The North Atlantic right whale is among the most endangered species in the world, having been hunted to near-extinction over a century ago. Fewer than 350 remain in the wild. While whaling is thankfully no longer a concern, the big-mouthed beauties now face a new threat: the offshore wind industry.
Reaching the Biden administration’s goal of developing 30 gigawatts of offshore wind by 2030 will require a huge uptick in boat traffic and infrastructure being built. Yet at the same time, North Atlantic right whales are in the midst of an “unusual mortality event,” which the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration largely attributes to “rope entanglements or vessel strikes.” Underwater noise pollution is also a major concern due to the damage it can do to whales' hearing and behavior. That could put the whales and other wildlife at risk if the wind industry doesn't take proactive measures.
The need to monitor right whales as well as other wildlife that calls the areas around offshore wind farms home has already spawned the development of new climate tech. For instance, offshore wind developer Vineyard Wind and startup incubator Greentown Labs launched an accelerator program for three companies developing the tech to protect whales and other marine animals. The startups’ techniques to save the whales include aerial drone systems for sea inspection and night-vision cameras that can be customized to work on offshore turbines.
The federal government is getting in on the act, too. The Department of Energy (and the state of Maryland) has funded marine mammal research group SMRU Consulting's work on a “coastal acoustic buoy for offshore wind." The buoys can detect the high-frequency calls of the right whales to pinpoint their location. That could allow a developer to stop or minimize noisy pile driving used to install turbines in the seabed.
To protect the whales from further harm, NOAA and the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management jointly released a strategy on how to balance the competing priorities of conservation and renewable energy development. It’s so far just a draft that amounts to little more than saying, “let’s research and be in touch about how much of a risk offshore wind is to these endangered animals.” But its very existence highlights that this balance should be top of mind for both the public and private sector.
Whether the tech and federal efforts will be enough to keep whale populations from dropping even further as construction picks up, however, remains to be seen.
A version of this story appeared in Protocol’s Climate newsletter. Sign up here to get it in your inbox twice a week.