After a winter of national attention paid to the number of whales washing up dead on New Jersey beaches, the state Department of Environmental Protection issued a detailed statement on the issue Wednesday.
In it, DEP officials reiterated federal assertions that work on wind power projects has not hurt any whales, or at least that there is no reason to believe it has.
"As of March 2023, no offshore wind-related construction activities have taken place in waters off the New Jersey coast, and DEP is aware of no credible evidence that offshore wind-related survey activities could cause whale mortality," the statement reads. "While DEP has no reason to conclude that whale mortality is attributable to offshore wind-related activities, DEP will continue to monitor."
The statement seems unlikely to convince critics of offshore wind plans. Officials in multiple communities along the coast have called for a moratorium on all offshore work related to wind power projects, and opposition to the projects appears to be growing.
On Wednesday evening, Ocean City and Cape May County were set to host a meeting on offshore energy plans, including information on ways the local governments opposed plans to run a power line across their jurisdictions to bring power ashore. U.S. Rep. Jeff Van Drew, R-2nd, has a hearing planned in Wildwood on the matter Thursday afternoon.
Once a wind power proponent, Van Drew has become increasingly critical of the proposed projects, the first of which is set to start construction soon 15 miles off beaches in his district.
Critics say wind power will mar views and cost energy consumers more, and blame the survey work undertaken in advance of construction on the whale deaths.
Officials with the DEP say there has been an unusual mortality event affecting humpback whales on the Atlantic Coast since January 2016, before the survey work began.
This year, the statement from DEP says, officials began hearing concerns that offshore wind development was responsible for the whale deaths.
Scientists with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration have said there is no evidence linking the work with the whale deaths.
On Wednesday, the DEP reiterated that message.
"All offshore wind survey activities have been permitted by NOAA Fisheries and the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM) and deemed safe for marine mammals, i.e., no injurious activities have been permitted for offshore wind developers," the statement reads.
Instead, the DEP sought to raise an alarm about rising ocean temperatures. The department says climate change caused by fossil fuel use will "continue to adversely impact marine mammals, including whales, their food sources, habitats, and migration patterns.
"Due to these changes in ocean temperature and water chemistry, populations of marine species - including menhaden, a key whale food source - adapt by moving into new areas where conditions are more favorable," the DEP statement reads. "Changes that draw prey fish landward similarly increase the risk that these fish and their predators, including whales, may be drawn into conflict with human activities, such as vessel strikes that may increase whale mortality."
The DEP said it expects all entities operating in coastal waters, including those working on offshore wind projects, "to pursue development objectives responsibly, including assessing potential environmental impacts and avoiding, minimizing, and mitigating likely adverse effects upon natural resources, including marine mammals and their habitats."
The statement also said the Offshore Wind Research & Monitoring Initiative, a collaborative effort of the DEP and state Board of Public Utilities, has authorized $8.5 million for scientific efforts to ensure the safe and ecologically responsible development of offshore wind energy.
"As part of the BPU's second wind energy solicitation, Atlantic Shores Offshore Wind, LLC, and Ocean Wind II, LLC committed $10,000 per megawatt of project-nameplate capacity awarded - a total of about $26 million - to fund regional research and ecological monitoring of the environmental impacts of offshore wind," the DEP statement reads. "The projects are being implemented by a variety of academic and research entities and include work to evaluate and minimize impacts to a variety of marine wildlife, including whales."
Both President Joe Biden and Gov. Phil Murphy are proponents of wind power, describing it as an important part of an overall move toward renewable energy. Both have supported expanding offshore wind, even before construction of the first major project begins off the New Jersey coast.
The DEP statement comes the day before Van Drew's planned hearing on offshore wind power, set for 2 p.m. Thursday at the Wildwoods Convention Center at 4501 Boardwalk.
"They must prove that the development of these projects will have no effect on the environment, which is hard to believe following the death of over a dozen whales in the Northeast region where surveying is currently taking place," Van Drew said.
Contact Bill Barlow:firstname.lastname@example.orgTwitter @jerseynews_bill