Protecting North Atlantic Right Whales During Offshore Wind Energy Development

north atlantic right whale

The North Atlantic right whale (Eubalaena glacialis) is one of the most endangered large whale species in the world. The population is currently in decline, with approximately 336 individuals left. They are found along the U.S. east coast, from New England to Florida, and their habitat overlaps with the heavily used coastal waters of the North Atlantic. These whales are also an integral part of Tribal communities’ history, culture and ancestry. Currently, human activities – such as entanglement in fishing gear and vessel strikes – are the greatest threats to the species’ recovery. Ocean noise and decreased prey abundance due to climate-driven changes in habitat are also contributing to the species decline. The loss of even one right whale a year may reduce the species’ ability to recover and reach a sustainable population.

Climate change is a significant global threat causing planet-wide physical, chemical and biological changes that substantially affect the world’s oceans, lands and atmosphere. Offshore wind is an abundant, efficient and clean alternative domestic energy resource with the potential to generate jobs and combat the effects of climate change. Offshore energy development and its associated activities, however, can also pose risks to North Atlantic right whales through increased risk of vessel strikes, noise, entanglement, and habitat changes that may reduce prey availability.

BOEM is the federal agency responsible for managing the development of offshore energy and mineral resources in an economically and environmentally responsible way. The Endangered Species Act of 1973 (16 U.S.C. § 1531) requires BOEM to ensure that its actions are not likely to jeopardize the continued existence of the species or result in the destruction or adverse modification of its critical habitat.

North Atlantic Right Whale and Offshore Wind Research and Monitoring Efforts

For the past 15 years, BOEM, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), the offshore wind industry and other partners and stakeholders have funded and supported numerous research efforts to better assess potential impacts of offshore wind development on protected species like the North Atlantic right whale. These studies help provide the best available science to inform BOEM’s policy decisions.

Research activities/topics include:

  • workshops
  • working groups
  • passive acoustic monitoring
  • vessel and aerial monitoring
  • photo identification
  • infrared camera and related technology studies
  • satellite, and unmanned aerial vehicle remote sensing
  • tagging and telemetry
  • oceanographic, ecological and prey studies
  • noise and quieting
  • stress and health modeling
  • habitat-based density modeling and analysis techniques and
  • risk assessments (including vessel strike, entanglement and population level risk assessment).

As the offshore wind industry continues to grow and as projects begin construction, BOEM will continue to work with NOAA Fisheries and other partners to evaluate existing strategies as well as further collect and apply newly available information to inform future decisions.

BOEM and NOAA Fisheries: North Atlantic Right Whale and Offshore Wind Strategy

In response to Executive Order 14008 (Tackling the Climate Crisis at Home and Abroad), the Departments of the Interior, Energy and Commerce established a national goal to deploy 30 gigawatts of offshore wind by 2030, while protecting biodiversity and promoting ocean co-use. BOEM and NOAA’s National Marine Fisheries Service (NOAA Fisheries) therefore share a commitment to protect and promote the recovery of North Atlantic right whales while responsibly developing offshore wind energy. The agencies are working to understand the effects of offshore wind development on North Atlantic right whales and the ecosystems on which they depend, and to develop strategies to avoid, minimize, and monitor offshore wind development impacts to the species. 

Final Atlantic Right Whale Strategy

As part of these efforts, BOEM and NOAA Fisheries recently finalized a joint North Atlantic Right Whale and Offshore Wind Strategy to protect and promote the recovery of this endangered species while responsibly developing offshore wind energy.  The strategy identifies the agencies’ goals and key actions to continue to evaluate and the potential effects of offshore wind energy development on North Atlantic right whales and their habitat. It also builds on existing mitigation measures to protect North Atlantic right whales from potential impacts of offshore wind development. The agencies incorporated the best available scientific information and Tribal and public feedback in the strategy. The joint strategy will be evaluated and updated as new information – such as further development and refinement of mitigation and monitoring measures – becomes available.  

BOEM and NOAA Fisheries are also working with partners to develop a regional passive acoustic monitoring (PAM) network to identify the larger scale movements and distribution of North Atlantic right whales, and other marine mammals. In addition, real-time PAM systems have been proposed to be deployed to detect whales in the vicinity of construction operations and prompt site-specific mitigation measures designed to reduce the impacts of offshore wind energy projects on North Atlantic right whales and other marine species. BOEM is also working with NOAA Fisheries on a Federal Survey Mitigation Implementation Strategy that will describe steps to limit the impact of offshore wind energy development on NOAA Fisheries survey activities, including those focused on monitoring North Atlantic right whales. 

These efforts align with the 2022 interagency memorandum between BOEM and NOAA that will leverage the responsibilities, expertise and relationships of both agencies in support of the Biden-Harris administration’s offshore wind energy goals while protecting biodiversity and promoting cooperative ocean use. 

BOEM Partnerships with States and Others

BOEM is also collaborating on several other research initiatives related to the North Atlantic right whale and offshore wind energy development. For more than seven years, BOEM has partnered with the Massachusetts Clean Energy Center (MassCEC) on North Atlantic right whale aerial surveys around and within the designated Wind Energy Areas offshore Massachusetts and Rhode Island.

In response to stakeholder requests, BOEM, MassCEC, and other state, federal and private funders recently agreed to help fund one additional year of targeted aerial surveys to augment the existing survey series. Throughout 2022, when researchers observe groupings of North Atlantic right whales during aerial surveys, they will also conduct separate focused and directed surveys on the identified aggregations to improve BOEM’s understanding of the whales’ behavior.

The funding extension will allow time for regional partnerships to address this long-term data need and reinforces BOEM’s commitment to collaborate with the Regional Wildlife Science Collaborative on the development of the best path forward for North Atlantic right whale research. This current survey effort includes funding from the Connecticut Department of Energy and Environmental Protection and the Maine Community Foundation. Discussions are ongoing for further funding from the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority. State funding for the surveys has been facilitated by the Regional Wildlife Science Collaborative.