Guest Commentary: Whales versus turbines: What’s real, what’s fiction


Dr. Bradley Stevens is a professor emeritus of marine science at the University of Maryland, Eastern Shore. He has conducted research and published numerous articles on fish habitats, impacts of fishing and seafloor ecosystems in the Maryland wind energy area.

Recent strandings of whales along the East Coast of the United States have generated a lot of alarm and misinformation concerning the cause of mortality.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration investigated the recent deaths of humpback and minke whales and concluded they were the result of ship strikes. Even so, some “dark money” groups (actually funded by the fossil fuel industry) have claimed that whale mortalities were somehow associated with wind turbines. When such arguments come from groups with names like “Clean Ocean Action,” it makes them appear to be legitimate, when, in fact, they are not supported by any actual data.

Republican Congressman Andy Harris of Maryland and Rick Meehan, the mayor of Ocean City, Maryland, have jumped on that bandwagon, calling for a moratorium on wind turbine construction in the area.

All of this drama is occurring despite the fact that no wind turbines have been built in the area, and surveying activities have not been conducted since spring 2022.

To set the record straight, here are some actual verifiable facts:

  • Wind turbines have not killed any whales. Anywhere. Ever. Over 5,000 offshore wind turbines have been built around the world, yet no whale mortalities have ever been observed in association with surveying, construction or operation of these turbines. A search of the scientific literature turned up a total of zero studies associating whale deaths with offshore wind power.
  • Ship strikes are a leading cause of death for north Atlantic right whales. Many of those occur in New England, where ship channels run close to known summer feeding grounds for right whales. Although most of the recent local strandings were of humpback whales, they, too, were the result of ship strikes.
  • The major source of mortality for whales worldwide is entanglement with fishing gear, primarily lobster and crab trap lines. Such entanglement causes 82% of total whale mortalities. In fact, 85% of north Atlantic right whales have been entangled at least once, and 26% of them are entangled every year.
  • From 2016-23, over 180 humpback whales have died along the U.S. East Coast, in what the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association calls an “unusual mortality event.” The majority of these have occurred in North Carolina, Virginia, New Jersey, New York and Massachusetts, which have a combined total of two wind turbines. These deaths started well before any turbine construction or surveying activities in the mid-Atlantic coastal area.
  • Whales and other marine mammals do avoid loud noises, including areas where wind turbines are under construction. But there is no evidence they avoid turbines after construction and even some evidence of increased abundance.
  • Noise levels produced by operating turbines are lower than ambient ocean levels and much lower than noise created by ship traffic, which is much more likely to disturb whales.

In fact, the preponderance of scientific evidence suggests that offshore wind turbines have a net positive impact on marine ecosystems. The coastal seafloor is mostly bare sand and mud, with little habitat for fish. Wind turbines attract fouling organisms and small fish, which, in turn, feed larger fish. Fish such as black sea bass and tautog need vertical structure for shelter. And many pelagic fish like tuna are attracted to large ocean structures just because they are there. And, by providing refuge from ship traffic, noise and traplines, turbine farms may actually help whale populations recover.

So there you have it. According to the best evidence available, whales are killed by ship strikes and entanglement with fishing gear but not by wind turbines. And operational noise levels from turbines are a nonissue.

So what can we do to prevent whale mortalities?

A variety of mitigation efforts are already underway. These include rerouting ship traffic to stay clear of whale migration routes and enforcing slow speeds in areas where ships and whales cross pathways. Major research efforts are underway to develop whale-safe fishing gear, such as ropeless traps that do not require buoy lines.

If Rep. Harris and other legislators really want to help, they should ask for increases in funds to develop whale-safe fishing gear. That would have the greatest impact on reducing human-caused whale deaths than any other solution.

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