with busloads of people really doing an examination if they were taking this seriously.”

Zipf was in Atlantic City on Monday afternoon — after the sixth dead whale was found on the New York-New Jersey coastline in 33 days — to ask the federal government to investigate if the whale deaths and work being done for offshore wind turbines could be to blame. She called the string of deaths “unprecedented.”

While New Jersey moves toward a ”cleaner” future, offshore wind continues to be among the hot-button renewable energy alternatives. Among the concerns expressed by residents and some officials is the impact to whales and other animals before, during and after construction. It’s unclear if the deaths of half-a-dozen whales in the region since December is high. And although the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration is currently studying an uptick of reported humpback whale deaths since 2016 across the East Coast, officials there say so far offshore wind has not been the culprit.

Ocean advocacy citizen groups hold a press conference on the beach in Atlantic City, were a 30-foot humpback whale is buried, to demand specific actions from President Biden to the alarming increased whale deaths, Monday, Jan. 9, 2023. In a span of 33 days, six whales washed-up in the New Jersey and New York coastal region. © Tim Hawk/nj.com/TNS Ocean advocacy citizen groups hold a press conference on the beach in Atlantic City, were a 30-foot humpback whale is buried, to demand specific actions from President Biden to the alarming increased whale deaths, Monday, Jan. 9, 2023. In a span of 33 days, six whales washed-up in the New Jersey and New York coastal region.

At the gathering, Zipf’s group and others, including Protect Our Coast NJ, Save Long Beach Island, Long Island Commercial Fishing Association and Defend Brigantine Beach, announced they will send a letter to the president also demanding that offshore wind development be paused until a proper assessment of possible harm done to marine life is completed.

Biden’s office did not immediately respond to a request for comment. A spokesman for Gov. Phil Murphy’s office deferred to the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection, which referred NJ Advance Media to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

A NOAA spokeswoman said in a statement that since January 2016, prior to offshore wind pre-construction on the Atlantic Ocean, NOAA Fisheries has monitored humpback whale deaths on the entire East Coast.

“To date, there are 174 humpback whales included in the (Unusual Mortality Event tracking data),” a NOAA spokeswoman said. “Of the whales examined, about 40% had evidence of human interaction, either ship strike or entanglement. To date, no humpback whale mortality has been attributed to offshore wind activities.”

However, NOAA officials said a partial or full necropsy, the examination of an animal after death, was only conducted on about half of those whales. Information on the impact to other animals was not immediately provided.

People gather around a 30-foot humpback whale after it was moved after washing up near the Florida Avenue Beach and Boardwalk Hall in Atlantic City, Saturday morning Saturday. Jan. 07, 2023. © Tim Hawk/nj.com/TNS People gather around a 30-foot humpback whale after it was moved after washing up near the Florida Avenue Beach and Boardwalk Hall in Atlantic City, Saturday morning Saturday. Jan. 07, 2023.

The federal agency’s online tally indicates that since 2016, 21 dead humpback whales were reported stranded in New Jersey (four in 2022 and one so far in 2023) and 34 in New York. Zipf emphasized that it was not clear how many dead whales have been found offshore in recent years.

“We are deeply troubled by the heretofore lack of comprehensive public response from federal agencies for their protection, which is required by law under the Endangered Species Act, among others,” an excerpt from Clean Ocean Action’s letter reads.

The sentiments shared in Atlantic City echoed those made by groups and residents over the years as New Jersey gets closer to beginning construction on its first offshore wind turbines. While no turbines have been built in New Jersey, several projects are in the planning stages.

Peter Peretzman, a spokesman for the Board of Public Utilities, previously said that so far the board has approved three offshore wind projects in New Jersey for a total of 3,758 megawatts of offshore wind capacity — contributing to the state’s larger clean energy goals. Murphy said in September that New Jersey will increase offshore electric wind generation goals to get to 11,000 megawatts of usage by 2040. A massive wind port is also slated for South Jersey.

Cindy Zipf, from Clean Ocean Action, speaks during a press conference just off Florida Avenue in Atlantic City and the Boardwalk, to demand specific actions from President Biden to the alarming increased whale deaths, Monday, Jan. 9, 2023. In a span of 33 days, six whales washed-up in the New Jersey and New York coastal region. © Tim Hawk/nj.com/TNS Cindy Zipf, from Clean Ocean Action, speaks during a press conference just off Florida Avenue in Atlantic City and the Boardwalk, to demand specific actions from President Biden to the alarming increased whale deaths, Monday, Jan. 9, 2023. In a span of 33 days, six whales washed-up in the New Jersey and New York coastal region.

One project, known as Ocean Wind 1 from Denmark-based energy company, Ørsted would add 98 wind turbines to Lacey, Waretown, Berkeley, and Upper townships, as well as Ocean City. Ørsted is working to propose additional turbines this year for a separate project called Ocean Wind 2. Atlantic Shores, another offshore wind project in the works by both Shell New Energies and EDF Renewables, is also planning work in an area 10-20 miles off the coast of Atlantic City.

A 30-foot humpback whale is moved after it washed ashore near the Florida Avenue Beach and Boardwalk Hall in Atlantic City, Saturday morning Saturday. Jan. 07, 2023. © Tim Hawk/nj.com/TNS A 30-foot humpback whale is moved after it washed ashore near the Florida Avenue Beach and Boardwalk Hall in Atlantic City, Saturday morning Saturday. Jan. 07, 2023.

The New York Bight proposal, a project located more than 30 miles off Long Island, covers 488,000 acres of ocean, the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management says online. Two other projects, Empire Wind 1 and 2 from Norway petroleum refining company, Equinor, have also been proposed for a leasing area about 20 miles east of Sandy Hook.

“Never in human history has such a fast-paced industrialization of an ocean ecosystem taken place,” said Clean Ocean Action organizers, noting that 25 offshore wind projects are underway in New York and New Jersey.

Ørsted said its construction plans account for migratory zones of humpback whales, as well as endangered right whales, populations of which have dipped to fewer than 350.

“When offshore, we combine human surveillance and state-of-the-art technical equipment to avoid any impact on marine wildlife as we build projects to advance New Jersey’s clean energy ambitions,” Maddy Urbish, a spokeswoman for Ørsted, said in a statement.

“These ambitions are critical to combating climate change, which is one of the leading threats to the environment and marine life, including whales,” Urbish added. “It’s important for all ocean users to continue working with state and federal officials to further advance science-based and smart policies that protect critical marine life, while addressing climate change.”

Kari Martin, advocacy campaign manager for Clean Ocean Action, claimed that offshore wind developers are allowed to hurt or kill more than 157,328 marine mammals under “incidental take authorizations” or “incidental take regulations.” A number of takes, or the killing of whales, are allowed under the designations, according to the group.

But a NOAA spokeswoman said there are no active authorizations for offshore wind energy development.

Zipf stated during the press conference that besides vessel strikes, noise from construction planning and survey work threatens the animals, sightings of which have spiked in recent years. She said in some cases adult whales are liable to be scared by noise and hit an obstruction, and infant whales can become distressed by noise and stop nursing.

In addition to the recently-found humpback whale, another washed up in Atlantic City on Dec. 23. According to environmental groups, a humpback whale also washed up in Amagansett, New York, on Dec. 6 followed by a female sperm whale in Rockaway Beach in Queens, New York, on Dec. 12. A 12-foot infant sperm whale was found here in Keansburg on Dec. 5 and a juvenile humpback whale on Strathmere Beach five days later.

“More investigation and transparency is necessary to make sure our marine life isn’t a casualty of offshore wind development, and samples must be collected and preserved by NOAA scientists,” Bonnie Brady, executive director of the Long Island Commercial Fishing Association, said.

While they are in favor of offshore wind and other projects to alleviate climate change, Clean Ocean Action leaders called Monday’s press conference the first step in a call to action. Organizers there expect to make demands of the state, including Murphy, and are open to taking legal action in the future to protect whales and other animals, they said.

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Steven Rodas may be reached at srodas@njadvancemedia.com. Follow him on Twitter @stevenrodasnj.

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