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Why are whales dying in New Jersey?

The east coast of the United States has seen the number of annual whale deaths double since 2016, sparking concern that it is part of a wider trend.

Humpback whales suffer ‘unusual mortality event’

Earlier this month a 20-foot humpback whale was found washed up on a beach in Brigantine, New Jersey. Astonishingly, it was the ninth whale to drift ashore in just six weeks.

However while the past month and a half has seen a concentration of incidents like this, the phenomenon is not a new one. In 2016 the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) declared that humpback wales on the east coast of the United States were undergoing an ‘unusual mortality event’.

From 2016 onwards the number of whale deaths in the region has doubled from previous average levels. This trend continued in the following years.

Increased shipping activity threatens whale numbers

In the period since the NOAA first identified a high mortality rate there have been 178 recorded incidents of humpback whales dying on the east coast. There has been a similar increase in the number of other whale species dying in the North Atlantic region.

Researchers have been able to perform an autopsy on roughly half of those reported dead; finding that 40% of those examined appeared to have been hit by a vessels or become caught in fishing equipment. This trend was also identified in the more recent cases.

The most likely explanation appears to be that the rise in shipping vessels, combined with water temperature increases, have placed whales in a more vulnerable position. Warming waters in the Atlantic have pushed fish into different areas and often into shallower waters. As apex predators, the whales have followed. Once in the shallower waters, the expansion of shipping routes and fishing activities has made the risk of collision greater than ever.

“We’ve seen this reported at the Jersey Shore—a lot more whales later in the season,” said Environment New Jersey director Doug O’Malley. “That’s good for whale watching, but not good for reducing mortality from ship strikes.”

Links to offshore wind farm construction dismissed

Controversial Fox News host Tucker Carlson claimed on his nightly show that the deaths were a consequence of a major proposed offshore windfarm just off the coast of New Jersey. In response a number of federal, state and local GOP lawmakers have called for the project to be suspended, but scientists have dismissed the claims.

Benjamin Laws, deputy chief for the NOAA’s permits and conservation division, explained: “There are no known connections between any of these offshore wind activities and any whale strandings, regardless of species.”

Throughout the research stage of the offshore windfarm project engineers have avoided using any sonar equipment that could potentially interfere with marine life.

“There is no information that would support any suggestion that any of the equipment that’s being used in support of wind development for the site characterization surveys could directly lead to the death of a whale,” Laws added.