Offshore Wind and Whales: The Next Nationwide Misinformation Battle

In New Jersey, Republicans have found an unlikely cause to champion — whale conservation. Amidst recent reports of whale deaths along NJ’s coast, Republican legislators have pushed a narrative that places the blame on offshore wind development, calling for a moratorium on construction to protect vulnerable whale populations. In their justifications, they allege that Gov. Phil Murphy’s administration is pushing the projects forward without the proper environmental impact studies and claim that no investigations into whale deaths are being done.

If you live in New Jersey, this rhetoric has been inescapable as of late. Legislators have discussed it in town halls, protests have occurred across the state, and everyone headed down the shore for the summer is met with countless signs promoting the alleged connection. The issue has been widely debated in the media, spotlighted by sources from to Tucker Carlson Tonight. It’s also been repeatedly espoused online, with articles shared across Facebook and Instagram. Months of non-stop coverage has convinced countless NJ residents that this theory has merit. Even Snooki, a reality TV icon practically synonymous with the Jersey Shore in the American lexicon, has weighed in, asking Gov. Murphy to “stop killing the whales and dolphins.” While this support of marine life on both sides of the aisle may seem positive on the surface, there’s one small problem with this widely spread theory — there is absolutely no evidence supporting the allegations, and plenty of studies soundly refute them. Despite the lack of evidence, the misinformation has continued to spread, turning many Jersey residents against the developing offshore wind industry and the legislators that support it.

In New Jersey,, offshore wind development is a key driver of Gov. Phil Murphy’s plan to convert NJ into a 100% green energy state by 2035. In pursuit of this agenda, the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM), in partnership with NJDEP, has greenlit offshore leases for wind farms along New Jersey’s coasts. Three are in the development stage, with four more projects awaiting federal and state approval With this increase in offshore wind capacity, NJ wind farms are projected to produce 11,000 megawatts of electricity by 2040. This would enable the state to power 3.2 million homes with renewable energy, supporting up to 94.1% of the state’s 3.4 million households With such a leap forward, the state would be producing 30% of the total offshore wind energy on the East Coast, solidifying New Jersey as a leader in renewable energy and contributing to climate change mitigation efforts.

The benefits from offshore wind development are projected to extend from climate change mitigation to New Jersey’s economy. With the three current projects, Ocean Wind 1, Ocean Wind 2, and Atlantic Shores, the state economy is expected to benefit from $4.7 billion in investments. As the industry continues to grow over the next 15 years, the NJEDA anticipates the creation of over 20,000 new jobs across the supply chain, many of which will be union affiliated. The Atlantic Shores project signed a 2021 agreement with six unions operating in NJ to train and hire a local union workforce for the project. Similarly, in 2022, Ørstead, which is behind both Ocean Wind projects, signed a project labor agreement with North America’s Building Trades Union, committing to training and employing a union workforce. Additionally, to provide employment opportunities to NJ residents, Ørstead has partnered with Rowan College of South Jersey to train residents to become wind turbine technicians and with the New Jersey Institute of Technology to provide scholarships and career opportunities for NJIT students pursuing degrees related to Ørstead’s operations.

Despite clear benefits across the environmental and economic sectors, since the projects’ announcements, Republican legislators have been vocally opposed to New Jersey’s offshore wind development. This misinformed conspiracy is just the latest in a series of arguments against offshore wind development, more concerned with fueling opposition to current projects than effective advocacy for the wildlife they claim to value. However, neither the clear bias of NJ Republicans nor the complete lack of evidence has prevented the conspiracy’s spread. The success of this campaign, especially when considering New Jersey’s history as a Democratic stronghold, is indicative of the threat such misinformation poses.

Without fact-checking, the theory seems sound. It’s true that, like all other ocean-based industries, offshore wind energy can have an impact on the health and habits of marine life. If projects are pursued without extensive environmental impact studies, they can result in noise pollution and disrupt nearby marine life. And it’s also true that in New Jersey, there have been 64 whale deaths from 2016 to 2023. But they facts are totally unrelated to any environmental impact or disruption from wind power development. Instead, in order to fuel their agenda, New Jersey Republicans have simply fabricated an association between these true, but separate statements, falsely claiming that they are connected. They’ve used this fabrication to allege misconduct from Gov. Murphy’s administration and a lack of comprehensive investigation from NJDEP, NOAA, and BOEM into the supposed connection. While this conclusion is understandable at first, when breaking down the theory it soon becomes clear that there is no merit to these claims.

The core of the theory is that the noise pollution and sonar tools utilized to develop wind farms are contributing to whale deaths. In the past, sonar utilized in shipping activities, oil and gas production surveys, and naval operations has led to increased whale deaths on nearby coastlines. However, New Jersey wind energy projects are prohibited from using levels of sonar that could be fatal to marine life. This means that wind farm development produces low-amplitude sound, which is harmless to whales.[Additionally, reflecting guidelines from NOAA-BOEM, all projects utilize Passive Acoustic Monitoring systems and NOAA-approved third-party observers []. This ensures constant mapping of nearby marine mammals. With these tools, developers know when to pause production to avoid any potential interactions with nearby marine life. This means that claims of sonar as the primary cause of whale deaths are impossible since the risk mitigation efforts have ensured that sonar poses no fatal threat to the whales or their movement.

The next aspect of this theory concerns the number and causes of whale deaths in New Jersey. 64 deaths over eight years may seem like an unusually high number to many. However, to marine scientists, these figures are consistent with trends from the prior decade, with no marked increase in New Jersey strandings The claims that the causes behind the deaths are unknown are also false and ignore the extensive data collected on stranded whales by the NJ Marine Mammal Stranding Center (MMSC). The MMSC performs necropsies on each stranded whale, which, barring decomposition or conflicting indicators, enables scientists to determine the cause of death. Consistent with trends across the nation, the two primary causes of death in whales are collisions with large vessels and entanglement in fishing gear, both industries that are present in New Jersey. There has been no evidence found linking offshore wind development with whale mortality.

With all evidence directly contradicting the moratorium justification, NOAA, BOEM, NJDEP, and the U.S. Marine Mammal Commission have all refuted the conspiracy’s claims. They’ve instead pointed to countless studies done across the private, public, and academic sectors, all of which clash with the claims that New Jersey Republicans are making about the relationship between wind and whales. Despite this, the debate has raged on. The continued prominence of this conspiracy poses a legitimate threat to offshore wind that extends far beyond the Garden State. Concerns inspired by this conspiracy have been expressed with regard to potential development areas in California and Oregon [If this conspiracy continues, this misinformation will soon become synonymous with offshore wind development in the public’s eye.

This could slow the offshore wind industry at a time when federal investments through the Inflation Reduction Act and the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law have cultivated conditions to facilitate rapid growth. If successful, the Biden Administration’s investments would make renewable energy an accessible resource rather than an abstract strategy [However, without targeted efforts to educate the public on the impact of offshore wind and mitigate the effects of misinformation, this growth is going to be hindered. Other government officials should take steps to avoid making the same mistakes as NJ officials and ensure that they provide information that combats offshore wind misinformation from the beginning of development efforts.

As government officials release information on the economic growth and energy these projects are projected to create, they must promote the environmental impact report as well. The success of the conspiracy lies in the misinterpretation of scientific reports, the majority of which use industry-specific academic jargon. Therefore, the language utilized in announcements and resources must be straightforward and accessible. Data surrounding whale strandings should be contextualized in historical figures and the work of organizations like the MMSC should be included to combat sensationalized stories surrounding marine mammal deaths. The resources refuting misinformation should be readily available, from official websites to government agency social media pages. By taking proper precautions, government officials can ensure that the spread of misinformation is mitigated from the start of development. This would create an environment that enables the offshore wind industry to grow and meet the demand for renewable energy across the United States without being threatened by unchecked conspiracies.

RCC Stanback Presidential Fellow – Sasha Provost

Sasha Provost is a rising junior at Duke University pursuing a double major in Marine Science and Conservation and Public Policy. Additionally, she is a NOAA Hollings Scholar and a Duke Rachel Carson Scholar. She is passionate about the development of conservationist policy and the impact of effective resource management on marine ecosystems. At Duke, she is on the executive board of the Sustainable Oceans Alliance and writes for the Duke Chronicle.