Vineyard Wind:  Save the Whales … From Us

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A company planning to build 84 turbines off the coast of Martha’s Vineyard is asking experts to come up with ways to prevent ships at sea and the proposed wind farm from harming endangered right whales.

“Vineyard Wind is seeking technology firms or academic institutions to provide and operationalize enhanced acoustic monitoring systems that will detect the presence of Right Whales, and transmit information in real-time to project staff so that enhanced protections can be effectively implemented,” the company said in a press release Tuesday.

The information will help protect whales and help researchers learn more about them, the company said.

Supporters of wind farms say wind provides electricity in a clean manner that doesn’t present environmental problems associated with the so-called fossil fuels — oil, natural gas, and coal.

Opponents criticize the cost of government subsidies that make wind turbines financially possible as well as what they say are adverse effects on wildlife, including birds and whales.

The written statement from the company emphasizes the threat to whales from vessels, but implicitly acknowledges concerns some have about the proposed turbines.

“Vineyard Wind expects that the advanced acoustic detection systems provided through this initiative will allow the company, as well as neighboring wind project developers, to receive information about the presence and location of whales so as to ensure that vessel speed restrictions and other protective measures are effectively implemented,” the company said. “… Vessel strikes and fishing gear entanglement are widely reported as being the leading causes of Right Whale mortality.”

The company has pledged $3 million to what it calls a “Wind & Whales Fund” to try to protect whales “as the offshore wind industry develops along the East Coast,” the company said.

The company also says it won’t build turbines in the ocean during the winter and early spring months when whales are migrating north to Cape Cod, and will seek unspecified ways of reducing underwater noise during construction.

The waters off Martha’s Vineyard are in the route right whales take in the late winter and early spring when they migrate from the Caribbean north to the plankton-rich waters off Cape Cod, and then back south again in the late fall. Since whales rely heavily on acoustic communication, some biologists are concerned about whether wind turbines at sea may disrupt communication between whales and threaten their viability.

The coming together of wind farms and wildlife sometimes leads to tension between two left-of-center public policy goals:  moving America away from oil and natural gas consumption and protecting the environment and animals.

Vineyard Wind has sought and gotten an agreement with several environmental groups, including the Conservation Law Foundation, the Natural Resources Defense Council, and the National Wildlife Foundation, according to the company.

“For offshore wind power to rise to its full potential as a massive source of clean energy and jobs for America, we need leadership and innovative solutions to ensure that all projects are developed responsibly with strong protections in place for the critically endangered North Atlantic right whale,” said Catherine Bowes, director of the Offshore Wind Energy Program at the National Wildlife Federation, according to the Vineyard Wind press release Tuesday, May 21. “We’re very excited about the precedent-setting commitments that Vineyard Wind has made to protect right whales, and look forward to continuing our work together on this and other initiatives needed to advance responsibly developed offshore wind projects in the Atlantic.”

Right whales are considered a critically endangered species. Scientists estimate the population at 410.

Stellwagen Bank, which extends from north of the northern tip of Cape Cod to the waters off Cape Ann, is considered one of the best whale-watching areas in the world.

The company plans to build the turbines about 15 miles south of Martha’s Vineyard. The company says it is on target to begin construction this year and finish in 2021.

Map displayed on the company web site of Vineyard Wind, a company planning to build turbines in the ocean south of Martha’s Vineyard.