Massive offshore wind project gets underway after getting permission to ‘take’ endangered whales

Daily Caller News Foundation

  • A large offshore wind project off the coast of Martha’s Vineyard has received “take” permits allowing for thousands of incidental killings of marine mammals, including dozens of whales protected under the Endangered Species Act (ESA) and up to 20 endangered North Atlantic right whales.
  • Federal regulation allows for the issuance of take permits for marine life so long as the permitted number of incidental deaths has a minimal effect on the longer-term viability of the species.
  • The construction process for the turbines necessitates underwater blasts of noise which “are louder than a jet engine at 25 yards” of distance, New England Fishermen Stewardship Association (NEFSA) President Jerry Leeman told the Daily Caller News Foundation. 

A large offshore wind farm development project is underway off the Massachusetts coast after the project’s developer received 20 “take” permits for the endangered right whale from environmental bureaucrats and regulators.

Vineyard Wind began offshore construction of the 62- wind turbine project Thursday, according to WBUR. This summer’s construction of the offshore wind farm some 15 miles off the coast of Martha’s Vineyard legally permit the company to incidentally kill up to 20 critically endangered right whales, according to the Federal Register entry for the project.

The site of the development is within waters identified as “[representing] an increasingly important habitat for the declining right whale population,” according to a 2022 study led by researchers from the New England Aquarium (NEA). The researchers “found a significant, increasing trend in right whale abundance off Martha’s Vineyard,” according to a July 2022 summary of the study on the NEA’s website.

Federal regulators from the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) issued take permits to Vineyard Wind in June 2021 which include the endangered right whale in their scope, according to the Federal Register entry for the project. Take permits allow for the “incidental, but not intentional, taking of small numbers of marine mammals by U.S. citizens who engage in a specified activity (other than commercial fishing) within a specified geographical region,” according to section 1361 of Title 16 of the United States Code.

Regulators grant take permits for incidental killings of marine life when the NMFS finds that the deaths “will have a negligible impact on the species,” according to the project’s Federal Register entry. The take permits allow for Vineyard Wind to incidentally kill dozens of whales protected by the Endangered Species Act, including up to 20 critically endangered right whales, during the construction process, according to the Federal Register entry.

NOAA noted that it calculated the quantity of allowable right whale take permits for the development project in order to be “conservative,” according to the Federal Register entry. “Even one human-caused mortality puts the species at risk of extinction,” Dr. Jessica Redfern of the Anderson Cabot Center for Ocean Life testified at a Tuesday House Natural Resources Committee hearing on commercial threats to the right whale population.

Offshore construction is scheduled to run through the summer months and halt for the winter in November 2023, according to WBUR.

“The North Atlantic right whale is one of the world’s most endangered species of large whale,” according to a February 2023 memorandum from the Marine Mammal Commission (MMC). NOAA estimates that fewer than 350 right whales remain, according to its website. “Between 2003 and 2018, in cases where a cause of death could be determined, every juvenile and adult right whale death was attributable to human activities,” according to the MMC memorandum.

“While NOAA has handed out these takings, it is denying” and “ignoring” the “direct correlation” between offshore wind development and the increased numbers of right whales washing up dead on beaches since approximately 2016, Steve Milloy, senior E&E legal fellow and former Trump EPA Transition team member, told the Daily Caller News Foundation (DCNF).

Milloy’s “hypothesis” is that the extreme noise disturbances generated by underwater surveying disorient the right whales which are then more likely to strike a vessel and sustain serious injuries which often result in death for the animal.

The construction process for the turbines necessitates underwater blasts of noise for surveying which “are louder than a jet engine at 25 yards” of distance, New England Fishermen Stewardship Association (NEFSA) president Jerry Leeman told the DCNF. “If you look at any area that’s being industrially developed, there are always wildlife and environmental impacts,” Leeman said. “The uptick in vessel surveys for offshore wind development is right at the same time as the uptick in the beaching of these mammals,” he added.

The Bureau of Ocean Energy Management claims that it “requires strict protective measures for when the offshore wind industry conducts activities offshore” in order to “ensure that whales are protected from offshore wind leasing and development activities,” according to a February 2023 fact sheet.

Vineyard Wind did not immediately respond to the DCNF’s request for comment.

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