Why have so many whales died along the Jersey Shore this year?
No one has a conclusive answer to that question, at least so far. But at a virtual hearing today, New Jersey Senate Republicans still found a chorus of voices pushing for the same solution: pause the ongoing development of major wind projects off the New Jersey coastline.
“We’re here today to seek information, not to perpetuate previously held beliefs and not to confirm anything,” State Sen. Declan O’Scanlon (R-Little Silver) said at the start of the hearing. “We don’t know that offshore wind activities are causing these deaths. We don’t definitively know they’re not.”
Testifying today were a number of different stakeholders: leaders of ocean-focused environmental groups, local anti-development activists, representatives from the commercial fishing industry, and Point Pleasant Beach Mayor Paul Kanitra, who essentially served as the spokesman for the dozens of Jersey Shore mayors who have called for a moratorium on the wind development projects.
“Very quickly, we’ve gone too far, too fast,” said Cindy Zipf, the leader of Clean Ocean Action. “We’re only beginning with the pre-construction [of wind turbines] now, and already, we’ve started seeing whales dying and washing up on our beaches.”
According to data shared at the hearing, a total of 19 whales have died in the waters of New Jersey and New York since this time last year, with most of those deaths occurring since last November. Such a large spike is not entirely unprecedented – 2017 also witnessed an unusually high rate of whale deaths – but given that the number of whales washing ashore typically numbers in the low single digits, it’s a major anomaly compared to most years.
There’s no consensus on what exactly has caused the spike. Republican politicians and other offshore wind opponents, however, have found a clear culprit in the hundreds of wind turbines currently under development along the Jersey Shore, arguing that the sonar and noise caused by the turbines’ construction have contributed to the deaths.
In addition to their supposed impact on the whale population, the wind farms were also blamed for a number of other ills at today’s hearing, including the disruption of New Jersey’s fishing industry and of tourism along the Shore.
“I personally hear from countless residents, small businesses, and visitors every single week that they do not want to see, hear, or experience the impacts of offshore wind development in my town,” Kanitra said. “They know offshore wind would devastate our on-land quality of life.”
Kanitra also noted that when dead whales come ashore, it becomes a major problem for Shore towns, which have to pay for the carcass’ removal while also suffering whatever loss of tourism the debacle may bring, a problem that will only increase as the touristy summer months arrive.
Also present at the hearing – perhaps unwisely, at least from the political perspective of Senate Republicans – was Craig Rucker, the leader of the Committee for a Constructive Tomorrow, a group that is considered to espouse climate change denialism.
Missing, however, were any proponents of offshore wind development, which includes most of the state’s Democratic politicians. State Sen. Anthony M. Bucco (R-Boonton) said that the state Department of Environmental Protection and Ørsted, the energy company responsible for the wind farms, were invited to attend the hearing, but both declined.
Instead, Democrats and major environmental groups expressed their distaste for the hearing via press releases.
“Republicans at the federal and state level need to stop their opposition to offshore wind,” U.S. Rep. Frank Pallone (D-Long Branch), who represents much of the Shore in Congress, said in a statement. “We know that the climate crisis is the biggest threat to marine mammals and their habitats. A moratorium on offshore wind will not stop the deaths of marine mammals.”
Pallone added that Republicans and Democrats should work together on reducing ship speeds and eliminating man-made trash from the ocean, two other factors that have been cited as potential causes for whale deaths.
But even if they won’t participate in Republicans’ hearings (and decline to hold their own), legislative Democrats in New Jersey may not be able to escape the whale issue in this November’s elections. Two competitive legislative districts, the 2nd and 11th, cover parts of the Jersey Shore, and even Republicans from inland districts see the issue as a politically potent one.
State Sen. Mike Testa (R-Vineland), whose district includes the southernmost part of the Shore, called on Democrats to support a temporary moratorium on wind development in order to conduct further research and see if the whale deaths continue unabated.
“We want to make sure that we’re following the science,” Testa said. “One thing that our side of the aisle consistently gets accused of is not following the science. So where is the harm if we pause for either 30 days or 60 days in this project?”
Such a pause does present something of a risk, though – for both sides.
If, say, a month-long moratorium were to be implemented, whatever happens to take place during that month is likely to be blown far out of proportion. No whales dying in that month – or, conversely, four whales dying – would be taken as “evidence” for the deadliness or harmlessness of wind development, even if the deaths or lack thereof had nothing to do with the moratorium.
Despite the urgent tone of today’s hearing, there have not been any new deaths in more than a month. If that dry spell continues, especially through the tourist-heavy summer months, the issue could simply fade away.
But if another spate of whales washes up on crowded beaches this summer, the ideas espoused at the hearing are certain to emerge in full force. Regardless, Bucco said that he hopes today will mark the beginning of a reconsideration of how New Jersey approaches wind development.
“Hopefully the governor will see the light and press the pause button until we can make absolutely sure that we are not further harming our environment,” he said. “We can’t harm the environment by trying to make it a cleaner environment. I think we have to make sure that we’re able to balance the two.”