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Misinformation is spreading that washed up whales died from offshore wind development

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

A dozen dead whales have washed up on beaches in New York and New Jersey since December. Now, this is part of a trend in increased whale deaths all along the east coast, and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration is trying to figure out what's going on. Jacklyn Jeffrey-Wilensky is a reporter with member station WNYC. She is on this. She joins me now. Hey there.

JACLYN JEFFREY-WILENSKY, BYLINE: Hi. Thanks for having me.

KELLY: OK, so help us figure out. What do we know about what's going on?

JEFFREY-WILENSKY: So we've had a number of dead whales washing up on our beaches in the last few months. The most recent one that I reported on was just last week on a beach in Queens. And the whale in that case had big wounds on its body NOAA says likely from a vessel strike. That's been the case for at least one other whale that washed up in recent weeks.

KELLY: Yeah, and this has actually been going on for a while, for years. Is that right?

JEFFREY-WILENSKY: Yeah. So NOAA has been tracking what they call unusual mortality events since 2016. And that's their term for when they notice marine mammals dying off in an unexpected and significant way. Right now, they have them for humpback whales, North Atlantic right whales and minke whales on the east coast. And they say that a lot of these deaths are due to getting hit by ships or tangled up in nets, although not a hundred percent.

KELLY: Yeah. I want to bring in one other thing that's happening right now, which is that over the weekend, there was a large protest in New Jersey. This was in connection with the whale deaths. And the protesters were calling for a stop to offshore wind development. What is the connection - is there a connection - between whale deaths and offshore wind?

JEFFREY-WILENSKY: So experts say there isn't one. Here's Kim Damon-Randall from NOAA speaking to WNYC earlier this month.

KIM DAMON-RANDALL: At this point, there's no evidence to support speculation that noise generated from wind development surveys could potentially cause mortality of whales.

JEFFREY-WILENSKY: But some groups have tried to link the deaths to the wind energy prep work that's being done in New York and New Jersey waters right now. Local politicians have also gotten involved, and they claim that the sound of the boats might confuse the whales. And that's even though it's been reported that the wind surveying is actually less noisy than fossil fuel exploration.

KELLY: So what else do we know about these protesters?

JEFFREY-WILENSKY: So my colleague Nancy Solomon looked into them. She found that some of the people making this claim do belong to an environmental group, but others are just anti-wind power. So she discovered that one organization called Protect Our Coast NJ is actually connected to a conservative think tank with a long history of opposing clean energy.

KELLY: OK, let me circle us back to the central question, which is what is going on? What is driving this? If it is not likely offshore wind development, what is it?

JEFFREY-WILENSKY: So there's no one answer although experts do have some theories. One is that whales may be following their prey into waters with more boat traffic. And Kim Damon-Randall says that could be in part because of climate change.

DAMON-RANDALL: We know that climate's changing, and one of the changes is warming of our oceans. So in response to this, we are seeing populations move around and go into areas that they haven't historically been in.

JEFFREY-WILENSKY: And then, the other thing to consider is that there may be more of some whales than there were before. So our local humpbacks in particular are no longer considered endangered because their population has grown and more whales can mean more vessel strikes.

KELLY: So can anything be done to help the whales, to stop them getting hit by ships?

JEFFREY-WILENSKY: Well, NOAA's going to keep tracking them. And big boats are also being instructed to go slow in major ports in that area during winter and spring to reduce the odds of hitting a whale. NOAA's also trying to extend those rules to include smaller boats as well. And as for the anti-wind advocates, a couple of Republican congressmen from New Jersey are proposing pausing the offshore wind development and looking into how it got approved in the first place. But New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy says the work will continue.

KELLY: Jaclyn Jeffrey-Wilensky with member station WNYC, thanks for your reporting.

JEFFREY-WILENSKY: Thanks.

(SOUNDBITE OF BUN B AND STATIK SELEKTAH SONG, "STILL TRILL (FEAT. METHOD MAN AND GRAFH)") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Jaclyn Jeffrey-Wilensky