Frequent Questions—Offshore Wind and Whales
Frequently asked questions about interactions between offshore wind energy projects and whales on the East Coast.
What is the current status of the humpback whale population in the North Atlantic?
The population of humpback whales in the North Atlantic is not listed as threatened or endangered under the Endangered Species Act. However, all humpback whales are protected under the Marine Mammal Protection Act. More information about the status of humpback whale stocks in U.S. waters can be found in NOAA Fisheries’ marine mammal stock assessment reports.
What does NOAA Fisheries do to minimize the impact of offshore wind development on whales?
NOAA Fisheries helps avoid and minimize impacts to protected species and their habitats throughout the life cycle of offshore wind energy projects. We are responsible for several regulatory processes that ensure energy projects comply with the laws protecting our marine resources.
Who has the lead authority to approve or disapprove offshore wind projects?
The Bureau of Ocean Energy Management is responsible for offshore renewable energy development in federal waters. This includes the approval, disapproval, or modification of construction and operations plans before an offshore wind project can be constructed. BOEM leads associated National Environmental Policy Act environmental reviews. For more information, read their renewable energy fact sheets.
Is U.S. offshore wind development linked to any whale deaths?
We work with our partners to analyze and understand the causes of death when we are able, following the science and data. At this point, there is no scientific evidence that noise resulting from offshore wind site characterization surveys could potentially cause mortality of whales. There are no known links between recent large whale mortalities and ongoing offshore wind surveys.
We will continue to gather data to help us determine the cause of death for these mortality events. We will also continue to explore how sound, vessel, and other human activities in the marine environment impact whales and other marine mammals.
Does NOAA Fisheries authorize the death of whales as it relates to offshore wind development?
NOAA Fisheries does not anticipate and has not authorized—or proposed to authorize—mortality or serious injury of whales for any wind-related action. Offshore wind developers have not applied for, and NOAA Fisheries has not approved, authorization to kill any marine mammals incidental to offshore wind site characterization surveys or construction activities. Marine mammals may respond to exposure to these surveys, for example, by avoiding the immediate area.
What is the cause of recent whale deaths off New York and New Jersey? Is it related to offshore wind development?
At this point, there is no scientific evidence that noise resulting from offshore wind site characterization surveys could potentially cause mortality of whales. There are no known links between recent large whale mortalities and ongoing offshore wind surveys.
Offshore wind developers conduct high resolution geophysical surveys to image the ocean bottom. The noises these surveys produce may disturb marine mammals. This is why offshore wind operators have requested Incidental Harassment Authorizations to allow for Level B harassment. Level B harassment includes actions that could disturb, but not injure or kill, a marine mammal by disrupting behavioral patterns, including migration, breathing, nursing, breeding, feeding, or sheltering.
The sound from these HRG surveys are very different from seismic airguns used in oil and gas surveys or tactical military sonar. They produce much smaller impact zones because, in general, they have lower noise, higher frequency, and narrower beam-width. The area within which these sounds might disturb a marine mammal’s behavior is orders of magnitude smaller than the impact areas for seismic airguns or military sonar. Any marine mammal exposure to sound from HRG surveys would be at significantly lower levels and shorter duration, which is associated with less severe impacts to marine mammals.
In 2017, NOAA Fisheries declared an Unusual Mortality Event for humpback whale strandings along the Atlantic coast from Maine to Florida. The event is ongoing, and includes animals stranded since 2016. As of June 21, 2023, there are 200 humpback whale mortalities included in the UME. Partial or full necropsy examinations were conducted on approximately half of the whales. Necropsies were not conducted on other carcasses because they were either too decomposed, not brought to land, or stranded on protected lands (e.g. national and state parks) with limited or no access. Of the roughly 90 whales examined, about 40 percent had evidence of human interaction, either ship strike or entanglement. Vessel strikes and entanglement in fishing gear are the greatest human threats to large whales. The rest either had an undetermined cause of death (due to a limited examination or decomposition of the carcass), or had other causes of death, including parasite-caused organ damage and starvation.
What is causing the high number of large whales in the waters off New Jersey?
As the humpback whale population has grown, they are seen more often in the Mid-Atlantic. Along the New Jersey shore, these whales may be following their prey (small fish) which were reportedly close to shore this winter.
These prey also attract fish that are targeted by recreational and commercial fishermen, which increases the number of boats in these areas. More whales in the water in areas traveled by boats of all sizes increases the risk of vessel strikes. As such, we advise boaters to go slowly—10 knots or less in waters where they are likely present—and keep a lookout for whales.
There is currently a voluntary slow zone in effect for the waters off New York and New Jersey due to recent detections of endangered North Atlantic right whales. There are also active Seasonal Management Areas (where all vessels 65 feet or longer must travel at 10 knots or less) off the ports of New York/New Jersey and Delaware Bay due to known seasonal distribution of right whales.
Is climate change a factor in the number of whales we’re seeing close to shore?
Yes. Our climate is changing, and one of those key changes is the warming of our oceans. In response, many marine species are adapting by moving into new areas where conditions are now more favorable.
Changing distributions of prey impact larger marine species that depend on them, and result in changing distribution of whales and other marine life. This can lead to increased interactions with humans as some whales move closer to near shore habitats. We are investigating the increase in humpback whale deaths beginning in 2016, and certainly this most recent string of devastating losses.
The impacts of changing species distributions reach far beyond the individual species, affecting entire ecosystems and coastal economies.
How can NOAA Fisheries determine if a whale death was caused by offshore wind activity and related survey work? Are there any signs or criteria?
NOAA Fisheries uses necropsies to determine the cause of a whale death. Necropsies can help determine if there is evidence from vessel strikes, entanglement, or acoustic trauma.
Vessel strikes are determined by cuts from propellers, bruising, and broken bones from the impact with a vessel hull. However, we are generally not able to definitively determine what specific kind of vessel (i.e., the size or type of vessel or what it was doing) caused the strike without a report from a mariner or other observer such as a protected species observer.
Entanglement injuries are often evident even in external examination even when rope or other fishing gear does not remain on a carcass. Acute injuries, such as areas where line or rope has rubbed through or broken the skin, can be very evident. In some cases, tissue analysis is needed to confirm whether the injuries are old and healing or may have contributed to the whale’s death.
Acoustic trauma, which could result from close exposure to loud human-produced sounds, is very challenging to assess, particularly with any amount of decomposition. Scientists look for bruising or trauma to the ear and other organs, but linking it to a particular sound source is difficult, as certain parts of the ear decompose very quickly (within hours), even more so than some of the other parts of the animal. If the whale is already in moderate to advanced decomposition, then microscopic changes in the ears are generally no longer detectable. Baleen whales and toothed whales have different hearing ranges, which affects how these animals respond to different levels of sound.
We will look at samples collected from each necropsied animal to further understand other factors that may have contributed to the stranding, but we may not ever have a definitive answer for each of these cases.
Strandings and inconclusive necropsies have occurred long before offshore wind was a factor, so correlating the two now is not based in science.
What is NOAA Fisheries doing to minimize the effects of offshore wind development on endangered North Atlantic right whales?
NOAA Fisheries is heavily invested in the conservation and recovery of endangered North Atlantic right whales. NOAA Fisheries recently proposed a rule to modify existing vessel speed restrictions that would apply to many offshore wind-related vessels. In our Marine Mammal Protection Act authorizations and Endangered Species Act consultations, we also require mitigation measures to avoid and minimize impacts from offshore wind development.
NOAA Fisheries and the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management recently released a joint draft strategy to protect and promote the recovery of North Atlantic right whales while responsibly developing offshore wind energy. This strategy is part of NOAA Fisheries’ comprehensive Road to Recovery for North Atlantic right whales.
What You Can Do
What should I do if I see a dead or injured whale from Maine to Virginia?
If you see a dead or injured marine mammal or sea turtle, please call the NOAA Greater Atlantic Marine Mammal and Sea Turtle Stranding Hotline at (866) 755-6622 to be directed to a trained responder. The best way to assist these animals, and keep them and yourself safe, is by calling trained responders and maintaining a distance of at least 150 feet.
Please remember that all marine mammals are protected by the Marine Mammal Protection Act, which makes touching, feeding, or otherwise harming these animals illegal. It is also illegal to take any marine mammal part from live or dead animals, including bones and teeth.
What else can I do to help protect whales?
If you are a boater, download the Whale Alert app for real-time updates on management areas and whale sightings on digital nautical charts. When you are boating in these areas, slow down and keep a watchful eye on the water.
Information on Incidental Take Authorizations
What does “take” mean under the Marine Mammal Protection Act?
Under the Marine Mammal Protection Act, take is defined as: "to harass, hunt, capture, collect, or kill, or attempt to harass, hunt, capture, collect, or kill any marine mammal.” This includes any of the following:
- Collection of dead animals, or parts thereof
- Restraint or detention of a marine mammal, no matter how temporary
- Tagging a marine mammal
- Negligent or intentional operation of an aircraft or vessel
- Any other negligent or intentional act which results in disturbing or molesting a marine mammal
- Feeding or attempting to feed a marine mammal in the wild
There are several forms of take; take does not necessarily equate to mortality.
What does “harassment” mean under the Marine Mammal and Protection Act?
Under the Marine Mammal Protection Act, harassment is statutorily defined as:
- Level A Harassment (non-serious injury): Has the potential to injure a marine mammal or marine mammal stock in the wild
- Level B Harassment (behavioral disturbance): Has the potential to disturb a marine mammal or marine mammal stock in the wild by causing disruption of behavioral patterns—including migration, breathing, nursing, breeding, feeding, or sheltering—but does not have the potential to injure a marine mammal or marine mammal stock in the wild
How do I find more information about marine mammal incidental take authorizations?
We maintain a list of all active and in-progress incidental take authorizations, including those related to offshore wind. We carefully consider possible impacts to marine mammal species. Details and mitigations are included in the relevant documents for each active authorization.
As of June 2023, there are 14 active incidental harassment authorizations authorizing Level B (i.e. behavioral) harassment of marine mammals incidental to offshore wind site characterization surveys in the Atlantic Ocean from southern New England to the Carolinas.
There are also two active incidental harassment authorizations for offshore wind construction activities that authorize take of marine mammals by both Level A and Level B harassment. Level A harassment includes non-serious injury—in this case, in the form of auditory injury resulting from exposure to noise from pile driving.
Additional Information on Necropsies
What are NOAA Fisheries and its partners doing to determine the cause(s) of recent whale deaths?
The local stranding network partner is responsible for leading the examination, but large whale responses generally involve multiple agencies from across the network working together. These stranding network partners responded to each of the recent whales that came ashore to document and examine the carcasses. At a minimum, stranding network partners collected photo data to document each stranding event. When possible, they took or estimated measurements and conducted an external examination. They could not complete internal examinations for some cases, due to the decomposition state or the location of the carcasses. They collected a limited number of samples where possible.
Why aren’t all large whales necropsied?
Large whale necropsies are very complicated, requiring many people and typically heavy equipment (front loaders, etc.). Some whales are found dead floating offshore, and need to be towed to land for an examination. There can be limitations for access and using heavy equipment depending on the location where the whale stranded, including protected lands (parks or concerns for other endangered species) and accessibility (remote areas, tides that prevent access at times of day). Also, necropsies are the most informative when the animal died relatively recently. Some whales are not found until they are already decomposed, which limits the amount of information that can be obtained. Finally, funding is limited, and varies by location and stranding network partner.
Who are NOAA Fisheries’ marine mammal stranding network partners?
Our marine mammal stranding network partners in New England and the Mid-Atlantic include:
- Allied Whale (Maine)
- Marine Mammals of Maine (Maine)
- Seacoast Science Center (New Hampshire/North Shore Massachusetts)
- Whale and Dolphin Conservation (South Shore, Massachusetts)
- International Fund for Animal Welfare (Cape Cod, Massachusetts)
- Center for Coastal Studies (Cape Cod, Massachusetts)
- Marine Mammal Alliance Nantucket (Nantucket, Massachusetts)
- Wampanoag Tribe of Gay Head Aquinnah (Martha’s Vineyard, Massachusetts)
- Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management (Rhode Island)
- Mystic Aquarium (Connecticut/Rhode Island)
- New York Marine Rescue Center (New York)
- Atlantic Marine Conservation Society (New York)
- Marine Mammal Stranding Center (New Jersey)
- MERR Institute (Delaware)
- Maryland Department of Natural Resources (Maryland)
- National Aquarium (Maryland)
- Virginia Aquarium and Marine Science Center (Virginia)