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Wind energy gets scrutiny following mammal deaths

By Jack Chavez, Staff Writer

The carcass of a humpback whale that washed up on the shores of Assateague Island last month has sparked debate about wind energy activity offhsore.

(Feb. 10, 2023) Politicians, citizens and some environmentalists are calling for a slow-down or complete halt of wind energy activity off the East Coast as officials examine the cause of a rash of marine animal deaths, but neither action nor an answer appears to be imminent.

In January, the debate landed on the shores of Worcester County with the body of a humpback whale, which immediately led to speculation regarding the cause of its death.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration is examining samples taken from the whale, but representative Allison Ferreira said that it will take “weeks to months” to receive the necropsy report.

“Given that necropsy reports provide a comprehensive account of the stranding event, ranging from a description of external observations and internal examination findings to the diagnostic results of samples taken, they can take several weeks to months to complete and finalize,” Ferreira said in an email.

A few days later, Ferreira added that preliminary findings from the necropsy indicate vessel strike as the cause of death.

“But we do not know (definitively) if it was struck before or after death,” she said. “Results from samples taken from the whale may help inform this, but we may never know.”

Ferreira added that no whale mortality has been attributed to offshore wind activities.

Regardless, politicians and watermen are sounding the alarm that wind farm activity must cease while more information is gathered.

“We’ve had nine whales and possibly a dolphin that have washed up (along the northern East Coast),” Worcester County Commissioner Joe Mitrecic said at the commissioner meeting on Tuesday. “The marine mammals are taking a beating and whether that’s originating off whatever coast (it needs to be looked into).”

“This is something that could literally kill our fishing industry off our coast, which is a tremendous amount of money.”

Mitrecic said that Gov. Wes Moore is “actually sympathetic” to Ocean City’s wishes that windmills not be put off its shoreline.

Mitrecic and his colleagues voted to send weekly letters to Moore and his cabinet regarding their opinion that wind farm activity must be stopped. The commissioners decided each week the letters should highlight a different issue, such as marine life, industry and general concerns that wind energy isn’t as effective as more traditional energy forms.

In a phone interview, Del. Wayne Hartman said it is “hypocritical” of the federal government to push for lower boat speeds while allowing surveying and construction to continue despite the whale deaths that have occurred.

“I understand it may be a death from a boat strike (that killed the whale off Assateague Island) but what’s causing the boat strikes is the fact that the activity in the ocean is now damaging the hearing of the whales,” he said. “I really feel strongly that we need to be serious about going forward with this. We need to stop and find out what is causing this unprecedented number of not only whales but other sea life (lost) along the coast.”

Even some environmentalists, who have at times found themselves sparring with the fishing industry, are asking for a period to gather more information.

“I’m certainly no expert, but personally I feel there needs to be more research on the impact the wind turbines could have on our wildlife, as it doesn’t seem like there is a lot of solid information,” Sandi Smith, community outreach and marketing coordinator for the Maryland Coastal Bays Program, said in an email.

“It may appear to be a logical explanation that wind turbines caused these whale deaths; however, NOAA came out with the statement that there is no evidence supporting that wind turbines and these whale deaths are connected. Hopefully, they will be able to find some concrete evidence of what is going on.”

Smith also acknowledged that wind energy company Ørsted has stated its offshore work does not include sounds or actions that would disturb mammals, nor are they aware of any boat strikes caused by their surveying vessels.

She pointed to other factors as well, such as the humpback whale population concentrating more in the mid-Atlantic region as they follow menhaden, their primary food source, which often congregate in major shipping lanes.

“Either way you look at it, these whale fatalities are definitely linked to our impact on the environment,” Smith said.

According to a 2021 order posted by the Maryland Public Service Commission, wind energy company US Wind has pledged $100,000 to the coastal bay program and was planning additional research efforts for estuary programs. It has also pledged $50,000 to support the Assateague Coastal Trust’s Coast for Kids environmental program.

US Wind provided the following statement regarding the cessation of offshore activity:

“Calls for halting offshore wind development due to recent whale strandings fly in the face of repeated statements by scientists and other experts that there is no link between these strandings and offshore wind activities. All offshore wind developers, including US Wind, use third-party Protected Species Observers who are trained and approved by NOAA to detect protected species, like whales, when we are conducting research at-sea. To blame an industry that only has seven turbines in the water ignores the fact that entanglement in fishing gear and vessel strikes by large cargo vessels have been the leading causes of whale deaths on the East Coast. There is simply no evidence that the whale strandings have anything to do with current offshore wind activity off the coast.”