What is causing the sudden uptick in marine mammal death along the east coast?
23 dead whales have washed up along the east coast this winter including 12 in New York and New Jersey. This quantity of Whale death is extremely abnormal. So what's causing it? The answer is, we simply don't know. These whale deaths are extremely devastating to our ecosystem and researchers rush to find out the cause and find a way to prevent the deaths. Although the cause isn't known for certain there certainly are a few theories.
Offshore Wind Farms
In recent years several massive offshore wind turbine farms have been built off the east coast, including one by block island new york. So how could offshore wind turbines be causing whale deaths? Well the theory of how offshore wind turbines could be killing Marine mammals isn't about the turbines themselves but how they are built and maintained. When constructing the turbines large boats survey the area using strong sonar to search the bottom for a good place to build the turbine. This Sonar is also used when maintaining the turbines as well, since it is impossible to see the base of the turbines, the Sonar is used as eyes for the workers checking to make sure everything underneath is in good condition. The reason this could potentially be causing problems is because sonar is also what whales use to communicate with one another and hunt for food. So is the strong sonar confusing whales and causing them to beach? It is possible, but there is a strong counter argument against this theory. The only whales that use sonar are baleen whales, whales with large mouths with bristle-like teeth called baleen. Some Baleen whales include Humbacks, RIght whales and Minke whales. But baleen whales aren't the only whales whose number of beachings have increased this year. Toothed whales have also seen an uptick in beachings, 3 sperm whales and several dolphins have also been found beached on the east coast this winter. So if toothed whales don't use sonar how could wind farms be the cause? It is important to remember that this is only a theory. Many people on social media claim that this is a fact but it is not. So far through their research scientists have found no correlation between offshore wind farm surveying and marine mammal beachings.
Another theory is that Global warming is to blame. Up and down the east coast states have seen record warm temperatures this winter. In New York the average temperature in January 2023 was 43.5 degrees fahrenheit. So how could these high temperatures be to blame? Whales eat a variety of bait fish such as Menhaden, sandeels and herring. Because fish are cold blooded they are very sensitive to changes in water temperature. So it is possible that warm temperatures this winter may have caused changes in bait fish migration patterns or large bait fish die offs. This would lead to a shortage of food for many of the marine mammals potentially causing them to starve. The reason this theory fits the bill a little better than the wind farm theory is because it includes both Toothed and baleen whales. Since Baleen and toothed whales often share the same prey items it would explain why we saw Baleen and Toothed whale deaths. This theory has also not been confirmed by scientists and is only a potential scenario for what is causing the Marine mammal deaths.
Boats strikes seem to be what most scientists are agreeing on is the most likely cause for the sudden surge in whale deaths. While this idea has been pushed by experts many people believe it is a coverup. Since there has been a large increase in boat traffic in recent years it does make sense. Governments have even proposed certain restrictions of speed in certain areas at certain times of the year to prevent boat strikes. Commercial fisherman and charter boat captains are highly against this proposal as it hurts their business. Implementing Slow zones in certain areas will hurt commercial fishing business as it will take longer to get out and back from the fishing grounds which will subsequently cut into their fishing time. It has been estimated that whales die on the east coast alone every year. But are boat strikes to blame for the sudden rise in Marine Mammal deaths on the east coast this year? While there has been a rapid increase in boat traffic over recent years it wouldn't make sense that it would cause a sudden spike in deaths this year. As boat traffic steadily climbed it would only be logical to imagine the whale deaths should increase steadily as well, but this is not what has happened, instead there has been a sudden spike in deaths out of nowhere. Another main flaw in this theory is the fact that while some of the beached whales have had physical injuries most of them have not. Most whales that have been struck by boats have physical injuries such as gashes and prop marks, but the whales that have been washing up this year have appeared to be in fine physical condition for the most part.
While it is sad that these amazing creatures are dying and it is tempting to jump to conclusions and put the blame on something, there is no concrete evidence to support any of these theories. It is important to remember to keep an open mind and weigh evidence, and as of right now there is not enough evidence to make any of these theories a fact. There's still much research to be done and hopefully it won't be too long before we're able to find the root cause and we're able to help these majestic animals.