can right whales and offshore wind safely coexist?

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Offshore wind developments and the critically endangered North Atlantic right whales are sharing waters off the coast, raising concerns about their coexistence. Cape and Islands (CAI) reporter Eve Zuckoff has delved into this complex issue, shedding light on the challenges and potential solutions. Here’s the latest on this important environmental debate.

Vineyard Wind, a significant offshore wind project, is erecting 62 turbines south of Martha’s Vineyard, each towering as tall as the Eiffel Tower. With more similar projects on the horizon, questions arise about the implications for the already endangered right whales.

Zuckoff highlights four primary concerns regarding the interaction between offshore wind farms and right whales. Firstly, the increased maritime traffic associated with wind farm construction and maintenance raises the risk of ship strikes, a significant threat to these marine mammals. Additionally, there’s a potential for whales to become entangled in marine debris originating from wind farms. Changes in ocean circulation due to the presence of wind turbines could impact the distribution of copepods, a vital food source for right whales. Lastly, construction-related noise, particularly from pile driving, may affect the whales’ hearing and behavior.

Despite these concerns, Zuckoff clarifies that there have been no reported right whale deaths linked directly to offshore wind activities. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) confirms this, emphasizing the absence of established connections between whale fatalities and ongoing offshore wind operations.

However, misinformation regarding offshore wind and right whales has proliferated, with local groups expressing concerns and even filing lawsuits against wind projects. Zuckoff reveals research linking some of these groups to larger entities with interests in fossil fuels. Dr. Timmons Roberts of Brown University suggests a coordinated effort to disseminate information through seemingly grassroots organizations, complicating public discourse on the issue.

Nevertheless, scientists emphasize the urgency of addressing the broader threat of climate change, which poses a far greater risk to right whales than offshore wind. As waters warm, changes in copepod distribution may lead to increased whale-boat collisions and entanglements.

Despite reservations, many experts, including Stormy Mayo of the Center for Coastal Studies, recognize offshore wind as a necessary step toward mitigating climate change. Mayo acknowledges concerns about industrialization of the sea but underscores the urgency of addressing climate impacts on marine ecosystems.

As efforts to safeguard right whales continue, Zuckoff emphasizes the importance of ongoing research and regulatory measures to ensure the safe coexistence of offshore wind and these endangered creatures. With proper safeguards and continued investment in renewable energy, offshore wind farms could not only protect marine life but also contribute significantly to combating climate change.

Zuckoff will further explore these topics on NPR’s Science Friday, underscoring the importance of informed discussion and collaborative efforts to address these complex environmental challenges.

This conversation has been lightly edited for time and clarity.

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