A juvenile female North Atlantic right whale was found dead Sunday near the Joseph Sylvia State Beach in Edgartown on Martha's Vineyard. The death of the young whale marked yet another significant blow to the critically endangered species - which has an estimated population of fewer than 350 individuals remaining - and reignited the debate over whether the construction of the nearby Vineyard Wind offshore wind turbine farm has created a new threat to the marine mammals.
The authorities that responded to the beached whale on Sunday - including NOAA Fisheries, the International Fund for Animal Welfare, and the Environmental Police - stated that it appeared the juvenile female had been suffering from a rope entanglement around its tail. A formal necropsy (an animal autopsy) will be performed when weather conditions improve by members of the National Marine Mammal Stranding Response Network.
"Preliminary observations indicate the presence of rope entangled near the whale's tale (around the peduncle)," said Andrew Gomez, a communications specialist and public affairs officer for NOAA Fisheries.
On Tuesday, the federal agency released additional, close-up photos of the right whale along with a formal statement that read: "Some of the rope that was entangled around, and embedded in the whale's tail was collected on January 28 by state law enforcement officials. They turned it over to NOAA's Office of Law Enforcement. The rope will now be examined by gear experts."
Despite those statements and photos, some on the Vineyard questioned the official account provided by authorities.
Martha's Vineyard resident Nisa Counter, who was among the first to spot the whale and posted a video of it on Instagram, stated "If there is photo evidence of entanglement show me. These are the 'officials' ratchet straps around her tail dragging her up on the beach. Her flesh is rotting and her tail is being pulled off by them. I took this video and saw with my own eyes. Zero evidence of entanglement anywhere on her or on the beach."
NOAA maintains that vessel strikes and entanglement in fishing gear are the greatest human threats to large whales, and stated: "At this point, there is no scientific evidence that noise resulting from offshore wind site characterization surveys could potentially cause mortality of whales. There are no known links between recent large whale mortalities and ongoing offshore wind surveys. We will continue to gather data to help us determine the cause of death for these mortality events. We will also continue to explore how sound, vessel, and other human activities in the marine environment impact whales and other marine mammals."
But numerous citizen groups and commercial fishing interests are not convinced, including the Nantucket-based group ACK For Whales - formerly known as Nantucket Residents Against Turbines - which is suing to stop Vineyard Wind. Last September it filed an appeal with the First Circuit of the U.S. Court of Appeals seeking to overturn the May 2023 decision of U.S. District Court judge Indira Talwani, who dismissed the group's original complaint.
ACK For Whales believes that the federal agencies involved in permitting the Vineyard Wind project - including the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and the National Marine Fisheries Service - failed to properly consider the impacts Vineyard Wind could have on endangered North Atlantic right whales.