On February 19, 2023, hundreds of protesters filled the boardwalk in Point Pleasant Beach, New Jersey. Their cause — or so it seemed — was protecting the whales: photos from the rally show demonstrators waving signs reading "Save the Whales," some adorned with images of humpback whales.
At first glance, this gathering appeared to be a boilerplate environmental protest, one in which activists were demanding environmental protections for whales. Yet curiously, protesters' signs were also peppered with anti-wind turbine rhetoric — not what one might expect among a conference of environmental activists. One person in the crowd held a sign that read: "Windmills at sea DUMB." As reported by the local news station WKXW, attendees were chanting "whale lives matter" as they called for an end to wind projects.
"There is no evidence that is linking the wind activities in the mid Atlantic region to these whale strandings."
Considering the left-leaning tendency of most environmentalists, the list of attendees was curious, and included many prominent local Republican politicians: Seaside Park, N.J. mayor John Peterson Jr., Point Pleasant Beach mayor Paul Kanitra, and U.S. Representative Chris Smith (R-NJ).
At the rally, Smith announced that he introduced legislation in the House of Representatives that would require an investigation into the environmental review processes for offshore wind projects.
"Today, the whales are sending us a tragic message that demands transparency and accountability — both of which has been sorely missing from Governor Murphy's plan to use New Jersey's coast as the prime location for the offshore wind industry in the U.S.," Smith said at the rally. "Questions and concerns raised by me and many others have gone unanswered concerning the unexplained deaths of at least 10 whales." Previously, nearly 30 New Jersey mayors called for a moratorium on wind farm construction, citing the need to protect whales.
This narrative — connecting whale deaths and strandings to offshore wind projects — has become a prominent talking point on right-leaning news channels like Fox News, which has been pushing the narrative that whale deaths are linked to offshore wind projects. Fox pundit Tucker Carlson recently remarked that "the government's offshore wind projects—which are enriching their donors—are killing a huge number of whales, right now.
Meanwhile, at the protest, Congressman Smith said that there was "great concern for the potential serious — even catastrophic — damage to marine ecosystems leading to the destruction of New Jersey's fishing and tourism businesses if hundreds, and even thousands, of wind turbines are installed off the New Jersey coast."
"We want the truth" about wind, Smith continued.
Offshore wind power is a political issue in New Jersey because of the state's commitment to adding more green energy to its power mix. Indeed, the state plans to transition to 100% renewable electricity by 2050, thanks to a commitment from Democratic Governor Phil Murphy. The state's plan includes adding more offshore wind energy; currently, one such plant is under construction at the Port of Paulsboro.
Meanwhile, ocean conservationists say that wind turbines are not to blame for the dozens of dead whales that have washed ashore along the East Coast since early December 2022.
"There is no evidence that is linking the wind activities in the mid Atlantic region to these whale strandings, where there is evidence it is pointing to vessel strikes to entanglement with fishing gear," Gib Brogan, campaign director at ocean conservation nonprofit Oceana, told Salon. "So this is speculation based on no facts, and it distracts from the underlying problems that are threatening humpback whales and the critically endangered North Atlantic right whales that are being killed by these threats."
"This is speculation based on no facts, and it distracts from the underlying problems that are threatening humpback whales and the critically endangered North Atlantic right whales."
Since 2016, both humpback whales and north Atlantic right whales in the Atlantic Ocean have experienced an "unusual mortality event," or UME, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). Under the Marine Mammal Protection Act, a UME signifies there is a significant die-off of any marine mammal population that requires an immediate response.
According to NOAA, it is often too late to determine a cause of death in many of the strandings because the carcasses are too decomposed. In April 2017, the agency was able to perform half or full necropsies in half of the strandings and concluded that 10 of the deaths occurred due to ship strikes, which was six times greater than the 16-year average.
"The rate of strandings over the last month or two has been high," Brogan said, adding that marine mammal scientists are watching what's happening on the East Coast closely. "But so far there's no evidence that there's something new that's going on." Brogan emphasized that that these whales' deaths likely stem from the same things that have killed them for years — boat strike and entanglement in fishing gear.
Previous studies have found that ship collisions are the leading cause of injury and death for North Atlantic right whales. Whales being caught in fishing gear is a second leading cause of injury and death. This is in part because North Atlantic right whales are difficult to spot in the ocean, since they are dark in color and don't have a dorsal fin. They are also slow swimmers, averaging around 6 miles per hour; at normal operating vessel speeds, ships can't easily avoid them since they're too slow to move out of a ship's way.
"The broad concern about these projects in New Jersey and in the mid-Atlantic are misplaced and misguided."
In late February, NOAA and the Marine Mammal Commission emphasized in a statement that there is no evidence that wind turbines are the cause of these whale deaths.
Brogan said Oceana is supportive of wind projects that are built responsibly, and there are some concerns around placement off the coast of Nantucket relating to North Atlantic right whales — particularly since there are fewer than 350 left.
"The projects that are south of Nantucket and Martha's Vineyard — that are core habitat for the whales, their year-round feeding — we have concerns about the presence of these wind projects, and what that's going to mean for the remaining North Atlantic right whales," Brogan said. "But the broad concern about these projects in New Jersey and in the mid-Atlantic are misplaced and misguided."
So, why are some latching on to misinformation to blame wind turbines for recent whale deaths? As Fast Company recently reported, it could be because some of the groups promoting the anti-wind turbine propaganda are backed by oil-industry interests. It also speaks to the politicized debate on renewable energy. In 2021, Pew Research published a report stating that most Americans support expanding solar panel and wind turbine farms, but Democrats and Republicans were "increasingly divided in views" of the energy sources.
Meanwhile, wind turbines are no strangers to conspiracy theories.
"Conspiracy theories have long circulated about wind turbines, even if this phenomenon has largely evaded academic attention," researchers wrote in Nature. "For example, despite dozens of academic studies indicating that wind farms pose no threat to human health, conspiracy theories persist that they contribute to congenital abnormalities, fatigue and/or cancer, claims that have been propagated by anti-wind farm lobby groups and echoed by senior politicians including former US President Donald Trump."
As it pertains to the whales, Brogan said the focus on wind turbines is distracting from a real issue and potential opportunity to truly help the North Atlantic right whales.
"The Biden administration is considering an important update to the vessel speed rules to slow the boats down to protect the right whales, and this will likely have benefits for the humpback whales as well," Brogan said. "If we slow the boats down, they're far safer for the whales; we are hopeful that they're going to stay on track and put out the final safeguards that are in line with what they proposed last year."
Editor's note: A previous version of this article referred to Phil Murphy as the former governor of New Jersey; he is the incumbent governor.