The federal government announced a new strategy aimed at protecting the critically endangered North Atlantic right whale while the development of offshore wind ramps up.
The 78-page strategy from the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM) and NOAA Fisheries, released Thursday, Jan. 25, lays out ways to continue evaluating and mitigating the potential effects on the whales and their habitat.
North Atlantic right whales are an endangered species, with an estimated 360 individuals remaining, a population that has been reported to be on the decline. That decline has been felt locally, as a juvenile right whale was found dead in Edgartown on Monday.
While NOAA reports that entanglement in fishing gear and ship strikes are the leading cause of death for the whales, the agency says that ocean noise is also a threat to the species, and sources can include energy exploration and development.
Meanwhile, the Biden-Harris administration has a goal of developing 30 gigawatts of offshore wind energy by 2030. For context, Vineyard Wind is expected to produce 800 megawatts, or 0.8 gigawatts.
NOAA officials say they developed the strategy using feedback from the public and Native American tribes, alongside the “best available scientific information.” A representative from the Wampanoag Tribe of Gay Head (Aquinnah) was not immediately available for comment.
The strategy is intended to increase collaboration among wind developers and other agencies for mitigating risks to right whales and research.
One of the immediate mitigation efforts includes avoiding leasing new wind developments in right whale habitat. Additionally, guidance would be provided to developers on limiting the amount of noise made during offshore wind activities. Other aspects of the strategy include vessel strike reduction measures, and species observation methods.
However, there are still turbines planned to be built in areas at or near where right whales visit or migrate through. Last March, 24 right whales were spotted south of the Vineyard, near where several offshore wind projects are leased. “Slow zones” were enacted in these areas to prevent strikes between vessels and the animals. When asked about the existing lease areas, BOEM spokesperson Sara McPherson referred the Times to three documents regarding the topic. One document included the new strategy; the other two were a BOEM report titled “A Wind Energy Area Siting Analysis for the Central Atlantic Call Area” and the draft environmental impact statement for Mayflower Wind, now called SouthCoast Wind. The documents had segments on considerations made for right whales, such as conservation status, habitat, and mitigating potential impacts to the endangered species.
The Massachusetts Division of Marine Fisheries also received millions of dollars in federal funding for right whale conservation efforts, such as monitoring the whales and researching commercial fishing gear.
Avangrid, the company that owns half the Vineyard Wind project being built in waters south of the Island, also announced in a recent press release that the Regional Wildlife Science Collaborative for Offshore Wind (RWSC) — which it helped create — issued a plan titled “Integrated Science Plan for Offshore Wind, Wildlife, and Habitat in U.S. Atlantic Waters. The plan acts as a guide toward preserving marine mammals and ecosystems while advancing offshore wind power. A webinar about the plan will take place on Friday, Feb. 9, at 1 pm; the public can register at bit.ly/RWSC_WebinarRegistration.
“This Science Plan provides the blueprint for the region’s future work,” Emily Shumchenia, director of RWSC, said in the release. “It’s also a call to action to collaborate on advancing our understanding of offshore wind and marine ecosystems.”
There are still some considerations regarding strategies for right whale protection.
Charles (“Stormy”) Mayo, director of the Center for Coastal Studies right whale ecology program in Provincetown, hadn’t seen the strategy yet when he spoke with The Times, but he mentioned aspects that need to be taken into consideration for right whales. There are several problems that federal agencies and conservationists run into when trying to protect right whales. Despite the “voluminous” amount of research and available information about these extremely rare animals’ lives in the ocean, there are gaps. Additionally, Mayo said, the ocean makes for a difficult environment for study.
“They’re still somewhat of a mystery,” Mayo said, although the regions south of the Island are more heavily studied than other locations.
The strategy also has plans to be “adaptive,” based on data collected. Mayo underscored the importance of being flexible to protect right whales. He says their population distribution and areas of habitat seem to be changing in relation to a changing climate. “We take the best information we can get, and do the best we can,” he said.
When asked about the pushback offshore wind projects receive because of their alleged threats to right whales, Mayo emphasized the need for “good science” to lead in protecting marine ecosystems. Mayo said while there is no direct evidence that offshore wind development is killing whales, the potential impacts and concerns should be investigated. He said that the projects are not located in waters with a large number of whales, but enough whales travel through to make the research necessary.
Mayo continued that some people are getting their information from social media sites, like Facebook, based on assumptions, and often inaccurate. Even though there are gaps in the knowledge, if something turns out to be a problem, answers need to be acquired in a scientific manner. “It’s really important to depend on science,” Mayo said.