Dem senators from 4 states ask NOAA to address whale deaths

A police officer in Seaside Park N.J. photographs a dead whale on the beach on March 2, 2023. On Tuesday, March 28, Democratic U.S. Senators from four states called upon the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to address a spate of whale deaths on the Atlantic and Pacific coasts. The issue has rapidly become politicized, with mostly Republican lawmakers and their supporters blaming offshore wind farm preparation for the East Coast deaths despite assertions by NOAA and other federal and state agencies that the two are not related. (AP Photo/Wayne Parry)

ATLANTIC CITY, N.J. — Democratic U.S. senators from four states want federal environmental officials to address a spate of whale deaths on both coasts, urging “transparency and timeliness” in releasing information about whale deaths and their causes. 

The call late last week by New Jersey Sens. Robert Menendez and Cory Booker, Connecticut Sen. Richard Blumenthal, Oregon Sen. Jeff Merkley and Rhode Island Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse for action by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration marked the first large-scale request for action by Democratic federal lawmakers on an issue that has rapidly become politicized. 

Thus far, mostly Republican lawmakers have called for a pause or an outright halt to offshore wind farm preparation work, which they blame for the deaths of whales along the U.S. East Coast since December. 

But in their letter to an NOAA administrator, the Democratic senators conspicuously did not blame — or even mention — offshore wind as a potential cause of the deaths. Numerous federal agencies have said there is no evidence linking it to whale deaths, many of which were determined to have been caused by ship strikes or entanglement with fishing gear. 

In a statement to The Associated Press, Booker said he wants the agency to protect whales and communicate quickly about any deaths. 

“To protect these animals, we must follow the facts and address the known, documented causes of death,” he said. “We know that NOAA’s preliminary findings for many of the whales washing up along the Atlantic coast this year have shown evidence of a vessel strike.” 

The senators voiced particular concern about two deaths of endangered North Atlantic right whales, although most of the whale deaths involved the more plentiful humpback species. 

“Without action, the (North Atlantic right whale) will likely go extinct,” they wrote. “If we do not act, other whale species may face the same fate.” 

Lauren Gaches, an NOAA spokesperson, said 30 whale deaths have been recorded on the Atlantic Coast since Dec. 1. They were 21 humpback whales; three sperm whales; three minke whales; two North Atlantic right whales and one sei whale. 

The senators also expressed concern about the deaths of gray whales on the West Coast, where 298 of the animals have washed ashore since 2019. Some showed signs of emaciation, but NOAA said more research is needed. 

NOAA has declared “unusual mortality events” involving whales on both coasts, including one on the East Coast dating back to 2016. 

Gaches said the agency will work directly with Congress to address any concerns it may have about the issue and the agency’s response to it. 

The senators asked NOAA to detail how it plans to address and prevent whale deaths; outline the agency’s procedures for notifying the public when a whale death is discovered and when the results of necropsy examinations are ready; and list any challenges the agency faces in determining the causes of whale deaths, and whether specific actions by Congress or the administration might help. 

They noted that since 2008, NOAA has implemented vessel speed regulations to reduce the number of whale deaths caused by boat strikes and that updated rules regarding the issue are due by June. 

On March 16, four Republican congressmen held a hearing in Wildwood, New Jersey, to call for a pause on all offshore wind projects. 

Rep. Christopher Smith of New Jersey called for a pause on such work until the U.S. Government Accountability Office can investigate the “sufficiency of the environmental review processes for offshore wind projects.” He was joined by fellow New Jersey Republican Jeff Van Drew, Andy Harris of Maryland and Scott Perry of Pennsylvania in promising additional hearings and demands for information, and claiming federal agencies have ignored expressions of concern by one of their own scientists about the effects of wind farms on whales. 

Van Drew said that because President Joe Biden, New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy and offshore wind companies “refuse to share the facts with Americans, Congress must do its job.” 

Smith, who represents parts of the Jersey Shore, was among those calling for a pause on wind farm preparation until the U.S. Government Accountability Office can investigate the “sufficiency of the environmental review processes for offshore wind projects.” 

“They all say there’s no evidence,” Smith said. “You’re not even looking!” 

Harris used the theoretical example of a dog spooked by fireworks that runs into a creek and drowns. A veterinarian would say the dog’s cause of death was drowning. But Harris said the true cause of death would be the noise that prompted it to run into the creek. 

And Perry said, “I get that the administration wants to rush this forward. But this is our country, and we’re in charge here. Look: The lights are on right now, without these turbines out in the ocean.”