Five US senators call for NOAA investigation into spike in whale deaths

A dead humpback whale floating in the water.

A group of Democratic U.S. senators from four states are pushing for NOAA to investigate a string of whale deaths along both coasts of the U.S. – including deaths that some in the fishing industry are attributing to work on offshore wind installations.

Numerous whale deaths have occurred off the U.S. East Coast in the last few months, with several whales washing up on the shores of the state of New Jersey. Seven dead humpback whales have already been discovered in 2023 off the coast of the state – a total higher than any full year since 2016.

Dead whales have also been washing ashore along other states along the Atlantic coast. In one seven-week span in early 2023, a dead sperm whale and humpback whale were found in New York, a dead sperm whale and four dead humpback whales came ashore in New Jersey, three dead humpback whales and a North Atlantic right whale calf were discovered in North Carolina, and a dead orca washed up in Florida. So far, since 1 December, 30 whale deaths have been recorded on the Atlantic coast.  

The recent letter to NOAA, sent by senators Robert Menendez, (D-New Jersey), Cory Booker (D-New Jersey), Richard Blumenthal (D-Connecticut), and Jeff Merkley (D-Oregon), and Sheldon Whitehouse (D-Rhode Island), calls for federal action to investigate the whale deaths. NOAA has attributed some of the whale deaths to fishing-gear entanglements, while NOAA's preliminary findings have shown evidence of vessel strikes resulting in some of the fatalities.

U.S. Rep. Chris Smith (R-New Jersey) wrote to federal officials in January 2023 following the deaths to call for an investigation of offshore wind development as a potential culprit for the string of deaths. 

"Over the course of the past several months, there have been repeated instances of dead whales washing up on New Jersey’s shoreline, and the proximity of nearby offshore wind development has raised concerns that ongoing activity on these projects may be contributing to whale fatalities," he wrote.

The CVOW Wind Farm is located 27 miles off a point in Virginia Beach where two of the dead whales were discovered. Offshore wind has been the target of animosity from the fishing industry. The pro-fishing advocacy group Fisheries Survival Fund has saidthe proliferation of offshore wind could have severely detrimental impacts to the fishing sector in certain regions.

“It is unquestionable that the proliferation of new turbine arrays will have detrimental impacts on the scallop fishery and other fisheries,” it said in January 2023. “Wind farms will and demonstrably do change ocean ecosystems. The goal of mitigation should be to strike a balance that ensures mutual prosperity, not merely an uneasy, zero-sum coexistence.”

Dying whales, in turn, have also been a big topic for the fishing sector, especially in the Maine lobster fishery. A set of court cases found the U.S. lobster fishery  in violation of the U.S. Endangered Species Act due to its potential impact on the population of critically endangered North Atlantic right whales, resulting in the Marine Stewardship Council suspending the fishery's certification. A last-minute rider on a federal omnibus funding budget granted the lobster fishery a six-year reprieve from severely restrictive new federal rules.

For Garden State Seafood Association Communications Director and commercial fishing advocate Nils Stolpe, seeing little action taken against the wind industry despite the spate of whale deaths has been “frustrating.”

“Oh definitely, it’s not frustration, it’s resignation,” he told SeafoodSource.  “My concern with the whale deaths is that we don’t know anything about what’s going on with the dead whales, and it appears as if nobody in NOAA, NFMS, or BOEM [Bureau of Ocean Energy Management] are all that interested, either." 

Stolpe speculated U.S. President Joe Biden's strong push for offshore wind as a means of reducing the country's carbon footprint and reliance on foreign oil has allowed the domestic wind industry to avoid scrutiny.

“The president of the United States and the governor of New Jersey both have said, 'We’re going to have this impossible number of windmills out there in your ocean by 2030 or 2035,’” he said. “With that in mind, nobody who is [in the] federal bureaucracy is going to say, 'Wait a minute.’”  

Photo courtesy of the Marine Education, Research & Rehabilitation Institute/NOAA


Want seafood news sent to your inbox?

You may unsubscribe from our mailing list at any time. Diversified Communications | 121 Free Street, Portland, ME 04101 | +1 207-842-5500