ATLANTIC CITY, NJ (AP) — Democratic U.S. senators from four states want federal environmental officials to deal with a spate of whale deaths on both coasts and are urging “transparency and timeliness” in releasing information about whale deaths and their causes.
The late Tuesday call from New Jersey Sens. Robert Menendez and Cory A. Booker; Connecticut Senator Richard Blumenthal, Oregon Senator Jeff Merkley and Rhode Island Senator Sheldon Whitehouse called for action from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. This was the first large-scale call for action by Democratic federal lawmakers on an issue that quickly became politicized.
So far, most Republican lawmakers have called for a pause or a complete halt to preparatory work on offshore wind farms, which they blame for the deaths of whales along the US East Coast since December.
But in their letter to a NOAA administrator, Democratic senators conspicuously did not blame – or even mention – offshore wind energy as a possible cause of death. Numerous federal agencies said there was no evidence linking the deaths of whales, many of which were determined to be caused by ship attacks or entanglements with fishing gear.
In a statement to The Associated Press on Wednesday, Booker said he wants the agency to protect whales and quickly report fatalities.
“To protect these animals, we must follow the facts and address the known, documented causes of death,” he said. “We know that NOAA’s preliminary findings have revealed evidence of a ship attack for many of the whales washed up along the Atlantic coast this year.”
Senators expressed particular concern over two deaths of endangered right whales in the North Atlantic, although most whale deaths have been in the more abundant humpback whale species.
“Without action, the[North Atlantic Right Whale]is likely to become extinct,” they wrote. “If we don’t act, other whale species will face the same fate.”
Lauren Gaches, a spokeswoman for NOAA, said as of Wednesday, 30 whale deaths have been recorded on the Atlantic Seaboard since December 1. There were 21 humpback whales; three sperm whales; three minke whales; two North Atlantic right whales and one sei whale.
Senators also expressed concern over gray whale deaths on the West Coast, where 298 of the animals have washed ashore since 2019. Some showed signs of emaciation, but NOAA said more investigation was needed.
NOAA has reported “unusual mortality events” involving whales on both coasts, including one on the east coast in 2016.
Gaches said the agency will work directly with Congress to address any concerns about the issue and the agency’s response to it.
The senators asked NOAA to explain in detail how it intends to address and prevent whale deaths; outline the agency’s procedures for notifying the public when the death of a whale is discovered and when the results of autopsy investigations are available; and list any challenges the agency faces in determining the causes of whale deaths and whether specific action by Congress or the administration might be helpful.
They noted that since 2008, NOAA has introduced ship speed regulations to reduce whale deaths caused by boat strikes, and that updated rules on the issue are due by June.
On March 16, four Republican congressmen held a hearing in Wildwood, New Jersey, to call for a pause on all offshore wind projects.
New Jersey Rep. Christopher Smith called for a pause on such work until the US Government Accountability Office can examine the “adequacy of environmental assessment procedures for offshore wind projects.” He was joined by Republican Jeff Van Drew of New Jersey, Andy Harris of Maryland; and Scott Perry of Pennsylvania, promising additional hearings and requests for information, claiming that federal agencies ignored concerns of one of their own scientists about the impact of wind farms on whales.
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