Brian Lehrer: Brian Lehrer on WNYC. Now, our Climate Story of the Week, which we do every Tuesday on the show, and this week it's about whales washing up dead off New York and New Jersey waters and all along the Eastern Seaboard. The New York Times sites 23 on the East Coast in a three-month period this winter, 12 on the shores of New York and New Jersey. Gothamist sites 62 along the Jersey Shore alone since 2016, the year that, from what I've read, the current increase seems to have begun.
The question is this, is it true or is it false that the development of offshore wind turbines, which are being built to protect the climate, are having the negative side effect of killing whales? Another way to frame the question is this, are Republicans suddenly concerned with protecting the whales because it's a way to protect the fossil fuel industry? We'll talk in a minute to Andy Read, director of the Duke University Marine Laboratory, but first, a little history.
In the 1970s, Greenpeace led the first Save the Whales campaign. The goal was to stop commercial whale harvesting. In this clip, two original members of Greenpeace recall taking out a small boat on what they called a whale rescue mission to try to physically block some of that activity like their hero, Gandhi, but at sea.
Speaker 2: Suddenly, Bob and I were in a small boat in front of a Soviet harpoon vessel that was bearing down on us, in front of us this eight magnificent sperm whales that were fleeing for their life. Every time the harpooner tried to get a shot, I was at the helm, so I would maneuver the boat to try and block the harpoon.
Speaker 3: The harpooner is not shooting, but eventually, somebody from the bridge walks down the catwalk and talks to the harpooner. The harpooner nods, and the guy goes back. Bob looks in his eyes and he knows this guy is going to shoot this harpoon.
Speaker 2: Then he looked at us and smiled and brought his finger across his neck, and that's when I realized Gandhi wasn't going to pull through for us that day.
Brian Lehrer: Two Greenpeace founders remembering their 1970s whale rescue mission on PBS in 2014, but now, look who's out front claiming to care about whales. It's Republican members of Congress who opposed the rapid conversion to renewable energy to slow climate change like the noted environmentalist Marjorie Taylor Greene.
Marjorie Taylor Greene: I'm not sure, I don't know why AOC isn't dressed in white and crying for the dead whales that keep washing on the beach from wind farms that are being placed all over the ocean. People are calling the alarms over how this is not only killing unknown thousands of bird species but also causing whales to beach themselves at record numbers.
Brian Lehrer: Marjorie Taylor Greene on Fox News in February. You know I was joking calling her a noted environmentalist, right? But are Greenpeace and Marjorie Taylor Greene now on the same side when it comes to saving the whales? The short answer is no. Also, in February, around the time of that Marjorie Taylor Greene appearance on Fox, Greenpeace released a statement with a headline, "Protecting whales means busting fossil-fueled myths about wind energy. Right-wing disinformation is the real threat."
Then why are so many whales dying? Let's take a closer scientific look with Andy Read, director of the Duke University Marine Laboratory on the water in Beaufort, North Carolina, and a research scientist at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute in Massachusetts, and also now a member of the US Marine Mammal Commission appointed this year by President Biden. Dr. Read, thanks for coming on with us. Welcome to WNYC.
Andy Read: Brian, good morning. It's my pleasure. Thanks for having me on.
Brian Lehrer: Can you tell us a little about yourself first? How'd you get so interested in whales?
Andy Read: Well, I've been very fortunate to have a long career studying whales. I started out as a college student in Toronto, Canada, working on a fin whale skeleton. Since then, I've been able to study whales pretty much all over the world, including along the USC Coast, which I'm very fortunate to be able to do that.
Brian Lehrer: There's a specific species of whale called North Atlantic right whales, R-I-G-H-T, right whales that I see you talk about as especially endangered now. Can you describe the North American right whale to land lovers like me and some of our listeners who've never seen one?
Andy Read: Yes. The North Atlantic right whale is an iconic American species that was harvested by Yankee whalers back in the 18th and 19th centuries. The population has been decimated by past harvests and now by ship strikes and entanglement in fishing gear. We have now only about 340 or so North Atlantic right whales left. They migrate between their breeding grounds off the coast of Florida and Georgia up along the USC East Coast past New York City to the Gulf of Maine and New England, and then to Eastern Canada where they spend their summers feeding on plankton.
Brian Lehrer: Those numbers I cited of dead whales washing up on East Coast shores, including 23 in recent months, 62 just on the Jersey shore since 2016, historically speaking is that a lot?
Andy Read: Yes. We should be clear that most of those species, most of the stranded whales are humpback whales, not right whales. Those numbers, the numbers you noted, 23 this year, are really nothing out of the ordinary. We had 34 humpback whales, for example, that stranded in 2017. Those of us who study whales are appreciative of the interest from the public in the causes of those strandings, but the numbers we're seeing this year are really no higher than what we've seen over the past decade or so.
Brian Lehrer: That's all along a prelude to the question at hand. Is there something about windmills or the construction of windmills that's killing the whales?
Andy Read: The short answer to that question, Brian, is no, there's not. We have nothing that links the development of offshore wind with these whale strandings. We can determine cause of death in about 40% of the whales that strand. Sometimes whales are too decomposed, sometimes it's just not possible to tell. In the whales that we can tell what caused their deaths, the same story is true now that has been true for the past decade or so. The two primary causes of death are collisions with large vessels and entanglement in fishing gear. There is no evidence whatsoever linking offshore wind development with the deaths of these whales.
Brian Lehrer: Wow. I have a fact sheet here from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, NOAA, called Frequent Questions-Offshore Wind and Whales. It says, "At this point, there is no evidence to support speculation that noise resulting from wind development-related site characterization surveys could potentially cause mortality of whales and no specific links between recent large whale mortalities and current ongoing surveys."
The technical language there, Dr. Read, seems to state the speculation about whale deaths is not related to wind itself but what they call noise resulting from wind development-related site characterization surveys. It's a mouthful for me who has no idea what it means. Do you understand what the theory even is there about noise or what a site characterization survey is?
Andy Read: Sure. We should remember that whales, like most marine mammals, use sound in their everyday lives the way that we use vision. They listen. Some toothed whales can use sound to produce sonar signals. Sound is really important to these animals, and certain human activities that produce sound into the ocean can potentially have adverse consequences for these animals. We know that the wind developers that are characterizing the sites as you documented, are using very low amplitude sounds.
These are not really loud sounds that could cause problems to whales. There's been an enormous amount of regulatory oversight by NOAA Fisheries, as you mentioned, and also by the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management. The types of sound signals that are being used in those surveys are just not loud enough to cause harm to these whales. There's no smoking gun there. There's no linkage that could cause harm from offshore wind development that we know of.
Brian Lehrer: This has become a partisan issue with the Republicans out front, as I noted in the intro, saying they're acting in the name of whales against wind turbine development. We heard the Marjorie Taylor Greene clip, but we know they don't tend to oppose offshore oil drilling in the same way despite questions raised by that about the effects on marine life. You're a scientist, not a political analyst, but do you think their real mission is not to protect whales but to protect the fossil fuel industry?
Brian Lehrer: You don't want to answer that question, or did we lose Dr. Read's line? I think we lost Dr. Read's line. Well, perhaps that can stand as a rhetorical question given that he already told us that there is no evidence that anything about wind turbine development is killing whales. If he gets back on the line, I'm going to ask him the converse question, which is that environmental groups themselves like the original Save the Whales Greenpeace say climate change itself may be causing the increase or at least contributing to the increase in East Coast whale deaths because warming waters are attracting small-size fish that whales feed on, and it's all happening closer to shore, so when whales do die, they're more likely to beach where humans can see them.
That's an alternative theory to the increased number of whale deaths in recent years in New York and New Jersey and up and down the East Coast that is consistent with climate change. Although, I will note that, Dr. Read told us in one of his earlier answers in this conversation that the numbers actually are not higher than in the past. Now we have Dr. Read back. Dr. Read, I'll ask you this closing question.
I was just telling it to the audience in advance while we were getting you back on the phone, but environmental groups like Greenpeace say climate change itself may be contributing to the increase in East Coast whale deaths as opposed to wind turbines to address climate change because warming waters are attracting smaller fish that whales, which are not fish, feed on, and it's all happening closer to shore, so when whales do die, they're more likely to beach where humans can see them and we think there's an increase. How much do you buy that explanation?
Andy Read: Yes, I think there's merit in that argument. We know that the oceans close to shore are warming, and that means that whales and their prey can stay longer in the waters off New York and New Jersey later in the fall, arrive earlier in the spring, and so it's more likely that the whales there that die will come up on the beach. Also, think about the ocean. Water is just outside New York City. They're very busy waters, lots of shipping, so the potential for them to get struck by ships is greater.
We're seeing lots of signals of climate change in the nearshore waters along the East Coast, and that's resulting in changes in distribution of prey, and then the whales track the changes in the distribution of their prey.
Brian Lehrer: By the way, it would be inaccurate to call a whale a fish, right?
Andy Read: It would be very inaccurate. You would get a failing grade in my class if you did that, Brian.
Brian Lehrer: Because they're mammals.
Andy Read: Exactly, yes. There's the old Seinfeld episode. A lot of your listeners will remember.
Brian Lehrer: I'm going to have to look that up. All right. Listeners, that's something for us to do. Look up Seinfeld and whales. Andy Read, director of the Duke University Marine Laboratory on the water in Beaufort, North Carolina, and a research scientist at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute in Massachusetts, as well as a member of the US Marine Mammal Commission, thank you so much.
Andy Read: Brian, my pleasure. Thanks for having me on.
Brian Lehrer: That's our Climate Story of the Week. Brian Lehrer on WNYC. Much more to come.
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