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North Atlantic right whale

Photo: Steve Meese / Shutterstock

Wind Projects Off New England Put Endangered Right Whales at Risk, Warns NOAA Scientist

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November 30, 2022

By Jennifer A. Dlouhy (Bloomberg) —

Planned wind projects off the New England coast threaten to harm the region’s dwindling population of endangered right whales, according to a US government marine scientist. 

The warning from a top National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration official, obtained by Bloomberg under a Freedom of Information Act request, underscores the potential legal and environmental perils of offshore wind development along the coast. President Joe Biden has a goal of deploying 30 gigawatts of offshore wind within the decade.

Both initial construction of wind projects and decades of expected operation threaten to imperil right whales in southern New England waters, Sean Hayes, chief of the protected species branch at NOAA’s National Northeast Fisheries Science Center, said in a May 13 letter to Interior Department officials.

The department is weighing at least 10 proposals to install wind turbines in shallow Atlantic waters — projects key to fulfilling Biden’s 2030 goal.

“Additional noise, vessel traffic and habitat modifications due to offshore wind development will likely cause added stress that could result in additional population consequences to a species that is already experiencing rapid decline,” Hayes said in his letter.

There are fewer than 350 North Atlantic right whales left, down from a high of 478 in 2011. The endangered marine mammals are already chronically stressed by limited food, entanglements, vessel strikes and noise.

Nantucket Shoals

Wind turbines may disrupt the dense concentration of zooplankton that the whales depend on for sustenance, potentially forcing them to spend more energy and take more risks searching elsewhere for food, Hayes said.

Hayes urged the Interior Department’s Bureau of Ocean Energy Management to consider a buffer zone around one area of particularly acute risk — the Nantucket Shoals near Massachusetts. That could affect at least four offshore wind leases, including the Mayflower Wind venture from Shell New Energies US LLC and Ocean Winds North America, and the Vineyard Wind project from Copenhagen Infrastructure Partners and Avangrid Renewables LLC. 

Representatives of the companies didn’t immediately respond to requests for comment.

It’s not clear how Interior Department officials responded to Hayes’ warning, though its ocean energy bureau is consulting with NOAA and other agencies as it scrutinizes the environmental consequences of proposed projects. Bureau representatives didn’t immediately comment on the matter.

© 2022 Bloomberg L.P.

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