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Study: Right Whales Seen Year-Round in Waters Targeted for Offshore Wind Development

Center for Coastal Studies

North Atlantic right whales can now be found year-round in offshore wind development areas in the waters off Southern New England, a new study found.

Previously, it was thought that the critically endangered whales were only present in high numbers in waters off Nantucket and Martha’s Vineyard from late winter to early spring. But new research, published July 29 in Endangered Species Research, has revealed that dozens more individual whales are using the area in the fall and summer — and the numbers are increasing.

“We found that right whale use of the region increased during the last decade, and since 2017 whales have been sighted there nearly every month, with large aggregations occurring during the winter and spring,” said Tim Cole, lead of the whale aerial survey team at the Northeast Fisheries Science Center and a co-author of the study.

The research, with contributions from the New England Aquarium, Center for Coastal Studies, and federal scientists, was published just weeks after federal regulators had already awarded Vineyard Wind an “Incidental Harassment Authorization,” effectively allowing for unintentional harm to marine mammals during its construction period. The 84-turbine, 800 megawatt wind farm finally received approval this past spring after a convoluted three-year permitting process and is expected to provide electricity for 400,000 homes and businesses.

“The data is showing us that the area is definitely more important to [right whales] now than it was in the past, and we don’t know enough about [the whales] to really understand how this development is going to affect them,” said Ester Quintana, principal investigator on the study who now works at Simmons University.

The research is a starting point, but Quintana warned that big questions remain about how offshore wind developments could affect the whales.

“Is this going to drive them away? Or is it going to change their habitat? We just don’t know,” she said. “So that, to me, is a red flag.”

Offshore wind energy installations are proposed in waters off the south coasts of Massachusetts and Rhode Island, and the construction and operation of wind farms are relevant to conserving the species, Cole said.

“Considerable uncertainty still exists regarding how the development of the region could have an impact on right whales just as they are becoming more reliant on the region,” he said.

A total of 327 unique right whales were photographed in Southern New England waters between 2011-2015 and 2017-2019. That number is remarkably high, considering that the whales’ total population today stands around 360. More generally, the study revealed that while more than half the population can be found in Cape Cod Bay from late winter to early spring, the waters in Southern New England are, in fact, an essential feeding ground for many whales on their migratory routes from Florida to Canada. While the majority of those seen in the area were males, pregnant females and some mother-calf pairs were also spotted passing through.

When wind farm construction begins, the whales could be vulnerable to increased boat traffic, noise, and changes in habitat. A leading cause of death for the species is collisions with ships, and the presence of wind turbine foundations may impact ocean currents that could disrupt the formation of plankton aggregations, and, in turn, feeding opportunities for right whales.

The concerns have pushed a growing number of conservationists to call for greater oversight going forward.

“This peer-reviewed research should lead to [the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management] and [the National Marine Fisheries Service] updating their analyses of Vineyard Wind and other neighboring projects before construction begins in 2023,” Gib Brogan, a senior campaign manager with the marine conservation group Oceana, wrote in an email.

Quintana, too, is wondering whether this research could prompt existential questions.

“Now that we know right whales are there year-round, the question is, ‘Is it a good idea to allow this to continue?’” she said. “But my guess is this is not going to stop. So, what can we do to try to lessen any potential effects?”

A spokesperson for Vineyard Wind said the company has supported this research and will continue to do so, “throughout the development and operation of this first project and future projects.”

The company has said it will invest millions of dollars in acoustic monitoring on the construction vessels, and plans to avoid pile driving or transiting vessels if whales are detected.

Still, Quintana said, she hopes more research can be done before 2023.

“I feel like by the time we have more details,” she said, “it might be a little bit too late for the species.”

Eve Zuckoff covers the environment and human impacts of climate change for CAI.