Democratic US senators from 4 states ask NOAA over whale deaths

Democratic US senators from four states want federal environmental officials to address a wave of whale deaths on both coasts, calling for “transparency and timeliness” in releasing information about whale deaths and their causes.

a call from New Jersey Senators Robert Menendez and Cory Booker late Tuesday; Connecticut Sen. Richard Blumenthal, Oregon Sen. Jeff Merkley and Rhode Island Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse for action by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration marked the first large-scale demand for action by Democratic federal lawmakers on an issue that has quickly become politicized.

So far, mostly Republican lawmakers are calling for a halt or outright halt to preparatory work for an offshore wind farm they blame for whale deaths off the US East Coast since December.

But in a letter to the NOAA administrator, the Democratic senators did not explicitly blame — or even mention — offshore wind as a potential cause of death. Multiple federal agencies said there was no evidence linking it to the whale deaths, many of which were determined to be caused by ship strikes or entanglement with fishing gear.

In a statement to The Associated Press on Wednesday, Booker said he wants the agency to protect the whales and communicate quickly about any deaths.

“To protect these animals, we must follow the facts and address known, documented causes of death,” he said. “We know that NOAA’s preliminary findings for many whales washed ashore in the Atlantic Ocean show evidence of a ship strike.”

Senators expressed particular concern over the two deaths of endangered North Atlantic right whales, although most of the whale deaths involved the more numerous humpback species.

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“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 NOAA spokeswoman, said that as of Wednesday, 30 whale deaths had been reported along the Atlantic coast since Dec. 1. three sperm whales; three minke whales; Two North Atlantic right whales and one sei whale.

Senators also expressed concern about the death of gray whales on the West Coast, where 298 animals have washed ashore since 2019. Some have shown signs of fatigue, but NOAA said more research is needed.

NOAA has reported “unusual mortality events” involving whales on both coasts, including one on the East Coast dating back to 2016.

Gaches said the agency will work directly with Congress to address any concerns it may have about the issue and the agency’s response to it.

Senators asked NOAA to detail how it plans to prevent whale deaths; outline the agency’s procedures for notifying the public of the findings of whale deaths and when they are ready to be examined; and list any challenges the agency faces in determining the causes of whale deaths and whether specific actions by Congress or the administration could help.

They noted that since 2008, NOAA has been regulating vessel speeds to reduce the number of whale deaths caused by vessel strikes, and that updated regulations on the matter will be in place by June.

On March 16, four Republican congressmen held a hearing in Wildwood, New Jersey to call for a moratorium on all offshore wind projects.

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Representative Christopher Smith of New Jersey called for a halt to such work until the US Government Accountability Office investigates “the adequacy of environmental review processes for offshore wind projects.” He was joined by fellow New Jersey Republicans Jeff Van Drew, Andy Harris, Maryland; And Scott Perry, of Pennsylvania, is promising more hearings and demanding more information, saying federal agencies have ignored one of their own scientists’ concerns about the effects of wind farms on whales.

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