Newsday's Mark Harrington talks with NewsdayTV's Ken Buffa about what building wind farms off the coast of LI would mean for sea mammals like whales. Credit: NewsdayTV

As developers prepare to deploy legions of wind-energy turbines off the coast of Long Island, new applications for survey and construction work are bringing new scrutiny to the impacts on sea mammals, including the potential “incidental take” of whales, dolphins and seals.

That scrutiny comes amid unusual numbers of whale deaths this winter, including 11 on New York and New Jersey shores alone since December, with another humpback whale found dead in New Jersey on Monday.

Federal regulators administering wind-farm plans say there's no evidence that acoustic surveys to map the sea bottom are behind the whale deaths, finding instead that ship strikes are the most common known cause. But conservation groups and fishing advocates question assumptions about the claimed low impacts, suggesting instead that long-use acoustic equipment can disorient sea mammals, even temporarily, perhaps leading to a ship strike. Some are calling for an investigation before it's too late. 

Beginning next week, developer Bluepoint Wind plans to begin survey work for its project 38 nautical miles south of Long Island in an area of the ocean known as the New York Bight. A January filing in the Federal Register says the National Marine Fisheries Service has approved the application, which includes a listing of the potential "incidental take"/ of “small numbers” of 15 species of marine mammals, as at least four survey vessels begin 432 survey days of sounding studies. While the definition of incidental take is vast, it refers mainly in these cases to "an intentional act that results in disturbing or molesting a marine mammal in the wild."

WHAT TO KNOW

  • New applications for wind farm survey and construction work off Long Island are bringing new scrutiny to the potential impact on sea mammals.
  • The attention comes amid unusual numbers of whale deaths this winter, including 11 on New York and New Jersey shores alone since December.
  • Federal regulators administering wind-farm plans say there's no evidence that acoustic surveys to map the sea bottom are behind the whale deaths.

The work has "the potential to result in incidental take of marine mammals” in the form of “harassment” from “active acoustic sound sources," the filing states. The work will be conducted 24 hours a day, using sound-generating equipment known as “sparkers” and “boomers,” which the filing describes as “medium penetration, impulsive sources.”

Bluepoint spokesperson Seth Kaplan said the company is "doing everything we possibly can to ensure these surveys are perfectly safe." A spokeswoman for National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Fisheries said it's "dedicated to minimizing risks to protected resources, habitats, and managed fisheries throughout the life cycle of offshore wind-energy projects."

The term incidental take does not mean that developers or regulators expect the work to result in the death of the mammals, according to the filing. In fact, they say, neither Bluepoint nor the fisheries service "expect serious injury or mortality to result from this [survey] activity." And they say the methodology for the potential take use the most conservative estimates for the possible encounters — meaning they are worst-case scenarios.

Kaplan of Bluepoint said the company was "very aware" of recent whale deaths in the region and called them "really tragic," but said the company has no plan to pause surveys as a result and hasn't been asked to by regulators. 

"We are doing exactly what science and good practices tell us we should be doing to minimize and prevent any harm," he said, adding wind farms will address climate change to get "on the right side of the systemic threat to these species."

Included in the harassment estimates regulators have approved for the survey are the proposed total takes of 14 North Atlantic right whales, 36 humpback whales, 86 fin whales, 20 sei whales, and 204 Minke whales. Six sperm whales are included in the estimated take, along with 68 long-finned pilot whales.

Among other species, the estimate includes more than 2,300 bottlenose dolphins, 4,734 common dolphins, 1,312 harbor porpoise, 11,179 harbor seals, and 1,179 gray seals.

While the filing noted that hearing is the “most important sensory modality for marine mammals underwater,” it also said the mammals are "unlikely" to experience even temporary loss of hearing as a result of the survey because the sparker and boom devices deliver “generally very short pulses and potential duration of exposure.”

Most marine mammals, the filing states, "would more likely avoid a loud sounds source rather than swim in such proximity to result in” even temporary loss of hearing sensitivity, the service said. Rather, the survey work planned by Bluepoint Wind is expected to result in what regulators describe as “Level B Harassment,” or the potential to “disturb, but not injure” a marine mammal by “disrupting their behavioral patterns, including migration, breathing, nursing, breeding, feeding or sheltering.”

But Alena Walters, a member of Sea Life Conservation, a Long Island conservation group that has been monitoring the federal filings, said she believes the incidental take figures underestimate the impacts of sea mammals and other species.

"The loudness of a sound that is going to occur repeatedly for months has to be far lower in order for it to not cause harm than the loudness of a sound that is experienced only one or a few times in a brief spurt," she said.

She likened the work to a neighbor working on a home project. 

"If your next-door neighbor is using a nail gun for five minutes, it may not give you a headache, But if the nail gun use goes on several times a minute continuously for months on end, it is a different story," she said.

For sea mammals that rely on sound, Walters said, "it's extremely dangerous to have even a temporary shift in hearing because a hearing-impaired animal may misestimate how far away a ship is and get struck by a ship." And while she's not calling for an end to the wind-farm program, Walters would like a pause on sonic surveys to conduct an investigation. 

The Bluepoint application includes a long list of mitigation measures to limit impact on the mammals, including monitoring and shutdown zones to be put in place when they’re spotted. The fisheries service requires marine mammal observers on board each survey ship, and to shut down surveys when the sea mammals are observed within certain ranges of the vessels. There are also slowdown rules in place to avoid ship strikes.

One project closer to Long Island that has largely completed the survey process is Norway-based Equinor’s Empire Wind, starting around 15 miles from the coast of Long Beach.

According to information provided by Equinor, survey work conducted during 2020 and 2021  saw low levels of level-B harassment. Of the total 4,415 "takes" authorized in Empire's federal application, survey boats with third-party monitors reported just 682 encounters with the specified sea mammals, which involved sightings of 140 meters or less of their vessels. They included nine large whale sightings and 673 dolphins, and none resulted in a strike or injury.

But Anthony Sosinski, a lobsterman from Montauk, said the large potential incidental take figures are in stark contrast to the increasingly restrictive fishing quotas and moratoriums fishermen are subject to from federal regulators. He expressed frustration that strikes or damage to sea mammals may go largely unseen below the surface, and said he worries that once the turbines are up, it will be do late to undo the damage. 

"These projects are so big and vast they're never going to end," he said. "The narrative will go from looking at marine life to looking at the wind-farm infrastructure." 

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