PROVINCETOWN — The first turbine of the Vineyard Wind offshore wind project, eight miles south of Martha’s Vineyard, was successfully installed on Oct. 18.
Meanwhile, some who are working against this and other offshore wind energy developments claim that the noise created by the turbines will spell doom for right, humpback, and other endangered whales. Those claims, many of which originate from groups with ties to the fossil-fuel industry, according to multiple reports, and further disseminated by right-wing pundits, have some Cape Codders worried about the whales. Scientists say the assertions feeding the fears are not backed up by facts.
“It does not appear that noise is going to create a major problem,” said Charles “Stormy” Mayo III about the Vineyard Wind generators. Mayo is chair of the dept. of ecology at the Center for Coastal Studies in Provincetown and an expert on North Atlantic right whale feeding. Based on what we know, he said, it would be “a stretch” to link offshore wind development with any damage to whale populations.
Christopher Clark, a retired senior scientist and graduate professor at Cornell University with expertise in marine acoustic ecology, echoed Mayo’s thoughts by calling concerns about offshore wind “misplaced.”
“Wind turbine noise is not going to kill a whale,” Clark said. He has been studying the effects of noise on whales since the 1970s and has also been advising the Vineyard Wind project as a senior scientist.
The belief that offshore wind development harms whales is rooted in fears that the noise from the installation of wind turbines and the sounds of their generators could disrupt whales’ communication and disorient them. Investigating concerns about sound “is not a totally useless exercise,” Mayo said.
To avoid harming whales, the Vineyard Wind project is undertaking measures to combat noise pollution. During installation, which involves driving the foundation into the sandy ocean bottom, they are using devices known as bubble curtains, according to the project description.
The apparatus consists of two concentric rings of tubing that release a curtain of air bubbles around the installation site that insulates the rest of the ocean from the noise of the pile driving. The company has agreed to pause turbine installation from January through April, when right whales are most likely to be in the area.
Once the turbines are up and running, Clark said, the noise level goes down dramatically. He noted that the biggest risk to whales during wind farm operation comes from the boats that will be servicing the turbines. According to Clark, the Vineyard Wind project plans on using aerial and acoustic surveying to monitor whales’ movements and ensure its boats do not interfere with marine mammal populations.
There is no way to completely eliminate noise from offshore wind development. Mayo said, however, that right whales are already feeding in Cape Cod Bay amidst noise that he said is “extremely intense.” The area is sometimes “overwhelmed by the noise of ships,” Mayo said. Still, more than half of the North Atlantic right whale population chooses to feed in the bay every year. “I can’t see, out of what we know, a clear indication that these whales cannot cope with noise,” Mayo said.
Clark, too, said that the loud shipping traffic that travels through Stellwagen Bank makes it an “industrialized, urbanized environment,” akin to Boylston Street in downtown Boston. Nonetheless, it remains a critical feeding area for humpback, fin, and right whales.
“If we get to a point where we want a silent ocean,” Mayo said, we’re going to have to eliminate noise “that is much greater than the hum produced by the generators.” It’s an admirable goal, he added.
Shipping is not the only problem. Both scientists pointed out that the tools used to find and drill for underwater oil, including seismic airguns and explosive charges, are much more extreme than the depth sounders used to scout the ocean floor during offshore wind construction. Mayo likened the depth sounders to the “fish finders” that fishermen use to locate schools of fish.
Both Mayo and Clark said that the environmental standards that offshore wind energy projects are held to are much higher than for many other offshore infrastructure projects. Mayo applauded the baseline surveying work done by the New England Aquarium for the Vineyard Wind project. He said he is concerned, however, about whether the project will maintain the same level of rigor in monitoring whale populations once the turbines are installed.
Vineyard Wind is not perfect, both Mayo and Clark said. Mayo said that he opposes industrialization of the ocean in principle but views offshore wind as a necessary concession because of the already emerging destructive effects of climate change. Clark said that installing a wind farm is not a trivial endeavor. “But we have to make the choice,” he said. “Are we going to invest in and support the development of renewable energy?”
The Real Fight
Much of the popular fear about the supposed danger wind energy poses for whales has been fueled by misinformation about a die-off of humpback whales in the mid-Atlantic last winter, according to multiple news reports and fact-checking organizations. Mayo, too, has followed the die-off. Mass mortalities, Mayo said, have “been going on for a long time,” and this one shows no apparent signs of being related to wind energy development.
The facts are these, according to NOAA: While necropsies are still ongoing, at least 40 percent of studied whale deaths off the East Coast of the U.S. since 2016 were tied to ship collisions or entanglement with fishing gear. None could be linked to wind development.
Prominent right-wing media figures, meanwhile, have used false conclusions about the die-off to discredit wind energy development in general. Former President Donald Trump said at a South Carolina rally that wind turbines are driving whales “a little batty” and “causing whales to die in numbers never seen before.” Former Fox News host Tucker Carlson, too, decried offshore wind development in a segment titled “The Biden Whale Extinction.”
Clark calls for a focus on what we know. “We know that ships kill right whales,” he said. “We know that right whales are getting tangled. These are human activities that actually kill whales.”
The data back him up. According to NOAA, 85 percent of North Atlantic right whales have been entangled at some point in their lives. Since 2017, at least one-third of all recorded North Atlantic right whale deaths were caused by vehicle strikes, and a quarter were the result of entanglement. And on the West Coast, a 2017 study estimated that ship collisions are killing 18 blue, 22 humpback, and 43 fin whales every year — significant proportions of the populations of these endangered species.
“We’re too myopic in our whole perspective on this problem,” Clark said. Whales migrate thousands of miles each year, and before industrialization, whale songs could be heard across oceans. For whales, he said, the whole ocean is their home, and focusing on one area offers a “microscopic” perspective on a bigger story.
Clark called the decline of right whale populations “a symptom” of the destruction of the ocean ecosystem owing to multiple large-scale trends such as overfishing, pollution, overindustrialization, and climate change. The influence of the Vineyard Wind project, Clark said, is a “little dot” in comparison to other problems whales face, especially when it comes to climate change, which renewable energy sources can help mitigate.
Mayo also named climate change as the greatest existential threat to the whales. He said it is likely causing several right whale feeding grounds to collapse. The Great South Channel off Nantucket and the Outer Banks off Nova Scotia used to host significant whale concentrations, but the food supply has moved elsewhere, forcing whales to follow. Mayo believes that, based on current trends, the Cape Cod Bay right whale grounds may one day collapse, too.
The only way to save the ocean’s ecosystem as we know it, Mayo believes, involves shifting away from our dependence on fossil fuels quickly. Offshore wind, he said, will have to be a part of that.
“If we don’t figure something out,” Mayo said, “we’ve got a climate change issue that is going to wreak havoc on right whale populations.”