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?
There are different populations of humpback whales around the world, some of which are listed as “threatened” or “endangered” under the Endangered Species Act. The population of humpback whales in the North Atlantic (also known as the West Indies Distinct Population Segment) is not listed as threatened or endangered. 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 is a science agency, and like our marine mammal stranding network partners, we value marine life and strive to conserve these species. We are dedicated to minimizing risks to protected resources, habitats, and managed fisheries throughout the life cycle of offshore wind energy projects. The agency is responsible for several regulatory processes that help reduce impacts to marine animals and their habitats from human activities, including during offshore wind development.
Is U.S. offshore wind development linked to any whale deaths?
At NOAA Fisheries, 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 evidence to support speculation that noise resulting from wind development-related site characterization surveys could potentially cause mortality of whales, and no specific links between recent large whale mortalities and currently ongoing 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.
Media call on East Coast whale strandings: January 18, 2023
Does NOAA Fisheries authorize the death of whales as it relates to offshore wind development?
No, NOAA Fisheries 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 any offshore wind activities.
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 evidence that noise resulting from wind development-related site characterization surveys could potentially cause mortality of whales, and no specific links between recent large whale mortalities and currently ongoing surveys. These are geological and geophysical surveys conducted by wind energy developers. We will continue to gather data to help us determine the cause of death for these mortality events.
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 that stranded since 2016. As of February 8, 2023, there are 181 humpback whale mortalities included in the UME. Partial or full necropsy examinations were conducted on approximately half of the whales. Of the 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.
Why is there currently a 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 are reportedly close to shore this winter. These prey also attract fish that are of interest to recreational and commercial fishermen. This 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 (less than 10 knots) 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 endangered North Atlantic right whales.
Is climate change a factor in the number of whales we’re seeing close to shore?
We know that our climate is changing, and one of those key changes is the warming of our oceans. In response to this, we are seeing populations of many marine species adapting by moving into new areas where conditions are 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. Work is ongoing to investigate 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 experiencing the shift, to affect entire ecosystems, as well as fisheries interactions, and coastal economies.
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 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.
Additional Information on Harassment Authorizations
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, which has the potential to injure a marine mammal or marine mammal stock in the wild (i.e. non-serious injury)
- Level B Harassment, which 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 which does not have the potential to injure a marine mammal or marine mammal stock in the wild (i.e. behavioral disturbance).
How do I find more information about marine mammal incidental harassment authorizations?
Our website lists all active and in-progress incidental take authorizations, including those related to offshore wind. There are 12 active IHAs authorizing the take, by Level B (i.e. behavioral) harassment only, of marine mammals incidental to offshore wind site characterization surveys in the Atlantic Ocean from southern New England to the Carolinas.
General information about the MMPA take authorization process
There are two active IHAs 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. NOAA Fisheries carefully considers possible impacts to marine mammal species. These details and mitigations are included in the relevant documents for each active IHA.
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, each carcass was documented with photos, measurements, and an external examination. Since the cause of death is not always clear at first examination, biologists took samples from these whales, and will work with laboratory partners to review them in the coming months. Decomposition can limit our ability to determine a definitive cause of death.
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)
Explore frequently asked questions about necropsies
How can NOAA Fisheries determine if a whale death was related to or caused by offshore wind activity and the survey work that has been underway or other causes? 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, and/or 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 in stranded cetaceans, 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 generally microscopic changes in the ears are no longer detectable.
NOAA Fisheries will be looking 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 permits and authorizations, we also require mitigation measures to avoid and minimize impacts from offshore wind development.
Finally, 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.
- NOAA Fisheries Media Call on East Coast Whale Strandings: January 18, 2023
- NOAA's Role in Offshore Wind Energy Development
- Humpback Whale Unusual Mortality Event Frequent Questions
- BOEM Offshore Wind Activities and Marine Mammal Protection Fact Sheet
- Frequent Questions—Necropsies (Animal Autopsies) of Marine Mammals