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US: Anti-renewable groups target whale deaths

March 6, 2023

Mysteriously funded groups have developed a sudden interest in the welfare of whales on the US Atlantic coast. But their concerns appear entirely limited to blocking renewable energy projects.

Workers walk near a dead whale that washed ashore in Seaside Park, New Jersey
There is no evidence that dead whales found on East Coast beaches have died of causes related to wind energyImage: Wayne Parry/AP Photo/picture alliance

Hundreds of dead whales have washed up on the Atlantic coast of the United States since 2017, including the critically endangered North Atlantic right whale.

Their giant corpses have littered the East Coast, from Florida in the south to Maine in the north. Government scientists have linked most cases to entanglements in fishing lines and collisions with ships, though many deaths lack data due to decomposition and time constraints.

Fossil-fuel-backed lobby groups have capitalized on the deaths to supercharge their fight against offshore wind farms, according to conservation groups, watchdogs and researchers.

Conservative pundit Tucker Carlson claimed to Fox News viewers last month that "the government's offshore wind projects — which are enriching its donors — are killing a huge number of whales, right now." A spokeswoman from a group affiliated with the Texas Public Policy Foundation, whose funders include fossil fuel companies, then went on to link whale deaths to offshore wind projects.

Proponents of the theory are often vague on how exactly the developments are killing whales, but generally attribute their deaths to the sonar used during underwater surveys or the loud noises emitted by operational turbines.

Those claims have been repeated by conservative politicians, despite their having no basis in science. And whale researchers have even started receiving violent threats from conspiracy theorists for supposedly covering up the cause the mammals' deaths from sonar.

Is there any truth to the claims?

"This whale thing just kind of appeared out of nowhere," Arlo Hemphill, an ocean project leader on ocean sanctuaries and deep sea mining for Greenpeace USA, told DW.

"For any of these injuries or deaths that have happened over the past couple of months, there's not a shred of evidence that any of them have been caused by any activity associated with wind farms."

Similar conclusions have been drawn by the nonprofit conservation groups, the Sierra Club and Oceana, in conversations with DW, pointing to findings from the government agency responsible for investigating the deaths.

Cindy Zipf, executive director of the Clean Ocean Action environmental group, speaks at a press conference on the beach in Atlantic City, New Jersey
Protest groups along the Atlantic coast have capitalized on the whale deathsImage: Wayne Parry/AP Photo/picture alliance

Cases have been reported in areas with no offshore wind development, and at times when no surveys were being undertaken.

Anjuli Ramos, New Jersey state director for the Sierra Club, said whale deaths are being used to mislead people about renewable energy.

"It creates a really emotional response because it is the death of a marine mammal, it is the death of an animal that the public cares very deeply for," Ramos said. And emotional responses are difficult to trump with scientific fact.

Most of the 17 wind farms planned or already built along the East Coast of the United States present no major concerns for whales, according to three conservation groups DW spoke to. Multiple conservation groups were involved in the approvals process, motivated by an urgent need to switch to renewables.

Offshore wind turbines on vast yellow platforms
Seventeen wind projects are in the process of being approved or built on the US East Coast Image: Michael Dwyer/AP Photo/picture alliance

A coalition of environmental organizations even signed a deal last year to support a wind project off the coast of New York, if it was developed in an environmentally sensitive manner.

However, Gib Brogan, fisheries campaign manager at Oceana, did raise concerns about the 800 megawatt Vineyard Wind project off Massachusetts, scheduled to begin construction in spring. North Atlantic right whales have started regularly feeding and socializing in the area.

He has concerns the construction could disrupt the oceanographic conditions that produce the food for the whales, causing them to move on and expend energy finding new food sources, and producing fewer offspring.

"The big old fat fertile females have lots more babies; we need them to be fat and happy,” Brogan said.

Amy DiSibio, a director of the "local, grassroots environmental organization" Nantucket Residents Against Turbines, told DW that more investigation was needed to determine how the whales had died, pointing to the deaths for which no cause had been found.

Who is pushing the claims?

David Anderson, policy and communications manager at the Energy and Policy Institute, a fossil fuel industry watchdog, said that until the late 2000s, there was generally bipartisan support for clean energy development in the United States.

But as the technology became cheaper and more reliable, the fossil fuel industry began to fight back.

"I think the fossil fuel industry kind of caught on to the fact that their days were numbered," Anderson said, adding that it started to fund and support politically powerful figures who campaigned against wind energy. Meanwhile, conservative organizations such as the Chicago-based think tank Heartland Institute and the Caesar Rodney Institute, a Delaware-based right-wing pressure group, which had long sown doubt about climate science, spread misinformation about offshore wind development. Both groups have a history of receiving money from the fossil fuel industry.

In this Nov. 20, 2016 photo, a humpback whale pops up in the waters between 48th Street and 60th Street as seen from New York City
Whales are increasingly being seen around New York, where they are in the path of heavy shipping trafficImage: Craig Ruttle/AP Photo/picture alliance

Research shows that groups like these are often behind front organizations that might otherwise appear to be grassroots citizen groups.

"There are several sites and groups that have gone national in their opposition to wind and solar farms that kind of feel grassrootsy, but then when you poke around to see who their leaders are, you can see that they're constantly popping up at events and coordinating with special interest groups that are more concretely tied to the fossil fuel industry," Anderson told DW.

DW reached out to several organizations who have cited whale deaths in their local campaigns against wind farms.

Bob Stern, president of nonprofit coalition Save Long Beach Island, refused to answer DW questions on funding sources and lack of involvement in other whale campaigns, writing: "I do not allow the integrity and motives of our organization to be impugned."

Citizen activist group Protect Our Coast NJ was unable to respond in time for publication, but DiSibio of Nantucket Residents Against Turbines said her group had "never taken one dollar from fossil fuel, we don’t even have a contact in that industry. Our donors are mostly local, hard-working, year-round Nantucket residents."

Matthew Eisenson, a legal expert at Columbia Law School's Sabin Center for Climate Change, said there are legitimately concerned local residents who are seeing a rapid expansion of renewable energy in new areas, but they are being misled by powerful interests.

The Biden administration wants to build at least 30 gigawatts of offshore wind energy by 2030, enough to power 10 million homes. But Eisenson says legal challenges and multipronged campaigns involving misinformation are slowing development.

Frustration among conservationists

For the conservationists who are actually working to save the whales, the campaigns are duplicitous and frustrating.

"One of the things that's most troubling to me about this connection and the anti-wind sentiment around the whale strandings is the disregard for scientific expertise and advice from the people that have spent their lives studying and protecting these whales," Oceana's Brogan said.

A whale with its calf caught up in fishing rope
Right whales are particularly prone to fishing line entanglementsImage: Georgia Department of Natural Resources/NOAA Permit/AP/picture alliance

What can actually help?

Greenpeace's Hemphill says one of the main ways to protect such species is to create ocean sanctuaries, with no industry or large-scale shipping, and no fishing.

Controls on a more local level can make a difference, too. Just restricting ship speeds to 10 knots can lower the risk of right whale deaths significantly, and limiting the number of fishing ropes in the water helps.

But one of the primary threats to biodiversity globally is climate change. Transitioning to renewable energy is one of the most effective ways to slow rising temperatures.

"Offshore wind is truly what's going to save all of us, and also marine wildlife and wildlife in general, because that is what's going to get us away from fossil fuel emissions," the Sierra Club's Ramos said.

Edited by: Tamsin Walker