TRENTON — Offshore wind power development runs the risk of devastating Cape May County’s tourism and fishing industries, each worth billions of dollars, Assemblyman Antwan McClellan said Thursday during a legislative committee hearing.
“Absolutely not,” responded Shawn LaTourette, commissioner of the state Department of Environmental Protection. “I don’t mean to interrupt you, but that’s false.”
The exchange came at what was described as a “science-based hearing” on marine mammal deaths, presented by the Assembly Science, Innovation and Technology Committee.
It was the latest in a flurry of attempts to discern what killed dozens of whales and other marine mammals over the winter, and how much, if any, of the blame belongs to the offshore wind industry.
None at all, at least as far as LaTourette was concerned. He cited changing behavior of humpback whales and other species as the warming ocean changes where the whales can find the small fish they live on, bringing them closer to shore and into shipping lanes.
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Additional speakers included Shelia Dean, director of the Marine Mammal Stranding Center in Brigantine, and Danielle Brown, who works with the center and is a doctoral student at Rutgers University.
In the waters off Cape May, things look much like they have in previous years, according to …
Dean said the center has responded to nine whale deaths in recent months, including three in which the crews could not get close to the whales, which remained in the water, and six in which necropsies were performed.
In some instances, Dean said, the animals showed evidence of being struck by a vessel. But she said the cause of death for each remains inconclusive, while the center awaits results from overloaded labs investigating samples taken from the animals.
There are few laboratories capable of doing the work, and whales died in multiple regions.
“We just have to wait. We’re waiting our turn patiently,” Dean said. “It could be many months before we know anything.”
Since the first whale washed up on an Upper Township beach in December, some critics of the wind energy projects proposed off the New Jersey coast have argued the sound waves used to map the ocean floor in advance of construction have contributed to whale deaths.
Those concerns quickly mounted as the deaths continued, with multiple whales and dolphins washing up in New York and New Jersey, including several incidents in Cape May and Atlantic counties.
VENTNOR — Standing next to a 30-square-foot sand drawing of a humpback whale and her calf, U…
Federal experts, and those who spoke at the committee hearing Thursday, say there is no evidence linking the deaths with offshore wind surveys.
LaTourette suggested that some of those who have been most vocal about protecting the whales have not appeared to have been much concerned with them in the past, but he said he welcomes everyone to the cause of protecting wildlife.
But he told the committee it is the environmental disruption of climate change that poses the greatest risk to marine life.
“We shouldn’t be distracted by misinformation. We should call out disinformation every time we see it,” LaTourette said.
He said the DEP evaluates all projects based on data, not on the political agenda of the current governor, in this case Gov. Phil Murphy, a Democrat who has made expanding wind energy a priority.
“To be clear, I’m not asking you to trust me. I’m asking you to trust the hundreds of scientists who work for you,” LaTourette said.
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McClellan, R-Cape May, Cumberland, Atlantic, questioned LaTourette and other experts about the potential impacts of both the survey work and the wind farms themselves, and asked about the potential harm from the wind turbines to migrating birds and other species.
Work is expected to begin this year on the first of a series of wind energy projects, with about 98 large turbines beginning 15 miles off the coast.
As proposed, the turbines would be visible from the beaches of McClellan’s hometown of Ocean City. In shore communities, officials and residents have criticized the wind power proposals, not only over a perceived impact on marine mammals, but also on the potential disruption of the local fishing industry and the possibility of harm to the summer tourist business that remains central to the local economy.
In a May 3 hearing, state Senate Republicans pushed for a moratorium on wind energy work offshore, with a slate of witnesses from the fishing industry and activists.
The chairman of the Assembly committee, Christopher Tully, D-Bergen, Passaic, said the focus of the Thursday hearing was on what hurt the whales.
“Like many of you, we’re upset about whales washing up on our shores and are seeking evidence today of what’s contributing to it,” Tully said.
He said the public should know the government is paying attention.
“But before acting, we must understand the problem,” Tully said.
Brown, who said she has participated in each of the whale necropsies, told the Assembly committee that the efforts require a sizable team to try to understand what may have killed an animal that can weigh 35 tons. She said it is a daylong process. Dean described the work as grueling and dangerous. Brown said many people who come to watch soon have to walk away.
In most cases, the whale has been dead for weeks and is badly decomposed.
“It’s a little bit gory,” she said.
Dean said the Marine Mammal Stranding Center does not accept funding from industry groups, including from the wind power industry, and that the organization’s financial details are public record. She said the center also shares the information it gathers from the whale deaths with supporters and the public.
SEASIDE PARK — A 30-foot humpback whale that washed ashore last week had bruising and injuri…
To assign blame for the deaths before the data is complete would be unfair, she said, stating that the stranding center approaches the investigations without bias.
“The death of an animal is a sad event, and it’s come too often recently,” Dean said.
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