“Unusual mortality event”: Climate concerns rise after dead whales keep washing up on beaches

Several of New Jersey’s leading environmental groups urged the Murphy administration not to consider the recent discovery of four dead whales on the Jersey shore since December as grounds to shut down underwater survey work required for the construction of three off-shore wind turbines farms projected to provide enough carbon-free electricity to power 1.5 million homes.

At a Jan.17 press conference on the Atlantic City Boardwalk, representatives from the NJ League of Conservation Voters, the New Jersey Sierra Club, the Association of New Jersey Environmental Commissions, the New Jersey Organizing Project, Anglers for Off-Shore Wind and the GreenFaith Alliance took their turn making the case against suspending the work despite the groundings.

“The number one threat facing our marine ecosystem today, including marine mammals, is climate change and offshore wind and access to clean energy and our transition to clean energy is one of the most important tools that we have in order to protect the entirety of our ecosystem including marine mammals,” Alison McLeod, the public policy director for the NJ League of Conservation Voters.

McCleod added that preliminary reports indicated the recent whale deaths were linked to vessel strikes, something that’s become increasingly more common as the whales shifted northward as the Atlantic’s ambient water temperature has risen.

Some elected officials, including State Sen. Vincent Polistina (R-Atlantic County) and Rep. Jeff Van Drew, R-N.J., have suggested a moratorium on the underwater off-shore wind power survey work pending more study of the whales’ cause of death.

“Everybody cares about it—-we are trying to get to the bottom of it, and from my standpoint, if it takes a little bit of time—three to four weeks to really understand what happened for these whales that is the responsible thing to do,” Polistina told NJ Spotlight.

On Friday, the Associated Press reported that Gov. Murphy said he saw no need to stop the off-shore survey work.


Anjuli Ramos, executive director of the New Jersey Sierra Club observed that the spate of whale groundings should be put in the context of a multi-state coastal phenomenon itself linked to the shifting of the Atlantic whale population further north into the mid-Atlantic with the warming of ocean temperatures planet wide.

Ramos cited data from the NOAA, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration documenting that since 2016 there had been 178 cases where dead whales washed ashore, from Maine to Florida with New Jersey accounting for 22 of them. The agency describes this data as being indicative of an “unusual mortality event.”

“This is not just a New Jersey problem—this is not an off-shore wind problem,” Ramos explained. “This is a climate change problem. As well all know, climate change drastically changes the environment in the ocean. It changes salinity. It changes food supplies. It changes currents—of course it also not only changes the temperatures of surface waters but also deep waters.

Jennifer Coffey, the executive director of the Association of New Jersey Environmental Commissions, told reporters that the leading cause of whale deaths were vessel strikes, entanglements with abandoned fishing nets, and the ingestion of plastics which have proliferated in the world’s oceans.


“We also know that plastic pollution is a growing cause of death killing 100,000 marine mammals and one million sea birds each year—time and time again we have seen whales die from malnutrition with stomachs full of plastics washing up on our beaches,” Coffey told reporters. “The World Economic Forum has said that by 2050, when my 13-year-old niece will be younger than I am now, we will have more plastic than fish in our ocean unless we make major changes now.”

Capt. Paul Eidman, a member of Anglers for Offshore Wind and the Anglers Conservation Network told reporters his years of experience running fishing charters he had experienced close as well as rewarding encounters with whales. He suggested putting the spate of whale deaths in the broader context of the climate crisis.

“I have been looked at right in the eye four times [by a whale] and these are highly intelligent and sensitive creatures—these experiences are more memorable than the fishing trips and my interaction with a humpback whale remains special and precious to me,” Eidman said. “Warming waters are in part responsible for increasing the human whale contacts and a threat to numerous species around the globe to say nothing about the threat of sea level rise, flooding, and storm activity along our Jersey shore.”

Jody Stewart, representing New Jersey Organizing Project, a grassroots community advocacy group established by Jersey shore residents in the aftermath of Sandy, also pressed for the offshore survey work to continue. “I know we need to do things to get to the future—fixing the mistakes of the past—making sure the future is prepared for grandchildren—I have 13 grandchildren—let’s let their grandchildren enjoy the shore and off-shore wind is a piece of the puzzle,” Stewart told reporters.

According to NJ Spotlight, not all of New Jersey’s environmental groups shared the views expressed at the Atlantic City press conference about pressing ahead with the preliminary underwater survey work.


“We have had more beached whales in a month than in a year upon average, so we are very concerned about the unprecedented number of whales being washed up dead on our beaches in a short period of time,” Clean Ocean Action Advocacy Campaign Manager Kari Martin told NJ Spotlight News.

Martin told the public TV news outlet that she was concerned that the whale groundings were linked to the offshore wind surveying crews use of sonar sound waves to map the underwater terrain might be a culprit. “Until we know if these activities are being harmful or not, we need to stop those activities until the cause of death is determined,” Martin said.

Martin has written President Biden to investigate any potential linkage between the underwater surveying and the whales washing up dead on the New Jersey shore.

Back in 2002, Science reported on a landmark research study conducted by the U.S. Navy and the U.S. National Marine Fisheries Service that concluded the Navy had “killed at least six whales in an accident involving common ship-based sonars.”

“For decades, marine mammal scientists have suspected that sonar pings produced by military ships may have played a role in a half-dozen unusual strandings of beaked whales, toothy marine mammals that often feed deep in the ocean,” Science reported. “In each case, researchers discovered the beached whales shortly after nearby military sonar exercises, but the remains were always too decayed to reveal evidence of sound-energy injuries.”

Science continued. “In an interim report released 20 December 2001, Navy and NMFS scientists conclude that the strandings were caused by an ‘unusual combination’ of factors, including sea-bottom contours and water conditions that may have channeled and magnified sonar pings. While the researchers could not pinpoint exactly how the sound energy injured the whales’ ears or tissues, the acoustic assault appears to have left some dazed and confused, causing them to swim ashore or become vulnerable to shark attack.”

According to ANJEC’s Coffey, the sonar used by the offshore wind survey crews is not the same as “the Navy sonar blasting. This is a different technology and there are mounds and years of scientific research from Alaska to the Gulf Coast looking at geo-technical surveying—and all the research shows it is outside the hearing range of whales.”

Off-shore wind power projects come under the regulatory jurisdiction of the U.S. Bureau of Ocean Energy Management that oversees the “development of U.S. Outer Continental Shelf energy and mineral resources in an environmentally and economically responsible way,” according to its website. Each wind project has to file an environmental impact system.

The Brigantine-based Marine Mammal Stranding Center was founded in 1978 and is the only federally credentialed animal hospital in New Jersey that can handle shore-stranded marine mammals and sea turtles.


According to an MMSC Facebook post the Jan. 12 humpback that washed up at the North End Natural Area in Brigantine on was a female 32 feet 7 inches long, estimated to weigh about 12 tons. “Preliminary results based on observations during the necropsy suggest that the whale suffered blunt trauma injuries consistent with those from a vessel strike,” according to MMSC.

“Injuries and hemorrhaging were observed on the head and thoracic region, as well as along the right side and the pectoral flipper. These findings will be confirmed through laboratory analysis in the coming weeks. Blubber thickness indicated that the whale was in good condition. The whale’s stomach was full of partially digested fish and there was fecal matter in the intestines, indicating the whale had been actively feeding prior to these injuries.”

The after-action analysis continues. “Vessel strikes and entanglement in fishing gear are the largest known human threats to whales of all species. Although there has been speculation about whether these whale deaths are linked to wind energy development, at this point no whale mortality has been attributed to offshore wind activities.”

According to MMSC, there are currently a “high number of large whales in the waters off New Jersey, likely attracted by prey (small fish) that are also attracting stripers, so we advise boaters to go slowly (less than 10 knots) and keep a lookout for whales. There is currently a voluntary slow zone in effect for the waters off New York and New Jersey. There are also active Seasonal Management Areas (where all vessels 65 feet or longer must travel at 10 knots or less) off the ports of New York/New Jersey and Delaware Bay.”

A 2021 NOAH report flagged failure to comply with vessel speed limits as a major risk to the critically endangered North Atlantic right whale population which numbers around just 400. These whales can range from 45 to 55 feet long and weigh 70 tons.

According to Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, a non-profit advocacy group, federal regulators have failed to “implemented decisive measures” necessary to protect them “due in part to fishing industry opposition.”

“Due to a combination of increasing coastal ship traffic, smaller crew size, bigger vessels and faster speeds, fatal collisions between ships and whales are on the rise,” according to PEER. “Federal agencies are resisting actions designed to protect whales from collisions with ships. As a result, fatal ship strikes on whales are becoming a leading threat to survival. Deafening underwater noise levels also prevent whales from hearing approaching propellers.”


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