🐋 At least 40 whales and dolphins have washed up since December 2022

🐋 Some lawmakers, groups blame NJ offshore wind activity but lack evidence

🐋 Some sonar has been linked to whale deaths in the past

At least 40 whale and dolphin strandings have been reported along the New Jersey-New York coastline since December.

Dozens of Jersey Shore mayors, lawmakers and a handful of advocates have a sinking suspicion that offshore wind activity is to blame. They point to the sound technology used by offshore wind developers to map the ocean floor. Military sonar technology was once blamed for the deaths of whales found with bleeding ears in the Caribbean more than 20 years ago. But what about today?

In an effort to get to the bottom of this ocean mystery, New Jersey 101.5 spoke to the research group that examined the dead mammals as well as to representatives of two companies that are developing the offshore wind projects. Their answers shed light on what kind of injuries the mammals have sustained and what kind of technology and activities the offshore wind developers are employing off the coast of New Jersey. But the question remains: What's causing these deaths?

Whale death numbers rise dramatically

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration has been tracking what they call an Unusual Mortality Event among humpback whales since 2016. This is a term given to a "significant die-off of any marine mammal population."

But even amid the high number of strandings over the last seven years, 2023 is a standout year. The previous year-high was five in 2019. Less than five months into 2023, seven humpback whale strandings have already been recorded in New Jersey, according to NOAA. There were four in the state last year and at least two of those occurred in December 2022.

Humpback whale necropsy on 12/23/22 in Atlantic City, NJ (John Munroe via MMSC)
Humpback whale necropsy on 12/23/22 in Atlantic City, NJ (John Munroe via MMSC)

The Marine Mammal Stranding Center in Brigantine has been tracking strandings of marine mammals including whales and dolphins since 2002. For all species of whale, there have been eight strandings in New Jersey so far this year while there were 10 in 2017 and 12 each in 2019 and 2020.

Also new this year: The strandings have become mired in politics.

Gov. Phil Murphy has repeatedly dismissed the possibility of any link between offshore wind work and the strandings, saying there is no evidence of a connection and casting critics as cynical opponents of clean energy. At least three federal agencies have rejected offshore wind activity as a possible cause for the strandings. As a result, Murphy has declined to halt the work.

Meanwhile, fellow Democratic U.S. Sens. Bob Menendez and Cory Booker have called on NOAA to detail how the agency will use its funding to "address" the deaths. A statement from the senators says gear entanglement and vessel collisions are the likely forces behind the unusual mortality event but they add that the number of incidents is "concerning" and resulting in public "speculation around the potential causes of these deaths" that could be allayed with more outreach and transparency.

Phil Murphy

U.S. Navy sonar blamed for whale deaths

In 2019, NPR reported on concerns from environmentalists that offshore wind activity could impact whales. The worries were limited to vessel strikes and noise during construction, and the long-term impact of wind turbines once they are built. But construction on wind turbines has not yet begun. Instead, focus has turned to another concern: the impact of sonar.

On March 15, 2000, marine mammal researchers found 18 stranded whales in the waters around the Bahamas. Science Magazine reported that some of the mammals were bleeding from their ears. All of the deaths had come within 24 hours of a U.S. Navy test involving active sonar.

Whale off L Street in Seaside Park 3/1/23
Whale off L Street in Seaside Park 3/1/23 (Ryan Mack Jersey Shore Fire Response)

The deaths spurred a government investigation that studied tissues from six of the whales and found all six were killed by sonar.

Several lawsuits from environmental groups ensued and the Navy was forced to adopt new protocols that must be updated every three years, NPR reported. Computer maps tell crews when it's safe to turn on active sonar and how powerful it can be without impacting marine life. And training exercises must shut down if a whale is spotted nearby.

Unlike the whales found near the Bahamas, there has been no evidence that sonar is related to the deaths along the Jersey coast.

APTOPIX Offshore Wind-Dead Whales
The body of a humpback whale lies on a beach in Brigantine N.J., after it washed ashore on Friday, Jan. 13, 2023. (AP Photo/Wayne Parry)
The Marine Mammal Stranding Center has handled numerous strandings this year alone. Executive Director Sheila Dean told New Jersey 101.5 that scientists have been unable to test the mammals' ears.
"We have not seen blood coming from the ears of any of the animals that we investigated or necropsied. All of the whales ashore in NJ were in advanced state of decomposition, making the ears non-viable for testing," the center said. "The dolphin ears are still under investigation."

Sonar used for NJ offshore wind projects

Atlantic Shores Offshore Wind and Ørsted have confirmed that sonar has been used extensively along the Jersey coast to find suitable locations for wind turbines.

Atlantic Shores fisheries liaisons, who act as representatives for recreational and commercial fishermen and can bring concerns to the wind developer, have published weekly newsletters since November detailing the movements and activity of two ships. The ships' positions in the newsletters are described as if a person was standing on the coast and facing out, which in these cases angles to the southeast.

Atlantic Shores spokeswoman Meghan Bianco told New Jersey 101.5 that there have been "zero adverse whale interactions, and zero incident or injury to any marine mammals" involving either vessel.

Since June 1, the HOS Browning has been surveying an area about 16 miles off the coast between Barnegat Light and Atlantic City, according to the newsletters. The area's southern boundary is directly east of Sea Isle City. However, it is not using sonar for these operations. Instead, the HOS Browning is equipped with a marine drill rig and seabed frame.

Another ship, the Fugro Enterprise, uses sonar for surveys about 46 miles off the coast between Sandy Hook and Brigantine. Its southern boundary is east of Strathmere. The vessel has been conducting work on and off in the area since last year and is expected to continue into June.

(Atlantic Offshore/Townsquare Media Illustration)
The Fugro Enterprise and HOS Browning locations on 4/17/23. (Atlantic Offshore/Townsquare Media Illustration)

The other developer, Ørsted, has conducted geotechnical and geophysical surveys since April 2022 in its two lease areas dubbed Ocean Wind 1 and Ocean Wind 2, which are located off the coast of Atlantic County and Cape May County. Geotechnical surveys involve boring holes into the ocean floor while geophysical surveys involve acoustic equipment, according to a 2017 Bureau of Ocean Energy Management report.

One type of geophysical survey is sub-bottom profiling, which is able to get information about sediments below the surface of the ocean floor. It uses acoustic signals at a frequency of around 3.5 kHz, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

Ørsted conducted geophysical surveys throughout the lease areas in the spring and summer of 2022. The last time Ørsted conducted an acoustic survey was in July 2022 when it used subbottom acoustic equipment in the Ocean Wind 2 lease area.

(BOEM/Townsquare Media Illustration)
(BOEM/Townsquare Media Illustration)

Brian Hooker, biology team lead for the BOEM's Office of Renewable Energy Programs, told the press in January that none of these surveying methods would be harmful to marine life.

"I just want to be unambiguous," Hooker said. "There is no information that would support any suggestion that any of the equipment that's being used in support of wind development for these site characterization surveys could directly lead to the death of a whale."

Is the sonar used for NJ offshore wind killing whales and dolphins?

NOAA on its website states that there is no known link between any offshore wind activity, including geological and geophysical surveys, and marine mammal deaths.

"At this point, there is no evidence to support speculation that noise resulting from wind development-related site characterization surveys could potentially cause mortality of whales, and no specific links between recent large whale mortalities and currently ongoing surveys," NOAA said.

Common dolphin stranding 3/16/23 at Naval Weapons Station Earle in Sandy Hook Bay (Michael McKenna via MMSC)
Common dolphin stranding 3/16/23 at Naval Weapons Station Earle in Sandy Hook Bay (Michael McKenna via MMSC)

While sonar has been used regularly in the Atlantic Ocean for offshore wind projects, the sonar being used for surveying is not as powerful or as loud as the Navy's sonar technology. In a statement to New Jersey 101.5, Ørsted’s New Jersey head of government affairs, Maddy Urbish, said that the sonar used for survey work is regulated by both the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management and NOAA.

Urbish said the acoustic frequencies are quieter than those used in oil and gas exploration. Most of the sound waves are undetectable to marine life.

"These sources operate in discrete frequency bands and short durations, producing less energy and narrower beams of sound, therefore the size of the area impacted by sound is small," Urbish said. "No injury to marine mammals or sea turtles is expected from these sound sources as the sound has been shown to diminish rapidly with distance."

Beach Replenishment

Additionally, these geological mapping techniques used are not new. A 2004 circular prepared for the state Department of Environmental Protection describes the use of sonar to map the ocean floor for beach replenishment projects.

"Geologists use both direct and indirect sampling methods to collect information about deposits offshore," the circular states. "Geophysical acoustic methods, including bathymetric sonar, sidescan sonar, and seismic profiling, are highly effective for marine subsurface mapping."

Calls for sonar halt along the NJ coast

In early January, the advocacy group Clean Ocean Action sent a letter to President Biden calling for an immediate investigation into the whale deaths and a moratorium on offshore wind work. COA Executive Director Cindy Zipf at a press conference brought specific attention to sonar mapping to survey the ocean.

"Stop the noise," Zipf said. "Stop all of the sonar. Stop all of the preconstruction activity offshore right now until we can determine whether or not that has had any impact or any part of a cause for all of these whales washing up."

Cindy Zipf speaks 1/9/23. (AP Photo/Wayne Parry)
Cindy Zipf speaks 1/9/23. (AP Photo/Wayne Parry)

State lawmakers have also joined the fight against sonar. Recently, Sens. Declan O’Scanlon, R-Monmouth, and Ed Durr, R-Gloucester, introduced a resolution calling for a moratorium on all sonar testing and wind turbine mapping.

"We very well might find evidence that offshore wind activities are contributing to this tragedy," O'Scanlon said. "Until we know, we should err on the side of caution."

Rick Rickman is a reporter for New Jersey 101.5. You can reach him at richard.rickman@townsquaremedia.com

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