Republicans and right-wing commentators suddenly want to save the whales—and much of the news media is buying it.
As a humpback whale was found on the shore at Brigantine, New Jersey on January 12—the seventh dead whale to wash up on a New York or New Jersey beach since December 5—local Republicans rushed to blame it on offshore wind development projects.
“Not even the whales can survive [New Jersey Gov.] Murphy’s Energy Master Plan,” lamented the Jersey GOP on Twitter (1/18/23). The partisan account linked to a story in the New Jersey Monitor (1/17/23) with the alarming headline “Debate Grows Over Offshore Wind, as Whale Deaths Mount.” The article began by laying out that debate—”environmentalists put out dueling calls to continue or curtail offshore wind work”—before including an important clarification about wind farm construction and the whale deaths: “no evidence shows it caused the casualties.”
The project in question is the recently approved 1,100 megawatt wind project that Danish company Ørsted is expected to build off the New Jersey coast this year. It is projected to power more than half a million homes by 2025. Pre-construction activities, including probing the seabed with a metal rod to test the nature of the soil, have begun.
According to federal National Marine Fisheries Service reports (2/22/18, 4/4/18, 5/4/18) this method of surveying, known as cone penetration testing or CPT, had little noise impact and has not been found to injure marine mammals. A representative from Ørsted told FAIR that the company is not currently using acoustic tests such as sonar in these surveys off the East Coast, and wasn’t in December, either. Ørsted did use acoustic surveys in the early stages of its project, which ended in September 2022.
‘Whales paying the price’
That didn’t stop Fox News’ Jesse Watters (1/11/23) from professing outrage. “Something unusual is happening to these whales,” he said:
Maybe this has something to do with it: New Jersey is actively preparing to build massive wind farms right off the coast. And the whales are paying the price, probably. These experts are saying these projects are killing these whales.
In case you missed the point, the report was accompanied by all-caps chyrons with messages like “WIND SURVEYING IS KILLING OUR WHALES,” “OCEAN WINDMILLS ARE THE PROBLEM” and “WINDFARMS ARE UGLY AND THEY KILL WHALES.”
This is from the same Jesse Watters who just two months ago (11/29/22) brought a lobsterman on to condemn Whole Foods for pulling lobsters from its stores due to the risk lobster fishing gear poses to whales. He has also spent much of his career working to discredit the climate movement and dismiss activists as hysterical (Mediaite, 8/5/19; Jesse Watters Primetime, 7/7/22, 9/7/22; Media Matters, 7/21/21, 2/2/22, 10/18/22). But now, suddenly, Watters is a whale conservationist.
The “expert” Watters brought onto his January 11 show was Mike Dean (mistakenly identified as Mike Davis), affiliated with Protect Our Coast NJ, a right-wing nonprofit that has accepted fossil fuel money, disguised as a pro-ocean environmental group (Intercept, 12/8/21). On his Twitter feed, Dean expresses opposition to climate science, and regularly retweeting climate denial posts (Media Matters, 1/12/23).
“The industrial wind companies are out there pounding the seabed with sonar,” Dean incorrectly claimed. “Common sense would tell you that’s what killed these whales. That’s the only new thing going on out there right now.”
Unusual mortality events
Your “common sense” should take a few other facts into account. First, whale deaths on the Jersey coast have not been isolated to this past December and January. A National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration spokesperson said they’re part of a larger spate of “unusual mortality events” the agency has been documenting since 2016, predating these recent wind farm projects (AP, 1/9/23). NOAA Fisheries recorded 17 unusual mortality events of endangered right whales on the East Coast in 2017, and 10 in 2019. It counted no dead right whales in 2022, and one so far in 2023. Humpback whale “unusual mortality events” on the East Coast ranged from 34 in 2017 to 10 in 2021.
Meanwhile, some factors unrelated to wind farms are new: The Port of New York and New Jersey has been the nation’s busiest in recent months, as labor disputes and congestion routed many ships from the West Coast (Post & Courier, 1/13/23).
Also new: The Marine Mammal Stranding Center and NOAA noted that there currently are a high number of large whales in the Mid-Atlantic, due to high numbers of fish they eat remaining in the waters. A 2018 Rutgers study found that warming oceans may be sending crustaceans and numerous fish species further north during the winters. Increasing populations of menhaden—small fish that whales feed on—have also been documented off the mid-Atlantic coast (CNN, 1/20/23).
Sonar, which uses low-frequency noise to detect objects, can potentially interfere with whale navigation (Science.org, 3/21/22). But it’s hardly new. It’s long been in use on the ocean floor by the US military, which often uses it in training missions. Sonar and seismic testing are also used to find oil and gas deposits under the sea bed. Sonar used for wind energy construction surveying is expected to have a much lower sonic impact than the seismic air guns used in fossil fuel exploration (CNN, 1/20/23).
Causes of whale deaths
Leading causes of deaths for whales include ship strikes and entanglement in commercial fishing gear. In fact, the Marine Mammal Stranding Center, along with scientists from the Atlantic Marine Conservation Society, Mystic Aquarium and Marine Education Research and Rehabilitation Institute, performed a necropsy on the whale found in Brigantine, and determined that a ship strike most likely caused its death, though the investigation is not complete.
According to NOAA, which recently published an FAQ (1/20/23) about its ongoing research on “interactions between offshore wind energy projects and whales on the East Coast,” thus far no whale deaths have been linked to offshore wind development.
Skepticism over the ethics, business practices and environmental impacts of a large international company like Ørsted is healthy. But so is listening to scientists. Erin Meyer-Gutbrod, an assistant professor at the University of South Carolina’s School of the Earth, Ocean & Environment, told the Post & Courier (1/13/23) that so far, scientists don’t know much about how offshore wind farm construction will affect right whales, but that her main concern is ship traffic during construction—not sonar before it.
“Meyer-Gutbrod worries that exaggerated claims about wind energy may distract from implementing evidence-based policies that can be a life raft for the species,” the article said.
The distraction is exactly the point for fossil fuel shills and their Fox cheerleaders. Fox’s Tucker Carlson (1/13/23) lamented that, instead of blaming offshore windmills for whale deaths, “the federal government is harassing the people who need the least harassment: commercial fishermen and lobstermen on the East Coast.” In reality, as of 2020, entanglements with commercial fishing gear, along with ship strikes, had “killed or seriously injured at least 31 right whales…since 2017 alone,” according to the National Marine Fisheries Service.
‘Stop offshore wind’
But rather than correcting misinformation, local and national papers often amplified false and misleading claims from Fox, Republican politicians and pseudo-environmental fossil fuel–backed groups.
“Murphy & Wind Companies Ignore US Navy Report; Sonar Can Kill Whales” shouted a headline at the Downbeach Buzz local news site (1/17/23).
“Six Dead Whales Wash Up in a Month. Stop Offshore Wind for Investigation, NJ Groups Say,” was a headline at Advance Publications‘ NJ.com (1/9/23). The piece opened with the drama of a dead whale:
Tire tracks in the sand marked the burial ground of a massive humpback whale Monday. The dead 30-foot female whale washed up ashore Saturday and two days later lay buried underneath, leaving behind a decaying rotten smell.
It followed this up with quotes from Clean Ocean Action, a conservationist group opposed to this wind project, offering a clear suggestion of where readers’ sympathies ought to lie.
The story did go on to debunk as false or unsubstantiated the groups’ major claims: that the whale deaths were “unprecedented,” that offshore wind were authorized to “hurt or kill more than 157,328 marine mammals.” But that wasn’t enough to shift the piece’s anti–wind power framing.
Other groups cited included right-wing and fossil fuel-friendly Protect Our Coasts NJ (whose politics the site did not identify), the Long Island Commercial Fishing Association and Defend Brigantine Beach—a Facebook group with some members sharing the aforementioned Watters and Carlson segments.
A few days later, the online paper (NJ.com, 1/13/23) was back with “Seventh Dead Whale Washes Up at Jersey Shore. Calls to Stop Offshore Wind Work Grow.” The article “balanced” statements from the Marine Mammal Stranding Center and NOAA against statements from two Republican politicians and Clean Ocean Action.
NY1 and NBC4 New York both published an AP piece (1/9/23) that led with accusations and claims made by the groups critical of the wind farm, waiting until the seventh paragraph to begin to reveal that each claim was unsubstantiated or debunked by the piece’s expert sources.
Consequences of CO2
This coverage, seemingly more interested in elevating conflict than clarity, misses why wind and other renewable energies are needed in the first place: our world’s unsustainable addiction to fossil fuels—the largest contributor of greenhouse gas emissions leading to climate change (IPCC, 2018). Never mind that we may run out of them by the end of the century.
At least a quarter of CO2 released by the burning of fossil fuels is absorbed by the ocean, acidifying the water and threatening sea life. CO2 in the air causes algal blooms that lower oxygen levels in the water. Wastewater from fracking often contains substances like arsenic, lead, chlorine and mercury that can contaminate ground and drinking water.
And this is if all goes as planned. The Center for Biological Diversity estimates that the 2010 BP Deepwater Horizon oil spill harmed or killed nearly 26,000 marine mammals, along with 82,000 birds of 102 species, about 6,000 sea turtles and “a vast (but unknown) number of fish… oysters, crabs, corals and other creatures.”
Humans aren’t exempt from the damage either, of course. A 2021 Harvard study (2/9/21) found that “more than 8 million people died in 2018 from fossil fuel pollution.”
And the fossil fuel industry is smart. Exxon knew about climate change and its own role in it since 1977, and subsequently spent millions on misinformation campaigns (Scientific American, 10/26/15). It used pseudo-science to cast doubt on the climate change science it knew to be true (NPR, 10/27/21), and to undermine the feasibility, efficiency and profitability of renewable energy (ASAP Science, 9/9/20).
We can’t blame individuals for being confused by clandestine fossil fuel industry lies—they’re designed to be confusing!
Before the sudden concern for whales, opposition to wind farms off the coast of the Jersey Shore was based on a not-in-my-backyard attitude from residents who didn’t want their ocean views altered, and who were concerned about the subsequent effect on tourism (Philadelphia Inquirer, 2/15/21).
“They will not be able to look out on the horizon and dream,” one woman was quoted.
“Enjoy the View While It Lasts,” declared an NBC 10 Philadelphia headline (6/17/22) last summer. Note that the wind farm in question will be approximately 15 miles out to sea.
‘Non-scientific’ and ‘dangerous’
At a January 17 news conference covered by NJ.com (1/17/23), climate activists said blaming these whale deaths on offshore wind energy was “baseless,” “non-scientific” and “dangerous.” The outlet quoted Jennifer Coffey, executive director of non-profit Association of New Jersey Environmental Commissions:
I think anytime anyone uses the guise of science without actually looking at the data to further their own agenda is dangerous, and when we’re talking about combating climate change the stakes could not be higher.
If local Republicans want to voice their dissatisfaction with Governor Murphy, they’re entitled to do that. But news media’s complicity in using feigned concern for dead whales to shield residents’ fiscal conservatism and fossil fuel interests undermines genuine environmental activism and ignores our planet’s desperate need for clean energy.