Fact Check: Instagram posts – Undersea sounds for wind farms killing whales off Jersey Shore? No evidence of that

Fact Check: Instagram posts – Undersea sounds for wind farms killing whales off Jersey Shore? No evidence of that

Is a surge in whale deaths on the Atlantic Coast caused by underwater sounds related to wind energy?

“Dead whales are washing up on the Jersey shore in record numbers, and so far there’s one very curious possible cause: green energy,” read an Instagram post by Faust Checho, a podcast host and actor.

“They’re building large-scale wind farms off the East Coast — conducting underwater surveys before construction,” he said in the video post. “They’re using pulses of low-frequency sound beneath the ocean’s surface.”

The post was flagged as part of Meta’s efforts to combat false news and misinformation on its News Feed. (Read more about our partnership with Meta, which owns Facebook and Instagram.)

We didn’t get a reply to emails we sent to an address for Checho’s podcast or to a message we sent to him on Instagram.

There has been an increase in Jersey Shore whale strandings.

But government and private experts said there is no evidence to support the claim that whales are being killed by sounds emitted during underwater surveying ahead of wind farm construction. 

They said the main causes of death remain whales being struck by ships or becoming entangled in fishing lines.

“I’ve been using the analogy that it’s Sherlock Holmes looking in closets for the murderer when there’s a guy in the drawing room with a smoking gun,” said Paul Sieswerda, executive director of the Gotham Whale research and advocacy group in New York.

Jersey Shore whale deaths ‘unprecedented’

On Jan. 30, 12 New Jersey Shore mayors called for a moratorium on offshore wind energy activities. They asked for investigations to determine whether the work contributed to seven whales washing ashore in 38 days. 

The unprecedented number of stranding deaths “coincides with ongoing activity from acoustic survey vessels,” the mayors said in a letter to the New Jersey congressional delegation. 

A whale death in the Maryland area led Rep. Andy Harris, R-Md., to call for a moratorium “until it is definitively proven that this construction and geotechnical testing are not the cause of repeated whale deaths.”

New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy, a Democrat, has said the recent whale does are tragic but that wind farm preparation work should not be halted. He cited statements from federal officials denying any link between the deaths and the work.

How many whales have died?

Because of an increase in whale deaths in the Atlantic Ocean, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration made two “unusual mortality event” declarations, one in 2016 for humpback whales and one in 2017 for right whales.

An unusual mortality event is an unexpected stranding of marine mammals that “involves a significant die-off” and “demands immediate response,” according to the federal agency.

There have been 181 strandings of humpbacks in the 13 Atlanta Coast states from 2016 through 2023. Nearly one-third (59) occurred in New York or New Jersey. In 2023, there were five strandings in New York and New Jersey as of Feb. 7 — compared with six in all of 2022.

The strandings of right whales have occurred mostly in states other than New York and New Jersey.

Federal officials said wind energy had no role in the deaths

In response to the recent strandings, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration said, “There is no evidence to support speculation that noise” from wind development-related work  could potentially cause whale deaths and “no specific links between recent large whale mortalities and currently ongoing surveys for offshore wind development.”

The “greatest human threats” to large whales, the agency said, are whales being struck by vessels or becoming entangled in fishing lines.

What do other experts say?

Sieswerda, the former curator of the New York Aquarium and the New England Aquarium, told PolitiFact that necropsies show that the most common cause of whale deaths, including the recent ones off the Jersey Shore, are whales being struck or entangled. 

The sonar used undersea surveys ahead of wind energy development is not loud enough to endanger whales, he added.

The increase in whale deaths “is troubling, and why that is happening I don’t have a good answer,” Sieswerda said, “other than perhaps they’re changing their feeding areas to areas of high boat traffic.”

Ed Hale, a professor at the University of Delaware’s Sea Grant Program, said humpback whales can tolerate even underwater explosions and drilling, much more significant sound disturbances than what has occurred on the Jersey Shore for wind farms. 

More whales seem to be attracted to prey in the area, which are concentrated in some of the shipping lanes of the eastern seaboard’s busiest ports. That increases the chances of collisions that can kill whales, Hale said. 

Trevor Branch, professor at the University of Washington School of Aquatic and Fisheries Sciences, said Navy sonar has been linked to beaked whale strandings, but not right whales or other large whales. 

“It’s very unlikely but not impossible” that the link indicates that sounds from work for wind farms could cause larger whale deaths. “I’m not aware of any published research suggesting such a link,” he said.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and some New Jersey environmentalists have said that whales in the area are also affected by climate change. They said temperature changes affect food supplies and other ocean characteristics, causing whales to change their movements.

Our ruling

An Instagram post claimed that wind farm construction is a possible cause of dead whales washing ashore in New Jersey.

New Jersey has seen four whale strandings so far in 2023, the same number as in 2022. But experts said it is premature and unproven to tie the deaths to preparation work for wind farm construction. 

The experts said there is no evidence that the work has caused any of the deaths. They said the leading human causes of the strandings are whales being struck by vessels or becoming entangled in fishing lines.

The statement contains an element of truth, in that the deaths  coincide with preparation work for wind farms. But there is no evidence so far that the work caused the deaths.

We rate the statement Mostly False.

Source: PolitiFact.

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