As whales wash up along East Coast shores at alarming rates, researchers dissect decomposing carcasses, logging whether ship strikes or fishing gear factored into each demise, while some beachgoers wonder if their favorite coastline will be next.
At least 14 humpbacks and minke whales have been found dead thus far in 2023 in waters off New York and New Jersey — up from 9 in the entirety of last year.
The most recent deaths were two humpbacks, , in Raritan Bay off Keansburg, New Jersey, and Wainscott on Long Island.
The suspected cause of death for both was blunt force trauma, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration
(NOAA) officials said.
In New Jersey, the dead whale was a 28-foot female whose left pectoral fin had been severed — injuries consistent with being hit by a ship, officials said. The carcass was buried at Gateway National Recreation Area in Sandy Hook.
On Long Island, the 47-foot-long male had extensive bruising to blubber and muscles on its head, and was later buried on the beach in Hampton Bays, Southampton.
Also this year 11 other humpbacks have been found dead in other states, from Maine in the north to Florida in the south, and two North Atlantic right whales have perished off the coasts of Virginia and North Carolina, NOAA
The ongoing spike of fatalities among humpbacks, minke and North Atlantic right whales has caused debate over the reasons, with calls for an end to plans to build offshore wind farms amid claims that their development is endangering sea mammals.
There’s little doubt humans are involved in whales dying: 40% of dead humpbacks examined by scientists since 2016 showed evidence of being hit by ships or caught in fishing nets. So, what’s causing more dead whales on our beaches?
More whales in our waters
Globally, numbers globally have bounced back since a worldwide ban in 1986, although killing whales in US waters was banned in 1971.
But whether whales numbers have increased in recent years enough to make the spike in deaths simply a reflection of abundant numbers is unclear — and certainly not the case among North Atlantic right whales.
Roughly 340 critically endangered right whales remain in the western Atlantic Ocean,
NOAA estimated in 2022, compared to 455 in 2013.
Humpbacks, which make the up large majority of dead whales in the northeast, appear to have done better. NOAA’s research from the Gulf of Maine shows the estimated 2013 population there was 823, but nearly doubled to 1,400 as of last year.
The best estimate for humpbacks in the North Atlantic overall, including US coastal waters, is about 10,500,
according to an international study from the early 1990s cited by NOAA. More cargo, bigger ships
Ships pose a definite danger to whales. Of 98 documented right whale fatalities in the Atlantic since 2017, 12 were caused by ship strikes.
So is the spike caused by more ships? The Port of New York and New Jersey is setting records for the number of containers it handles, which have soared 27% between 2019 and 2022.
Last year it briefly became the nation’s busiest last year, and Long Beach in California for the first time in August, fueled in part by the growth of online shopping and by supply-chain issues on the west coast in 2020 and 2021.
But more containers has not translated to more ships to kill whales. In fact, the number of cargo ships docking in 2019 was 2,190, but only increased to 2,229 last year.
Instead, ships have gotten bigger: The biggest yet arrived for the first time in May 2021, as the 1,300-foot Marco Polo steamed from southeast Asian ports, through the Panama Canal to Elizabeth, New Jersey.
Almost as long as the Empire State Building is tall, she and her sister ships (which are only fractionally smaller) are now regulars in the harbor.
Bigger ships are more of a danger to whales because they represent bigger targets, but the Port Authority and NOAA has tried to reduce that risk by slowing them down.
Ships bigger than 65 feet in the Ambrose Channel — the busy 20-mile sea lane which brings nautical traffic into New York Harbor — are banned from going faster than 10 knots (11.5 mph) between November and April to protect migrating North Atlantic right whales.
And almost 75% of ships arriving in the harbor take part in a scheme called the Clean Vessel Incentive to cap their speeds to 10 knots year-round.
More whales in shipping lanes
Whales “came back” in earnest to the New York Bight – the 12,650-square-nautical-mile area from Montauk on Long Island to Cape May in southern New Jersey – around 2010-11, according to Paul Sieswerda, executive director of
Gotham Whale, a New York-based research and advocacy group.
“And that coincided with the increase in the Atlantic menhaden population, which is the food that the whales feed on,” Sieswerda said.
The Atlantic menhaden – dubbed the “most important fish in the sea” – rebounded in 2012 when regulators set harvest limits in response to population declines,
The Nature Conservancy reported in 2020.
Found in waters from Nova Scotia to Florida and known to fishermen as bunker, the fish are filter-feeders up to 15 inches long which are prey for whales, as well as bluefish, striped bass and predatory birds like osprey and eagles,
according to NOAA Fisheries.
More menhaden draw additional whales to coastal waters from deeper ocean, putting the mammals at increased risk of getting snagged in fishing gear or being struck by ships, Sieswerda said.
The bolstered food source along historical migration routes have made the region a suitable place for whales to feast on a “buffet,” said Robert DiGiovanni, founder and chief scientist of the Atlantic Marine Conservation Society.
“We’re seeing a lot more food in the area, we’re seeing a lot more animals in the area,” DiGiovanni said.
Entanglement in fishing gear
Getting caught in large-scale commercial fishing gear can prove fatal to whales. Since 2017, 98 deaths of North Atlantic right whales have been documented, with 9
directly attributed to so-called entanglement.
More than 85% of right whales have been ensnared in fishing gear at least once, NOAA officials said.
Getting caught up in nets and lines can kill whales quickly or slowly, according to NOAA, through injury, infection, or having their ability to swim and feed impaired, leading to starvation.
One study found that right whales could survive an average of five months with an entanglement they could not shed, although some had died immediately.
In the northeast Atlantic last year, 25 entanglements were confirmed,
NOAA figures show. Although most were far from waters off New York and New Jersey, five humpbacks and a right whale were caught in netting in the states’ waters, with all but two of the incidents close to the approaches to New York Harbor.
The northeast Atlantic total was down slightly from 31 in 2019 and 37 in 2018, although NOAA warned it’s unclear if COVID closing the economy had cut fishing, decreased the number of people observing whales or both.
Preliminary data thus far for 2023 cites entanglement for the death of one North Atlantic right whale. Environmental groups, including Greenpeace, say that fishing gear remains one of the primary threats to whales.
John Hocevar, director of Greenpeace’s oceans campaign told The Post: “Unfortunately whales don’t usually get to die of old age. We’ve made our oceans – their habitat – a pretty hazardous place to live.
“The two main things that have changed are that some whale populations have been recovering, so there’s more whales in the same place as all the fishing gear and shipping channels,” he said. “So there’s more conflict.”
Offshore wind farms
Plans to develop vast wind farms off New York and New Jersey’s waters were already contentious — and now are being blamed by some for the record whale deaths.
Opponents, including Greenpeace’s former president in Canada, believe sound pulses used to survey the ocean floor for the 900-ft wind turbines is likely linked to the ongoing spate of whale deaths.
Patrick Moore, who has been disavowed by the environmental group, the long-term impact of high-intensity acoustic noise on whales and other marine mammals is unknown.
The pulses could guide whales to shallow waters with increased risk of being hit by ships or getting caught in fishing gear, he claimed.
Two offshore wind farms currently operate in the Atlantic near the tri-state:
Block Island Wind Farm off Rhode Island, which has been online since late 2016; and the Coastal Virginia Offshore Wind Project off Virginia Beach.
Huge 900-foot turbines have been approved off coasts of both New York and New Jersey amid the shift in renewable energy production.
In New York, cable-laying at the
South Fork Wind Farm about 35 miles east of Montauk began in March, while large swathes off the Jersey Shore have been zoned. Block Island Wind Farm in Rhode Island, became the nation’s first offshore wind farm in late 2016.
In early May, Republican lawmakers in New Jersey unsuccessfully on offshore wind farm development to investigate any possible connection; Gov. Phil Murphy rejected their claim of a possible link.
Campaigners do not have scientists backing their case. Sean Todd, a professor at the College of the Atlantic in Bar Harbor, Maine, and director of Allied Whale, a marine mammal laboratory, criticized “alarmist” attempts to prematurely link whale deaths to wind farm development.
“When an animal dies on our coastline, the process of determining cause of death is an extremely lengthy one – and that can be very frustrating to the public,” Todd told The Post. “And obviously we have to be prepared to possibly declare that we don’t know how the animal died.”
NOAA has also rejected any link. Campaigners, however, believe there should be an investigation.
“I’ve heard all of these theories, I’ve not seen a comprehensive review of how these may or may not be the cause,” Cindy Zipf, executive director of Clean Ocean Action, a New Jersey-based advocacy group told The Post. “If birds starting falling from the sky in wind farm areas, we would determine what that was and take steps to minimize that.”
But the military is in the clear
One group which has admitted killing sea mammals in the past is the US Navy. In 2001, it acknowledged that six whales and dolphins found stranded in the Bahamas with bleeding ears had been killed by sonar,
Submarines are fitted with both active and passive sonar, while warships can tow ultra-powerful sonar devices to map the sea floor and find enemy submarines or mines.
But active transmissions have not contributed to the recent strandings off New York and New Jersey, U.S. Fleet Forces Command spokesman Ted Brown told The Post, adding none had been used in the area since 2021.
“In areas where the Navy does train with active sonar, the Navy implements mitigations before and during training and testing activities to avoid or reduce potential impacts,” Brown said, including by conducting additional surveillance or reducing power altogether.