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Right Whales Congregating Where Wind Turbines Will Be

North Atlantic right whales are congregating and finding food in a new area: southern New England waters where offshore wind energy projects are scheduled to be built. A new analysis, published in the journal Endangered Species Research, suggests that concrete actions to protect the right whales will be necessary for the population’s survival. Marine mammal researchers at the New England Aquarium, the Northeast Fisheries Science Center (NEFSC), and the Center for Coastal Studies examined aerial survey data collected 2011–2015 and 2017–2019 to quantify right whale distribution, residency, demographics, and movements in the region.

The changing behavior of right whales shows offshore energy planning cannot rely on historic migratory patterns, the paper’s authors wrote. “Monitoring and mitigation plans should include protocols for the likely presence of right whales throughout the year. Their increasing summer and fall presence deserves special attention since this will overlap with the current schedule for pile driving for turbine foundations in the next few years, the phase of construction considered to have the greatest acoustic impact, which could potentially affect right whale behavior,” according to the paper. “Management and mitigation procedures should be adapted and reevaluated continually in relation to right whales’ use of the area.”

The New England Aquarium used systematic aerial surveys, and NEFSC and the Center for Coastal Studies directed surveys conducted in areas where right whales were present to document aggregations of right whales. Aerial photographs were matched to catalogued individuals registered in the North Atlantic Right Whale Consortium Sighting Database. A total of 327 unique right whales were photographed in the area by the teams over the study period. The analysis indicated that between December and May almost a quarter of the right whale population may be present in the region.

The study also found that the residence time for individuals in the southern New England area during the winter and spring has increased three-fold to an average of 13 days over the last decade. Up to 23% of the right whale population was estimated to be using areas designated for offshore wind development off Nantucket, Martha’s Vineyard and Rhode Island from December to May. That figure included 30% of the population’s females. “The regular presence of right whales in southern New England deserves more attention,” the authors wrote. “The effects of offshore wind development on right whales are unknown, but this enormous development could have a local impact on right whales at a critical time when they are becoming more reliant on the region.”

Southern New England offshore lease sites, slated for wind energy developments, are also used by right whales. BOEM images.


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