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Researchers work to keep whales safe amid offshore wind development

Right whales
Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute

Offshore wind developers plan to build turbines in the same New England waters that North Atlantic right whales use as habitat, which could prove dangerous to the critically endangered species. Now, experts in the conservation and renewables fields are working together to make those waters safe for both.

The New England Aquarium and Cornell University are partnering with LAUTEC US, a consulting firm for renewable energy projects, to build a marine spatial planning website that will model right whale habitat, evaluate risks to right whales associated with wind development, and assess the financial and operational risks for developers looking to build in areas where right whales roam.

Cornell ecologist Aaron Rice explained the project by using a hypothetical outcome: “So the idea is saying, … ‘What we're seeing is that April may not actually be a good time to build a wind farm. The models are suggesting June and July have a lower level of right whale occurrence. Maybe that's the window we should target.’”

The full impacts of offshore wind development on right whales aren’t fully understood, but many in the conservation community say they’re concerned that pile-driving activities could displace whales from their habitat, increase stress hormones, and disrupt feeding and socializing.

“The difficulty is … what kind of potential threat is [offshore wind development] to the viability of right whales as a species? And so in many ways, that warrants a more precautionary approach to say, ‘Okay, well, we need to prevent as many impacts as possible,’" Rice said. “But at the same time, should that preclude any offshore wind energy development altogether? Should we just not build wind farms because we're worried about right whales?”

"And there are certainly some folks out there that are saying, ‘Yes.’ But I think more importantly, the goal here is how can we find a sort of a sustainable balance between the two.”

Scientists estimate there are just 336 right whales left in the world. The massive mammals are routinely threatened by entanglements in rope and fishing gear, collisions with boats, and impacts of climate change as their food source shifts. Any additional ocean activity could put them at further risk.

“In looking at energy development, we're sort of in this inherent conflict where we recognize that things like renewable energy is going to be one of the principal ways of mitigating climate change going forward,” Rice said. “And at the same time, there are concerns over what might the impacts of a full scale buildout of offshore wind energy have on ocean life?”

While it used to be thought that right whales only spent late winter to early spring in local waters, some number can now be found south of Cape Cod for 11 months of the year. As a result, the goal is to build when concentrations are low to minimize risks.

“Zero probability of right whales in an area is probably not going to happen,” Rice said. “But there are times of year where there is a higher probability or a lower probability of right whales occurring. And it may be in the industry's interests to focus construction timelines on those low probability of occurrences and times of year.”

The Right Wind project, funded through the National Offshore Wind Research and Development Consortium (NOWRDC), will allow developers to assess whether additional monitoring and mitigation is needed or whether they can proceed as planned to minimize impacts on the whales.

“They don’t need more conflict. What we're trying to do is use data to reduce the conflict between these different constituencies.”

An initial version of the website is expected to be ready in the next year. It will ultimately allow regulators and offshore wind developers to predict — years in advance — when right whale occurrence is low, down to the month or maybe even the week. It’ll focus on Massachusetts and Rhode Island waters to start.

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