Renewable Energy

Conservation Groups, Offshore Wind Developer Reach Agreement to Safeguard Endangered Right Whales

This morning, together with our colleagues at National Wildlife Federation and Conservation Law Foundation, Natural Resources Defense Council announced an agreement with Deepwater Wind, a major offshore wind developer, to safeguard North Atlantic right whales during the initial phases of development off southern New England. The agreement provides more protection than the administration has required thus far, and right whales are very much in need of protection.

Photo credit: NRDC

Right whales got their name because they were deemed the “right whale” to hunt, and they were driven to near-extinction by whaling. It’s been almost eighty years since they were legally killed, but they remain critically endangered in the Atlantic. They haven’t recovered because of a number of other threats they face.

For one, right whales whales are highly vulnerable to collision with ships, as they often feed on copepods just below the water’s surface, where they can be struck but not seen. They also have a terrible history of entanglement in fishing gear. Underwater noise from shipping and industrial activity is a serious threat: it disrupts their behavior and is destroying their ability to communicate. And pollution is degrading their habitat. 

So it’s clear that we have to do more to protect right whales—to preserve them from extinction and give them a chance to recover.

The wind development areas off Rhode Island and Massachusetts are right whale habitat. Some whales migrate through these waters en route to their winter calving grounds off Florida, Georgia and South Carolina; and, while they primarily forage further north in the Gulf of Maine, they’re known to feed down below Cape Cod as well, particularly in late winter and early spring. Indeed, the largest right whale feeding aggregations ever seen have occurred in Rhode Island Sound—more than 100 animals, which is remarkable for this species.

In entering today’s agreement, we intend to protect right whales during the initial phases of wind farm development: during pile driving, which may be needed to install meteorological towers, and during sub-bottom profiling, a process that uses loud sound to survey areas just below the seafloor. Without effective mitigation, these activities could injure the whales through vessel collisions or noise exposure, or disrupt their migration or feeding. 

At the heart of the agreement is a traffic-light system of red, yellow and green periods. Pile-driving and sub-bottom profiling are prohibited during the red period, when right whales are most likely to be in the area; and additional mitigation applies during the yellow months, when right whales are less likely to occur. Additionally, some measures would run throughout the year, when the light is green but right whale occurrence remains a possibility. The agreement includes:

  • Restrictions on pile-driving and sub-bottom profiling during the winter and early spring months. We believe that separating these activities from the whales is the most effective way of reducing risk.
  • A 10-knot speed limit for all project vessels from Nov. 1 through May 15, to reduce risk of ship-strikes. The measure in our agreement goes beyond the government’s speed regulation, extending the speed limit across the entire development area and the transits ships make to get there, and applying it to all project vessels regardless of length. 
  • Use of the best commercially available technologies to reduce pile-driving noise during the yellow period. Noise-reduction and attenuation technologies have been developed in Europe, which is several years ahead of us in offshore wind production, and this measure begins to put them in use here.
  • Better surveillance to spot right whales, to reduce risk of injury and disruption of foraging from noise exposure. These monitoring measures include requirements for expert ship-based observers; restrictions on operations at night and in low-visibility conditions; and use of aerial surveillance and/or passive listening devices to detect whales during the yellow period. The government requires operators to temporarily halt operations when whales are discovered within a small safety radius; our agreement enlarges the size of this safety margin for some activities.

Today’s agreement will help conserve one of the most endangered marine mammal species off our shores.



15 Weird and Wonderful Facts About Whales

International Court Rules Japan's 'Research' Whaling Illegal in Landmark Case

Study Finds Proximity to Offshore Oil and Gas Drilling Rigs Threaten Humpback Whales


Show Comments ()

Those Little Produce Stickers? They’re a Big Waste Problem

By Dan Nosowitz

Those little produce stickers are ubiquitous fruits and vegetables everywhere. But, as CBC notes, they're actually a significant problem despite their small size.

Keep reading... Show less

Despite Trump’s Bluster, U.S. Officials and Scientists Maintain Climate Work with International Partners

Trump has loudly declared his intention to withdraw the U.S. from the Paris agreement, but, behind the tweets and the headlines, U.S. officials and scientists have carried on working with international partners to fight climate change, Reuters reported Wednesday.

Keep reading... Show less
Gina Loudon and administrator of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Scott Pruitt speaking at the 2017 Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) in National Harbor, Maryland. Gage Skidmore

EPA Sued Over Failure to Release Correspondence With Heartland Institute

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is being sued for its "unlawful and unreasonable delay" in responding to requests for information about the agency's communications with the Heartland Institute, according to a complaint by the Southern Environmental Law Center (SELC) and the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF).

The Heartland Institute is an Illinois-based think tank that rejects the science of man-made climate change and has received funding from the Koch brothers and the fossil fuel industry.

Keep reading... Show less
Trump Watch
Aerial photo of Duke Energy Coal Ash Spill. Wake Forest University Center for Energy, Environment & Sustainability

Trump Administration Seeks to Gut Water Pollution Safeguards, Putting Communities at Risk

By Mary Anne Hitt

A Hollywood scriptwriter couldn't make this up. One day after new data revealed widespread toxic water contamination near coal ash disposal sites, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) head Scott Pruitt announced a proposal to repeal the very 2015 EPA safeguards that had required this data to be tracked and released in the first place. Clean water is a basic human right that should never be treated as collateral damage on a corporate balance sheet, but that is exactly what is happening.

Keep reading... Show less
Impossible Foods

Impossible Burger Executive Grilled at Sustainable Foods Summit

An executive from a company selling a genetically engineered meat alternative faced tough questions at the Sustainable Foods Summit held in San Francisco at the end of January.

Keep reading... Show less
Elephant family in Kenya. Nzomo Victor / Flickr

Why Trump’s New Trophy Hunting Council Is a Disaster

By Elly Pepper

In early November—the same week the Trump administration announced its disastrous decision to allow elephant and lion trophy imports from Zimbabwe and Zambia—the administration decided to create an advisory committee, the International Wildlife Conservation Council (IWCC), to advise Trump on how to enhance trophy hunters' ability to hunt internationally.

Yup, that means the administration now has a council dedicated exclusively to promoting the killing of more imperiled species, like elephants and lions, for sport. The council's mandate includes counseling Trump on the economic, conservation, and anti-poaching benefits of trophy hunting, of which there are very few. Sadly, Trump doesn't want advice on the many drawbacks of trophy hunting.

Keep reading... Show less
A robot bee from a season three episode of Black Mirror on Netflix

Walmart Files Patent for Robot Bees

With the mass die-off of bees spelling trouble for agriculture, the world's largest retailer has filed patents for the use of "unmanned vehicles," or drones, to aid with pollination and crop production.

In U.S. Patent Office documents made public last week, Walmart has applied for six patents on drones designed to identify pest damage, spray pesticides and pollinate plants.

Keep reading... Show less
The iconic moai of Easter Island are threatened by erosion caused by rising seas. Aupaelfary / CC-BY-SA 3.0

Climate Change Threatens Easter Island

Easter Island has long served as a reminder of what happens to a civilization when the environment it depends upon collapses. Now, the iconic remains of that civilization are under threat from a new environmental challenge: global climate change.

Easter Island, Rapa Nui in Polynesian, is surrounded by statues called moai situated on top of ahu, or platforms. But according to an in-depth report for The New York Times published Thursday, the moai are now at risk from erosion caused by sea level rise.

Keep reading... Show less


The best of EcoWatch, right in your inbox. Sign up for our email newsletter!