Speeding boats, not offshore wind, likely culprit in recent whale deaths

This story was first published by Energy News Network.

The death of a 43-foot North Atlantic right whale that washed up on Virginia Beach in mid-February was not caused by the offshore wind industry.

Still, that incident and other similar ones have heightened wind developers’ attention on protecting vulnerable marine mammals.

Dominion Energy is following a meticulous safety checklist as its 2.6-gigawatt wind farm, 27 miles off the Virginia Beach coastline, evolves from a blueprint to turbine steel in the ocean floor.

Jason Ericson, a director on Dominion’s environmental services team, said the utility has complied with federal agencies and collaborated with conservation organizations from the get-go to mitigate any potential harms of the 176-turbine project.

“We are taking significant steps to minimize any impact on the North American right whale,” said Ericson, a Dominion employee since 2010. “We take this very seriously. We can and will do this.”

He’s mindful that farther up the Atlantic Coast, some groups are trying to blame the Northeast’s mushrooming offshore wind industry for the nine humpback whales stranded on beaches between Maryland and New York thus far this year.

But federal scientists dismiss that link. Benjamin Laws, deputy chief for permits and conservation with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's Fisheries Office of Protected Resources, rebuked the demonstrators.

“I want to be unambiguous: There is no information supporting that any of the equipment used in...offshore wind development could directly lead to the death of a whale,” Laws said at a January press briefing in Atlantic City. “There are no known connections between any offshore wind activities and any whale strandings.”

That statement from NOAA also applies to the four humpback whales that died off the coast of Virginia thus far this year.

“Whale strandings have not gotten the same attention here,” said Richmond-based Ericson. “But we engage with our stakeholders continuously, so we are prepared” to handle these issues.

Protecting an endangered species

Entanglements in fishing gear and vessel strikes are the two major causes of whale deaths and serious injuries along the Atlantic Coast. It’s those threats, combined with human-made ocean noise and dwindling food supplies, that have accelerated a path to extinction for North Atlantic right whales. Only about 340 of the endangered species remain.

Right whales typically don't travel too far out to sea while moving north from their breeding and calving grounds between Florida and South Carolina to their traditional foraging grounds in New England and Nova Scotia’s Bay of Fundy.

Dominion must obey an assortment of federal measures to prevent whale strikes and dampen noise as it aims to complete the Coastal Virginia Offshore Wind project before the end of 2026, Ericson said.

That 112,800-acre lease area has the potential to be part of the whale’s territory because the site begins 27 miles offshore and extends 15 more miles out into the Atlantic.

Crew members aboard all the project’s support vessels — whether conducting prebuild surveys, construction or, eventually, turbine maintenance — are trained in how to identify and avoid whales and other marine mammals.

In addition, survey and construction vessels are staffed by employees federal agencies certify as protected-species observers. They notify crews if marine mammals enter the work zone. Operations are halted if that happens.

“The observers are the ones with advanced degrees, and they work in shifts,” Ericson said. “They’re approved by the federal government, and we provide support to ensure they are doing what we want them to do.”

To enhance that work, Dominion also relies on hydroacoustic monitoring. Simply put, it’s the equivalent of a giant microphone sweeping the ocean near the worksite, allowing observers to listen for specific marine-mammal calls.

Lessons from a pilot

As the $9.8 billion commercial project takes shape, Dominion will be adhering to the same procedures it deployed to keep marine mammals safe during the building of its 120-megawatt offshore wind pilot project in 2020.

While the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management is the lead offshore wind permitting agency, it partners with NOAA. Separately, NOAA also issues permits related to the potential impact on marine mammals.

Relatedly, the Marine Mammal Commission, an independent federal agency, weighed in about the pilot project to be sure its construction didn’t violate the 1972 Marine Mammal Protection Act.

Dominion’s two-turbine prototype served as a lab, of sorts, as workers figured out how to quietly “plant” a pair of 220-foot-long steel monopile foundations into the ocean bed. That pile-driving amounted to an enormous hammer pounding the foundations 110 feet deep.

NOAA has set the pile-driving window between May 1 and October 31, so right whales are less likely to be harassed as they migrate.

To dull the cacophony, one foundation was installed using what’s called a double-bubble curtain. Essentially, a compressor creates air bubbles to form a pocket that reduces sound waves in the water.

The other foundation was installed without the curtain so the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management could glean a better understanding of the level of sound protection it provided.

Speed kills

Scientists determined that the 20-year-old male right whale that washed up in Virginia Beach last month suffered multiple vertebral fractures, a blunt force traumatic injury consistent with a vessel strike.

It’s just one of 36 right whale deaths and 61 injuries and illnesses recorded along the East Coast since 2017 that has prompted NOAA Fisheries to propose a rule to modify existing boat- and ship-speed restrictions that would also apply to many vessels affiliated with offshore wind.

Dominion spokesperson Jeremy Slayton pointed out that offshore wind vessels are just a tiny percentage of the merchant vessels, tugs and barges, commercial and recreational boats, and others that ply the coastal and offshore waters of Virginia.

All vessels affiliated with Dominion’s project follow applicable speed restrictions, he said. That includes the 710-foot Orion, the main vessel used to haul and install foundations beginning next year, and the 472-foot Charybdis, the staging vessel for blade installation.

The latter is a $500 million vessel being built in Brownsville, Texas that Dominion also will rent out to other wind developers.

The turbine blades being used will measure 354 feet —almost as long as a football field. Just the visible part of each turbine is skyscraper height, stretching a soaring 800 feet from the top of the ocean to the tip of a blade pointed straight up.

Specifically, updates to the right whale vessel-speed regulation would broaden the physical boundaries and timing of seasonal speed-restriction areas. They would also expand mandatory speed restrictions to include most vessels 35 to 65 feet long.

In 2008, a federal rule had already set speed limits for vessels 65 feet or longer. A slowdown was mandatory in certain areas deemed vital for breeding, calving and feeding, and voluntary in places where right whales were actually spotted.

However, barely 60% of vessels have complied with mandatory speed limits since the start of the most recent right whale calving season in mid-November 2022, according to the International Fund for Animal Welfare, or IFAW.

Why villainize a climate solution?

IFAW employee Kathleen Collins said right whales are at risk from inattentive vessel operators because the enormous marine mammals are slow-moving, linger relatively close to the shoreline, and are more difficult to spot because they lack a dorsal, or top, fin.

“They’re bigger than a school bus but have a low profile in the water,” the marine scientist explained. “Unless you happen to see the blow spout, they look like debris.”

The whaling industry decimated the right-whale population in the 19th century because they were considered the “right whales to hunt” due to their slowness and thick blubber layer, and because they floated when dead.

Collins was educating the public about the plight of the right whale when Song of the Whale, a 70-foot sailboat, docked at a Washington, D.C. port in late February.

The crew aboard the IFAW-affiliated floating research station is traveling the south-to-north migratory route of the right whale to gather data on whale calls, distribution, overall health, habitat threats and chronic hazards.

While Collins said IFAW dedicates its resources to devising solutions to keep whales from being bashed by boats, tangled up in gillnets or choked by fishing ropes attached to lobster and crab pots, the nonprofit does submit public comments on offshore wind proposals.

“We’re not taking too firm a stance on it,” she said. “But attention needs to go to the threats we know about and not toward villainizing offshore wind.”

High on that list of menaces are rising water temperatures caused by burning fossil fuels. Collins noted that right whales began migrating farther north into Canada — to the Gulf of St. Lawrence — in 2016–2017 to fill up on copepods, their favored tiny crustaceans.

“Their food shifted, and they followed the food,” Collins said.

Part of the Biden administration’s pledge to solve the climate crisis is increasing offshore wind capacity to 30 GW by 2030. Dominion’s Coastal Virginia turbines are projected to power up to 660,000 homes.

Dominion expects the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management to release a final environmental evaluation this fall. The public comment period on a draft wrapped up in mid-February.

In tandem with Biden’s strategy, NOAA and BOEM are crafting a guidance document aimed at protecting right whales and their habitat.

J.C. Sandberg, chief advocacy officer for the American Clean Power Association trade group, emphasized that offshore wind is crucial to countering an overarching threat to whales: the warming of oceans caused by climate change.

“We will continue to work collaboratively with marine scientists and other experts,” Sandberg wrote in a letter to The Washington Post. “The offshore wind industry is strongly committed to safeguarding the marine environment we operate in.”