The Complicated Truths About Offshore Wind And Right Whales

17:29 minutes

Aerial view of two large black whales swimming one behind the other, along a smooth teal ocean surface, with plumes of breath visible.
Two North Atlantic right whales photographed by the NOAA’s Northeast Fisheries Center aerial survey team in May 2016. Credit: Tim Cole/NOAA Fisheries, NEFSC

state of science iconThis article is part of The State of Science, a series featuring science stories from public radio stations across the United States. This story, by Eve Zuckoff, was published in collaboration with WCAI.

By the time researchers found the dead whale on a Martha’s Vineyard beach, her jet-black skin was pockmarked by hungry seagulls, her baleen had been dislodged from her mouth, and thin rope was wrapped tightly—as it had been for 17 months—around the most narrow part of her tail.

Researchers quickly learned this was a 12-ton, 3-year-old female known as 5120, and that she was a North Atlantic right whale, a species with just about 360 members left.

A few weeks later, NOAA Fisheries announced that the entangling rope came from lobster fishing gear set in Maine state waters. The pain and discomfort of the entanglement likely affected 5120’s ability to swim and eat until finally, experts say, exhaustion or starvation probably killed her. A final cause of death is still pending.

The death of 5120 was devastating to right whale advocates, who know that losing a female doesn’t just mean losing one whale, but dozens of others that could have come from her future calves. For them, a death is often followed by a period of grief, and a renewed commitment to their work. And that might have been the end of 5120’s story.

But then came the online comments. Hundreds, perhaps thousands, across social media blamed offshore wind farms—the noise, electricity generated, and the mere presence of turbines. Along the way, the truth about 5120 became a non-concern.

A close-up of a black whale's tail as it lies on the beach, with a thin pale rope that has been cut but remains embedded in the flesh.
Thin rope embedded deep in the tail of right whale 5120. Credit: Eve Zuckoff

In many cases, the rumors about offshore wind hurting and killing right whales are quite possibly spread from a place of concern, mistrust, or fear by well-meaning people who want to know our oceans are safe for marine mammals. But few people want that more than right whale scientists, who have dedicated their careers to saving a species that appears to be just a few decades from extinction. For many of them, talking about offshore wind has its own challenges, both because of the unknowns that come with a nascent industry and the knee-jerk reactions from people on all sides of the issue. So they say that yes, they’re uneasy about the potential threats of wind farms. But they agonize over the prospect of climate change destroying right whales’ shot at survival via their food web and ecosystem.

Threats To North Atlantic Right Whales

Some estimates suggest that, at their peak, 9,000-21,000 North Atlantic right whales swam just off the East Coast. But as the commercial whaling industry grew through the 18th and 19th centuries, the population floundered. In fact, their name came from whalers, who referred to them as the “right” whales to hunt because they were often found near shore, they swam slowly, and they tended to float after death, due to their high fat percentage. By the 1920s, perhaps fewer than 100 North Atlantic right whales remained.

But the population rebounded after commercial whaling was banned in 1935, and by 2010 there were as many as 483 individuals. Since then, however, that progress has been reversed.

Altogether, between 2011 and 2020, 43% of North Atlantic right whales died, and scientists say the species could become functionally extinct within the next 30 years.

Experts, backed by mortality data, say they now die almost exclusively from two causes. Over the last seven years, 39 right whales were seriously injured or killed by entanglements; lobster, snow crab, and jonah crab gear are primarily blamed.

Right whales are also often killed by vessel strikes, or run-ins with boats. Propellers can make deep cuts, or a collision can cause a blunt force trauma that leads to death. Because of their all-black coloring, proximity to shipping lanes, and tendency to spend long periods at the surface to feed and travel, they’re often just out of sight of boat captains, but not out of danger from the submerged hull or propeller.

Then came offshore wind.

A Pawn In A Fight Against Offshore Wind

In recent years, conservation groups that appeared to be grassroots organizations popped up across Massachusetts, Delaware, New Jersey, and elsewhere, to oppose offshore wind because of concerns about whales.

Reporters began finding links between the groups and fossil-fuel interests, but the scale of coordination wasn’t clear until a Brown University team began digging. In December 2023, researchers from the school’s climate and development lab released a paper that linked 18 of these groups—through funding, membership, legal representation, and more—to think tanks and conservative donors who are known to block climate policy in support of fossil-fuel interests.

“We found some evidence of a planning memo from 2012 that really laid out the game plan that they would use local groups that appear entirely local, but are being fed information from a centralized set of think tanks,” said Dr. Timmons Roberts, who led the report and studies disinformation around climate change at Brown University.

A wind turbine standing in the middle of the ocean.
A GE Haliade-X Turbine for Vineyard Wind, the country’s first large-scale offshore wind project. Credit: Vineyard Wind

During his presidency, Donald Trump publicly made untrue claims about wind turbines causing cancer, killing birds, and making whales “a little batty.” In 2019, he also ordered more environmental reviews of Vineyard Wind, the first large-scale offshore wind project in the country—an expensive delay that some read as playing politics.

This is part of a larger pattern by some Republicans of using right whales to fight offshore wind. Simultaneously, politicians in the GOP have ignored or fought other efforts to protect whales against boat collisions and entanglements.

In the case of the right whale known as 5120, about five days passed between when Martha’s Vineyard residents found her carcass on a beach and when researchers revealed her preliminary cause of death to be chronic entanglement wounds. In that time, people started to speculate on social media and other platforms blaming Vineyard Wind’s project, which is under construction some 15 miles away from where the whale was found.

It appears a Martha’s Vineyard resident first claimed in a Facebook post that 5120’s injuries came from a thick rope researchers tied around her tail to move her off the beach for a post-mortem exam. It was widely cited thereafter.

Then, groups like one called Save the Dolphins and Whales New Jersey wrote on Facebook, “The whale did not have rope around its tail. It was only added afterwards.”

That post was shared hundreds of times, and soon similar false statements were showing up across Facebook, X, Instagram, and other online forums.

Meanwhile, some researchers working on 5120’s carcass checked social media in horror. They’d battled wind and waves in a storm to anchor 5120’s carcass when she first washed ashore. Then they spent hours standing inside the whale’s rib cage, tolerating the smell of her decaying flesh, and ultimately needed a power saw to get through the 4 to 5 inches of tissue that had grown over the rope to remove it from her tail.

A spokesperson for the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW), which was in charge of the post-mortem operation, pointed to the tissue growth and said it is “simply not possible if lines are attached to an animal after it dies.”

A Changing Seascape Could Pose Threats To Wildlife

To build a wind farm, developers must bring massive infrastructure into the ocean. The turbines used by Vineyard Wind are expected to be 812 feet tall, including the blades—taller than Boston’s tallest skyscraper at 790 feet.

The sheer amount of work and steel it takes to build and operate an offshore wind farm has created four main categories of concern for right whale experts.

The first two build on existing threats: more boats in the water means there will be a higher risk of collisions with whales, and more equipment in the water increases the risk of entanglements in marine debris.

The third concern, about noise, has prompted some of the most intense online chatter.

There are worries that loud pile driving during construction could result in hearing impairment, or the sound could mask right whales’ vocal communication, or generally make them more stressed and affect behavior. Even so, early research has started to dispel some of these worries.

Dr. Doug Nowacek, who studies the link between acoustic and motor behavior in marine mammals at Duke University, studied several fin whales—a distant cousin of the right whale—near South Fork Wind, New York’s first commercial-scale offshore wind farm.

“We had tags on fin whales while pile driving was occurring, and we saw no dramatic responses,” he said. “A couple of the tagged whales did move south a few miles. But let’s keep in mind these are highly migratory, highly mobile species.”

He added that his team is still digging through data to see if there were any more subtle impacts that can be detected from the whales’ behavior.

An industrial building stands on yellow stilts above the ocean surface.
A Vineyard Wind substation that collects and exports electricity generated by wind turbine generators. Credit: Jennette Barnes

With regard to noise in the long term, experts like Nowacek say they believe risks are lower after construction is finished and the wind farms are operating because whales are deeply accustomed to most boat and ship noises. And bioacoustics experts from the University of Rhode Island found that the level of sound produced by the Block Island Wind Farm turbines is so low that just 50 meters away it can’t be detected above background noise unless there’s no wind blowing and no boat passing in the vicinity.

The last category of concern revolves around questions about whether wind farms could significantly change ocean circulation and affect the tiny copepods right whales like to eat.

Wind turbines extract wind energy out of the atmosphere, which means less energy moving and mixing the ocean. With less mixing, nutrients from deeper down may not reach the upper ocean where algae can grow.

“If you reduce the amount of nutrients to the algae, maybe there won’t be as many algae that are growing. If that’s the case, then maybe there aren’t enough algae to feed the copepods,” said Dr. Mark Baumgartner, a senior scientist at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution who studies how baleen whales approach their prey.

On the flip side, he said, as water flows past the turbines, eddies will form—swirling will happen—so the foundations could actually promote mixing, making patches of copepods more concentrated, which could mean better feeding opportunities.

Baumgartner said he probably won’t know whether offshore wind turbines create a net positive or net negative impact on copepods for years, which is one of the challenges of efforts to mitigate potential problems.

Feds Step Up Protections

NOAA Fisheries and the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM) recently released a final strategy that identifies the agencies’ goals and key actions to mitigate the potential effects of offshore wind on North Atlantic right whales and their habitat. Some right whale advocates say they’re still waiting to see accompanying regulations to give the strategy teeth, but they were encouraged to see that it specifically says regulators should avoid leasing new wind developments in right whale habitat.

On noise, the strategy calls for maximum reductions and pushes developers to conduct underwater acoustic monitoring to listen for whales a full 24 hours in advance of loud foundation installation activities.

Many of the measures build on pledges developers have made with advocacy groups and ocean conservation organizations to protect right whales.

Vineyard Wind has agreed to boat-speed limits, a strict time frame for pile driving (it only happens when right whales’ main migration through the area is over), and the presence of marine observers, who search for right whales and stop construction if even one is in the area.

Meanwhile, the fishing industry has made efforts to reduce the threat of vessel strikes and entanglements, with mixed results.

Scientists Still ‘Uneasy’

Offshore wind isn’t a new industry. Thousands of turbines are up and running off Europe, but they offer little insight into potential effects on whales in the North Atlantic because there are few, if any, large baleen whales swimming off European shores near wind farms.

As a result, right whale scientists must stand by as offshore wind developers in the U.S. embark on a giant live experiment.

For right whales’ sake, Baumgartner and Nowacek agreed the best way to do that safely is to quickly collect as much data as possible. Already, they—like others—are working to determine best practices for the protection of whales, and also for dolphins, porpoises, and seabirds. Baumgartner said he hopes regulators will be able to learn and adjust offshore wind policy to protect marine life based on information gathered at 100 turbines, then repeat the process at 500 turbines, 1,000 turbines, and so on.

This approach may come with risks, but ultimately, many experts say it’s worth it. In fact, more than a half dozen scientists and right whale conservation advocates interviewed for this story said the biggest risk to right whales and other endangered species is the very danger offshore wind is designed to address: climate change.

A family looking at a whale carcass on a peaceful New England shore. Two boats float nearby.
The carcass of right whale 5120, which was moved to a forested area on Aquinnah Wampanoag trust land for a necropsy and burial. Credit: Eve Zuckoff

Dr. Stormy Mayo, a senior scientist and chair of the department of ecology at the Center for Coastal Studies in Provincetown, Massachusetts, said he feels torn. Mayo, whose youngest son works in the offshore wind industry, said he remains worried about impacts on whales he’s studied for more than 45 years, yet acknowledges offshore wind may well be the environment’s best bet.

“I’ve personally always felt very much concerned about the industrialization of the sea. And offshore wind is just another one of those cases,” he said. “But having watched these animals as long as I have … it is clear to me now that the biggest looming issue confronted by right whales is the impact of climate change on the sea.”

One disastrous example came in 2017. Scientists believe that, like most animals, right whales decide where to go by chasing their food. That year, warming temperatures caused copepods to shift north into waters with no boat-speed limits or fishing protections. Right whales followed, resulting in a catastrophic year where 35 North Atlantic right whales were found dead and not one new calf was detected.

The copepods could very well shift again as the impacts of climate change on the ocean intensify, sending right whales back into dangerous waters.

Offshore Wind And Climate Change

Currently, about 30 offshore wind projects are in various states of review in the U.S.

Vineyard Wind now sends energy from five of its 62 planned turbines into the grid—and South Fork Wind recently powered up its 12th and final turbine. Combined they’ll power about 470,000 homes. President Joe Biden has called for the equivalent of 10 million homes to be powered by offshore wind by 2030. It’s a key part of plans to drive down greenhouse gas emissions and mitigate climate change.

A view down the length of a massive white wind turbine blade held by two large transport devices on the ground as a worker in red looks on.
Workers help transport an offshore wind turbine blade before it is stacked on top of another at Vineyard Wind on June 8, 2023, in New Bedford, Massachusetts. Credit: Raquel C. Zaldívar/New England News Collaborative

When a wind turbine is operating, it produces zero CO2 emissions, but there are emissions from its construction, maintenance, and ultimate decommissioning. Accounting for all emissions over the lifespan of a technology, the Department of Energy reports that offshore wind farms emit about 40 times less CO2 than natural gas to produce the same amount of energy, and about 90 times less than coal. One study found that the CO2 and energy expended over the lifespan of offshore wind turbines was “paid back” within the first 6 to 17 months.

And so far, the news for whales has been fairly good. Vineyard Wind began laying cable south of Martha’s Vineyard in November of 2022. The first turbine components started heading to the lease area, and major construction began in the fall of 2023. According to NOAA Fisheries, there hasn’t been any indication that a whale has been injured or killed by the project—or any other for that matter. South Fork, too, hasn’t been found liable for any whale deaths, despite claims made during a misinformation campaign in 2023.

“There are no known links between large whale deaths and ongoing offshore wind activities,” NOAA has reported.

5120’s Legacy

From the moment 5120 came ashore, the Martha’s Vineyard Aquinnah Wampanoag Tribe began a conversation about claiming her as one of their own.

“Our territory exists on this land, but our territory is also under what is now the ocean. And that’s how the chief has access, and has historical precedent, and has Indigenous, ancestral rights to creatures like this that come ashore,” said Jason Baird, the Tribe’s medicine man.

The Aquinnah Wampanoag Tribe, in collaboration with NOAA fisheries and IFAW, picked a wooded spot on their trust land to bless and bury 5120.

In about a year, Aquinnah Wampanoag citizens plan to use some of her bones for education and art. It’s given others who cared about 5120 in life and death a sense of peace.

“To know that she is resting on their land is just a really powerful thing,” said Dr. Sarah Sharp, an IFAW veterinarian.

While debates continue to rage about offshore wind and its possible effects on the world of whales, scientists remain focused on learning what they can. They hope those who are worried about the whales—5120 included—will put their energy where it can do the most good.

“All of the discussion about wind farms right now I feel like is just distracting from the real issues,” Sharp said. “We’ve got decades of data that these whales are dying from entanglements and vessel strikes. And we need to stay focused on those two main causes.”

Further Reading

Segment Guests

Eve Zuckoff

Eve Zuckoff is an environment reporter at WCAI in Woods Hole, Massachusetts.

Segment Transcript

ARIELLE DUHAIME-ROSS: This is Science Friday. I’m Arielle Duhaime-Ross. The North Atlantic right whale is this critically endangered species that lives along North America’s East Coast. Its total population stands at around just under 360 individuals, which is why when a young female died in January, the news got a lot of attention. Many accused an off shore wind energy project near Martha’s Vineyard of causing her death, despite a necropsy report that later found what actually killed her.

Eve Zuckoff, a reporter from Public Radio Station CAI, was on the scene shortly after the whale washed up on shore. She reported on the ensuing misinformation campaign and what we actually know is putting these whales at risk of extinction. Eve, welcome back to Science Friday.

EVE ZUCKOFF: Hi, Arielle. Thanks for having me.

ARIELLE DUHAIME-ROSS: So, Eve, you saw this whale shortly after it washed up on shore. What was that like? What did you see?

EVE ZUCKOFF: Well, when I first saw the whale, she was on her back, this 30-foot long animal curled up on the high tide line. Her black skin was pockmarked by seagulls. Her baleen had been dislodged from her mouth. I mean, she hadn’t been dead long, but she was in rough shape.

And there was a clock on the effort to move her carcass to a wooded area, where experts could have a dry space to do the post-mortem exam, that necropsy, and establish the cause of death. They decided the best way to move this whale would be to tie one end of a rope around her tail and have a small boat bring the other end to a tug boat waiting offshore. And once the rope was secure, that tugboat started revving its engine, trying to drag this 12-ton whale off the beach.

SPEAKER: Come on. Come on.

EVE ZUCKOFF: I watched on the beach with Brian Sharp, the director of a marine mammal rescue program for IFAW, the International Fund for Animal Welfare. And the tow rope came taut. And then finally–

SPEAKER: There it is. There it is.

EVE ZUCKOFF: –the whale was towed through the waves, loaded onto a truck, and finally driven to the woods.

ARIELLE DUHAIME-ROSS: Wow. After the postmortem exam, what were scientists know able to learn about her? And what did they find as her cause of death?

EVE ZUCKOFF: We learned this was just a three-year-old whale, that researchers call 5120. And she had suffered this major entanglement in the ocean. A thin rope was entangled around and cutting into the most narrow part of her tail. It had been there for more than half her life. And a marine law enforcement team said it actually came from lobster fishing gear set up in Maine.

It was marked very clearly with purple rope that is specific to the Maine state lobster fishery. To protect these whales, a few years ago, regulators decided every lobster fishery in every state needs their own state-specific colors marking their gear. Purple is Maine’s. That’s what was found around 51’s tail.

Now, we’ll probably never know exactly how 5120 got entangled in it. The rope just got tighter as she grew. That’s what we know. So it seems to have affected her ability to swim and eat, until finally, experts say exhaustion or starvation probably killed her.

ARIELLE DUHAIME-ROSS: You’ve been covering the conflict between the fishing industry and whales for a long time. Can you tell me what the death of this whale actually means?

EVE ZUCKOFF: Yes. North Atlantic right whales don’t get to die of old age, meaning they rarely die of natural causes. Experts found that over the last 7 years, 39 right whales were seriously injured or killed by entanglements. That’s 10% of the population. And more than 85% of the population has been entangled at least once in their lives. When this gear can be found, it’s typically coming from the lobster, snow crab, and Jonah crab fisheries.

Now, the other major way right whales die is by getting hit by boats. And by the way, climate change is just compounding these two issues.


EVE ZUCKOFF: Because right whales, like most animals, decide where they’ll go by chasing their favorite food, which are these tiny, little crustaceans called copepods. But as temperatures have changed, we’ve seen this food source shift into new waters.

It was disastrous when this happened in 2017 because right whales weren’t protected by boat speed limits and fishing rules in the new waters they chose. And 35 of them died in a single year. So I’ve given you a lot of numbers. Here are the last ones, maybe the most important.

Between 2011 and 2020, 43% of North Atlantic right whales died. That’s 43% of a species. So it’s insane, right? So now that’s how we reach this point, where they’re at risk of extinction in the next 30 years.

ARIELLE DUHAIME-ROSS: OK, so we know for sure that 5120 died because of fishing gear. But that is not the story that was told online about her, was it?

EVE ZUCKOFF: No, Arielle, in just five days between finding 5120 on a beach and revealing her cause of death, speculation ramped up. People were increasingly blaming a wind farm under construction 15 miles away from where the whale was found. And then speculation fully turned into misinformation.

We saw anti-offshore wind groups, like Save the Dolphins and Whales New Jersey, post on Facebook, saying, quote, “the whale did not have rope around its tail. It was only added afterwards.”


EVE ZUCKOFF: That post alone got at least 215 shares, and it was one of dozens, then hundreds, maybe even thousands of comments peddling untruths. But look, I saw the rope embedded in 5120’s skin. To get it out of her tail, a team needed an electric saw to get through four to five inches of tissue that grew over it.

ARIELLE DUHAIME-ROSS: Right. You were actually there when the whale’s carcass was taken away. So it sounds like this tragic death of this whale was being used to fight offshore wind energy. What do we know about the groups that spread this misinformation?

EVE ZUCKOFF: Well, in recent years, we’ve seen these grassroots groups popping up, organizing their communities, filing lawsuits against offshore wind developers over concerns about right whales. And for a while, it wasn’t entirely really clear how much these groups were coordinating with one another or anyone else, for that matter.

But then these researchers from brown University put out a paper that links 18 of these groups through funding, membership, legal representation, and more to bigger think tanks and conservative donors who are known to block climate policy in support of fossil fuel interests. I talked with Dr. Timmons Roberts, who studies disinformation around climate change at Brown, and he said these local groups may or may not know there’s a larger strategy going on.

TIMMONS ROBERTS: We found some evidence of a planning memo from 2012 that really laid out the game plan, that they would use local groups that appear entirely local, but are being fed information from a centralized set of think tanks.

EVE ZUCKOFF: And to be clear, right whale advocacy groups aren’t the only ones fighting offshore wind. Opposition has come from fishermen worried about how the farms will impact their catch. And there have been homeowner or beachgoer groups worried about the views from their homes or what happens if a cable runs from an offshore wind farm under their beach. So all of these groups have become strange bedfellows.

ARIELLE DUHAIME-ROSS: So this is all great reporting. And I have a question because I’m a bit confused. I don’t quite understand why a huge tower-like structure in the ocean would be responsible for the death of a whale.

EVE ZUCKOFF: Yeah, if you’re not there on the ground, it might be confusing. So I looked into this, and NOAA has said, quote, “there are no known links between large whale deaths and ongoing offshore wind activities.” But scientists and regulators I spoke to told me that they’re worried that offshore wind farms might impact whales in four ways.

The first points to the fact that wherever offshore wind farms are being built and maintained, there will be more boats in the water, which increases the chance of hitting a right whale. There’s also a risk of entanglements. Offshore wind farms will probably produce marine debris.

Third is exposure to noise. This is a big one. Once the farms are operating, the risks appear to be lower than what they are during construction. Bioacoustics experts from the University of Rhode Island have found that only 50 meters away from the Block Island wind farm, the sound is so low, it can’t be detected above background noise unless there’s no wind blowing and no boat passing in the vicinity. But during construction, there are worries that loud pile driving to anchor wind turbines to the ocean floor could result in hearing impairment, or it could mask whales’ vocal communication at distress and affect behavior.

ARIELLE DUHAIME-ROSS: But we don’t really know if this is actually causing stress for right whales.

EVE ZUCKOFF: Yeah, we don’t have a full understanding of the impacts yet when it comes to stress. But what I can tell you is that I talked to this researcher at Duke, and he told me that based on his experience watching and tagging fin whales, a distant cousin of North Atlantic right whales, he’s seen no change in behavior, when pile driving is happening, beyond them swimming further away from the source of the noise.

That said, I did some more digging on this. And the real way to know if a right whale has suffered hearing damage because of loud noises is to dissect the ear bones. And a veterinarian named Sarah Sharp from IFAW says you need those within 24 to 48 hours of the whale’s death.

SARAH SHARP: The ear bones are not easy things to get out of whales either. So you have to take the head off first, and then you can access the ear bones. They’re very deeply set up against the skull.

EVE ZUCKOFF: And even then, it would be almost impossible for her to know whether hearing damage was sustained from acute exposure to pile driving or nearness to a lightning strike or just aging.

ARIELLE DUHAIME-ROSS: There’s some uncertainty there, clearly. But didn’t you say that there are four ways in which whales might be affected by offshore wind?

EVE ZUCKOFF: Yes, yes, thank you. OK, finally, the last category of concern has to do with wind farms possibly changing ocean circulation and affecting those tiny copepods that right whales like to eat.

ARIELLE DUHAIME-ROSS: OK, and that’s not what I was expecting. Say more.

EVE ZUCKOFF: Well, to eat, right whales look for these really big patches of copepods. And they can eat 2 to 4,000 pounds a day, the calorie equivalent of 3,000 Big Macs. But here’s the problem. Offshore wind turbines extract wind energy out of the atmosphere, leaving less energy to push on and mix the ocean.

Mark Baumgartner from the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution told me that mixing is important. It’s how you get nutrients from the deeper ocean to feed the algae in the upper ocean, which then feeds the copepods. But again, we don’t really know.

Offshore wind could actually help right whales. Because you know how if you see a big rock in a river, there will be swirling water around it? Similar principle, Baumgartner said this swirling around the turbines could help with mixing. So ultimately, these patches of copepods could be unaffected or even made more rich and concentrated for right whales to eat.

ARIELLE DUHAIME-ROSS: OK, so, Eve, what I’m getting from you is that this is something worth researching. But better safe than sorry, right? In the meantime, are there any protections that are already in place to prevent right whales from being harmed by offshore wind developments?

EVE ZUCKOFF: Yes, there are protections coming from individual developers so far. We’ve seen Vineyard Wind, which is building the country’s largest utility-scale offshore wind farm off Massachusetts. This is the one related to 5120. They’ve made this pledge to be basically, right whale friendly.

So to address noise concerns, for example, they’re using a bubble curtain, which is literally a wall of bubbles they put up around the construction site to absorb and dampen the sound of pile driving. They’re also only doing pile driving when the right whales’ migration season has passed. They have acoustic sensors and marine observers to look for right whales and stop construction if one is in the area. The feds are also working on their own generalized plan. They recently released something that pushes for more research to fill knowledge gaps, noise limits during construction, and this plan says that regulators should avoid leasing new wind developments in right whale habitat.

ARIELLE DUHAIME-ROSS: OK. Honestly, that’s more than I was expecting. It does look like things are actually being done.

EVE ZUCKOFF: Yeah, it’s a lot.

ARIELLE DUHAIME-ROSS: Did you talk to any scientists about what they think of those protections? Is this enough? Because, of course, we really are talking about a critically endangered species.

EVE ZUCKOFF: Right, where extinction is in every conversation. Yeah, I talked to seven or eight scientists across different disciplines for this story, and they basically, all said, yeah, they feel uneasy. But they need more time and funds to keep developing the data that leads to these protections. And of course, they’ll need regulators to listen when they offer best practices. That is the recipe for safe coexistence of right whales and offshore wind farms.

But all the experts I talked to also said, look, we need to start replacing oil and gas with renewable energy sources if we want any shot at fighting climate change. Offshore wind farms have a lifetime carbon footprint that’s about 40 times less than burning natural gas and almost 90 times less than burning coal. I think someone who said this really well was Stormy Mayo, from the Center for Coastal Studies, in Provincetown, Massachusetts. He’s studied right whales for more than 45 years and says he doesn’t particularly like offshore wind. But he still thinks it’s the best way forward.

STORMY MAYO: I’ve personally always felt very much concerned about the industrialization of the sea. And offshore wind is just another one of those cases. But having watched these animals as long as I have, it is clear to me now that the biggest looming issue confronted by right whales is the impact of climate change on the sea.

EVE ZUCKOFF: And if the worst impacts of climate change aren’t avoided, right whales may continue to be displaced and as a result, get hit by more boats, entangled in more gear, and generally be devastated.

ARIELLE DUHAIME-ROSS: Right. But, Eve, I’ve got to ask, What happened with this misinformation story about 5120’s death? Is it still spreading? Have people moved on? Or have they accepted the findings of the necropsy?

EVE ZUCKOFF: It’s a tricky question to answer. I don’t know how many of those folks who were angry online read the stories debunking the role of offshore wind in that whale’s death. But I can tell you that a lot of the people who assumed that offshore wind was involved in her death, many of them really care about the future of these whales and their environment.

And sometimes, when you decide that you know who the culprit is, you know who your villain is, that can be really hard to let go of. But I did find out exactly how 5120’s story ends. So I told you she washed ashore, but what I didn’t tell you is that the land she washed up on is land that the Aquinnah Wampanoag tribe has Indigenous ancestral rights to.

So they claimed 5120 as one of their own. It’s worth pointing out that many Indigenous tribes in the US feel a kinship with whales. So tribe elders blessed her and made offerings before scientists buried her in a wooded area on the Aquinnah Wampanoag trust land.

ARIELLE DUHAIME-ROSS: That’s beautiful. Has anything been done in response to her death to prevent other right whales from getting killed because of fishing equipment?

EVE ZUCKOFF: Well, a NOAA spokesperson, basically, said they’re adding this death to a long list of others so they can develop future protections. Already, we’ve seen new England lobstermen make costly gear changes in recent years, using rope that’s designed to break when a whale gets entangled in it. And in Massachusetts, lobstermen are banned from fishing grounds for three months of the year to protect right whales. There are also speed limits for most boats over 65 feet in length along areas of the East Coast at certain times of the year, to prevent ship strikes. And the government is in the process of finalizing more aggressive speed rules as we speak.

ARIELLE DUHAIME-ROSS: OK, so there are a bunch of protections. But clearly, not everything is working perfectly, because this right whale died, and there are fewer than 360 individual right whales left.

EVE ZUCKOFF: Yes, it’s an important number to repeat. In a population this small, they’re fragile by definition. If a few more breeding females die, that could have exponentially catastrophic effects on the species.

But it’s not like there’s any mystery about what’s pushed North Atlantic right whales to the brink. Over the last few decades, entanglements and collisions with boats have crushed these animals. And yet all the technology and regulatory schemes designed to address those issues remain in limbo.

Which is too bad, because folks who could be making noise about that, some of them are focusing on offshore wind instead. Remember that IFAW veterinarian we heard from earlier, Sarah Sharp? She said something I heard a lot while reporting this story.

SARAH SHARP: All the discussion about wind farms right now, I feel like it’s just distracting from the real issues that we know we’ve got decades of data that these whales are dying from entanglements and vessel strikes. And just we need to stay focused on those two main causes.

EVE ZUCKOFF: If we’re actually serious about saving right whales from extinction, all the biologists, veterinarians, and researchers I talked to agreed offshore wind isn’t the place to start.

ARIELLE DUHAIME-ROSS: That’s Eve Zuckoff, climate and environment reporter from CAI. Thank you so much for this story.

EVE ZUCKOFF: Arielle, thank you.

ARIELLE DUHAIME-ROSS: And if you want to read the full version of this story, go to our website, sciencefriday.com/whale.

Copyright © 2024 Science Friday Initiative. All rights reserved. Science Friday transcripts are produced on a tight deadline by 3Play Media. Fidelity to the original aired/published audio or video file might vary, and text might be updated or amended in the future. For the authoritative record of Science Friday’s programming, please visit the original aired/published recording. For terms of use and more information, visit our policies pages at http://www.sciencefriday.com/about/policies/

Meet the Producers and Host

About Kathleen Davis

Kathleen Davis is a producer at Science Friday, which means she spends the week brainstorming, researching, and writing, typically in that order. She’s a big fan of stories related to strange animal facts and dystopian technology.

About Robin Kazmier

Robin Kazmier is Senior Editor, Digital. She writes and edits articles and helps shape Science Friday’s digital strategy. Her favorite bird is the squirrel cuckoo.

About Arielle Duhaime-Ross

Arielle Duhaime-Ross is freelance science journalist, artist, podcast, and TV host based in Portland, OR.

Explore More