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RI Coastal Resources Management Council

...to preserve, protect, develop, and restore coastal resources for all Rhode Islanders

Regarding the recently-discovered whale carcass in Jamestown (June 23, 2017)

Regarding the recent discovery of a young humpback whale carcass that washed ashore June 23 in Jamestown, and the suggestion by local newspapers that the death might have been caused by the Block Island Wind Farm:

According to information compiled by the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM), there has been no scientific evidence collected to-date of any whales being injured or stranded due to offshore wind activities. Observed data collected shows that the operation sounds from offshore wind turbines generate sounds that are relatively low (approximately 134 decibels at the Block Island WF site) when compared with other sounds. For comparison, rainstorms range in the 100-120 decibel level, and fishing vessels create sounds that range from 150 to 190 decibels.

Baleen whales do not use sonar to navigate or feed, and are classified as low-frequency (10 Hz to 31 kHz) vocalizers, and generally produce grunts, moans and pulse trains to communicate. The operational underwater noise measured at the Block Island Wind Farm can possibly be heard by whales over short distances, but is expected to not be heard beyond a few hundred meters from the foundation.

Scientific literature based on data collected in the United Kingdom states that “underwater noise from operation wind facilities is not considered significant.”

BOEM said it plans to continue to monitor and assess potential impacts related to the construction and operation of wind farms on marine life, specifically whales, through the Environmental Studies Program and data collected from lessees and state and federal partners.

Response from URI/Ocean SAMP scientists regarding the dead whale:

July 10, 2017

TO: Editor/Christian Winthrop/Newport Buzz

RE: Response Letter to June 24, 2017 online entry: “Block Island Wind Farm May Have Killed Young Humpback Whale”

Response Letter: To the Editor:

In response to the June 24, 2017 piece, “Block Island Wind Farm May Have Killed Young Humpback Whale,” several of us, researchers at the University of Rhode Island (URI), feel it is important to explain from a scientific view why it is highly unlikely the whale’s death had anything at all to do with a turbine from the Block Island Wind Farm. Since 2007, when we undertook significant studies, through the rigorous Rhode Island Ocean Special Area Management Plan (Ocean SAMP) process, to understand how wind farms could impact ocean animals, including whales, we have learned a great deal about what does, and doesn’t, pose threats to them. This information has been widely shared through the years, and we’re pleased to share it once more. Here are some key facts, from both biological science and acoustical science perspectives – both integral to understanding how human technology interacts with marine animals – and we’re sharing several peer‐reviewed, academic papers at the end of this, should people want to read more extensively:

  1. Low Wind Farm Noise: The noise from the Block Island Wind Farm wind turbines has been measured at about 100 underwater decibels (dB) at a range of about 50 meters. This is very low and only detectable when ships are not nearby and when the wind is not too strong.
  2. Construction is Long Past: Pile driving occurred in August, September and October of 2015 for the wind farm and is almost certainly not the cause of the recent strandings of humpback whales.
  3. Whales Themselves are Louder than Turbines: The source levels of social calls of humpback whales have been measured to be 123 to 183 underwater dB at 1 meter. Scientists have measured fin whale vocalizations near the Block Island Wind Farm at more than 140 underwater dB at a range of 500 meters and this agrees with published work that shows the source level of fin whales to be more than 180 underwater dB.

Much of the information in the June 24 article is wrong or inaccurate; we do not find it helpful to reemphasize these inaccuracies, but it’s worth noting a few general, widely known points useful for the public. For example, neither Humpback nor Minke whales use echolocation (sonar) at all, and Minkes do not live in “families” and are, essentially, not social. Also, the humpback Unusual Mortality Event (UME) started over a year ago, so this should have specified “since January 2016,” rather than compressing the mortalities from 18 months to 6 and tripling the apparent rate. And finally, the average number of humpback strandings per year before this death or UME, and before there were any wind turbines in operation along the East Coast, was about 11.

We welcome any questions people may have, and are pleased to provide these resources, some of the key data for the facts above, for anyone to read:

  1. Dunlop, R., D. Cato, M. Noad and D. Stokes, "Source levels of social sounds in migrating humpback whales (Megaptera novaeangliae)," J. Acoust. Soc. Am. 134, 706 (2013); doi: http://dx.doi.org/10.1121/1.4807828.
  2. Giard, J., J. H. Miller, G. R. Potty, A., Newhall, Y.T. Lin, and M. F. Baumgartner, "Analysis of fin whale vocalizations south of Rhode Island," J. Acoust. Soc. Am. 141, 3941 (2017); doi: http://dx.doi.org/10.1121/1.4988927 (poster presented at the 173rd Meeting of the Acoustical Society of America and the 8th Forum Acusticum, June 2017)
  3. Miller, J. H., G. R. Potty, Y. T. Lin, A. Newhall, K. J. Vigness‐Raposa, J. Giard, T. Mason, "Overview of underwater acoustic and seismic measurements of the construction and operation of the Block Island Wind Farm," J. Acoust. Soc. Am. 141, 3993 (2017); doi: http://dx.doi.org/10.1121/1.4989144 (paper presented at the 173rd Meeting of the Acoustical Society of America and the 8th Forum Acusticum, June 2017)
  4. 2016‐2017 Humpback Whale Unusual Mortality Event along the Atlantic Coast: http://www.nmfs.noaa.gov/pr/health/mmume/2017humpbackatlanticume.html

Thank you for sharing this information with your readers – it’s important that people care for ocean animals and other issues, but they need the best available science in order to do so.

Sincerely,
Bob Kenney, Ph.D, Emeritus Marine Research Scientist, URI Graduate School of Oceanography (rkenney@uri.edu)
Jim Miller, Sc.D, Professor of Ocean Engineering and Oceanography, University of Rhode Island (miller@uri.edu)

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