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NEW JERSEY (PIX11) — Dozens of whales and dolphins have washed ashore on the New Jersey coast since the beginning of this year. While strandings have occurred from Maine to Florida, the issue along the Garden State has focused on offshore wind turbines, and if their development is disrupting marine life. 

The Fisheries Department of the National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) declared an Unusual Mortality Event (UME) for humpback whales in 2016. NOAA said there has been an elevated number of mortalities for the past seven years. There are even more troubling statistics in recent months.

According to the latest published data from the Marine Mammal Stranding Center in Brigantine, NJ, there have been 11 whales and 29 dolphins that have washed up on the Jersey Shore, just from Dec. 5, 2022, through May 6.

A dead female humpback whale at Manasquan Beach in mid-February. Just weeks later, eight dolphins were stranded alive in Sea Isle City. All eight later had to be euthanized due to poor body condition. These are just some of the many cases. Just as along the New York shoreline, there has been an uptick in incidents of beached mammals on Garden State beaches. Marine experts add the East Coast humpback whale population is growing and there are more animals in the water.

Kim Damon-Randall is the Director of NOAA’s Office of Protected Resources.

“We’ve been seeing an elevated number since 2016,” said Damon-Randall. “This winter and early spring, we’ve actually seen a slight uptick in the numbers we’ve seen throughout the unusual mortality event, it’s not unusual to see pulses in the numbers during the UME.” 

 As with the marine mammals stranded in New York, experts attribute the most likely causes to be:

  • Human interaction, like vessel strikes and fishing gear entanglement
  • Warmer waters due to climate change and 
  • Disease

Tony Perry is Middletown’s mayor. He’s had a whale and that pod of dolphins wash up on his town’s beaches in recent months. Perry is raising the red flag on another potential factor.

It’s time the state calls a meeting with state officials and those from the federal government as well to tell us what’s going on,” said Perry. “Why shouldn’t the public have a right to know what the government is doing by leasing out these areas along our coast for wind turbines and wind energy?”

Offshore wind energy development is the use of large wind turbines to harness energy by moving air. It’s been hailed by proponents as a viable alternative to fossil fuels, which produces harmful gas emission. However, wind farms have also been criticized by detractors as being disruptive to the habitat of marine mammals. 

According to the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection, the multiple wind projects are each located 10 to 15 miles off the state’s coast and have the potential to power millions of homes. On their website, the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection’s Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM) states that sonar mapping – the use of sound waves to identify sites for wind farms – are kept at a certain audio level and in areas clear of any marine mammals. Experts maintain there’s no known link between the turbines and the strandings.

“We have no scientific evidence to support that contention,” said Damon-Randall. The sound they’re producing is not expected to harm in a serious way the large whales.”

Perry and other state officials have called for a halt to the construction, calling for more impact studies and demanding more information from officials.

“The state of New Jersey without legislative approval, started leasing out areas around our shore,” said Perry. “The township committee here in Middletown and I called for a halt to the construction and the mapping till we can get more answers I haven’t received any response from the state government on that.”

Advocacy groups are also protesting the projects. The issue has become politically and emotionally charged. Jeff Tittel, the longtime environmental activist and the former director of the New Jersey Sierra Club, suggests a more measured approach.

“I think we should study to see if sonar – whether it’s the Navy or coming from looking at the bottom of the ocean for offshore wind – is having an impact but while we’re doing that, we need to more importantly, deal with what’s happening above the surface,” said Tittel. “We want the Coast Guard and NOAA to come up with the rules and regulations they promised to years ago in monitoring, basically traffic cops out on the ocean to make sure ships aren’t going into areas they shouldn’t be going.” 

Tittel and other advocates have sent a letter to congressional lawmakers, including Sen Cory Booker, imploring them to monitor the speed limits of ships to lessen their potential to strike mammals. Tittel is also pleading for both sides to come together.

“The New Jersey shore is a treasure that belongs to all of us, we make sure we keep the waters are clean and we need to deal with climate change and I think we can deal with all these things and protect the whales and the species, but we have to work together and stop fighting and stop making everything politics,” said Tittel.

On May 3, New Jersey Senate Republicans held a hearing, to continue their push for a moratorium on all offshore wind energy projects. They face an uphill battle in the legislature, which is controlled by State Democrats.

Experts say if you do come across a stranded mammal, don’t touch it or try to move it. You’re urged to call NOAA’s 24-hour stranding hotline at 1-866-755-6622.