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Whales Are Dying Along the East Coast. And a Fight Is Surfacing Over Who’s to Blame

9 minute read

In mid-January, threatening social media messages started showing up on the accounts of a small New Jersey organization devoted to rescuing ocean mammals that wash up on the beach. Some said “we’re watching you.” Others accused staff of the Marine Mammal Stranding Center (MMSC) being “whale murderers.” Some people wrote that they were going to show up at the group’s Brigantine, N.J., headquarters and “make” members of the wildlife organization “come to [their] side.” “You don’t know what they’re gonna do,” says Michele Pagel, 49, the group’s assistant director. “Are they gonna march in here and put a gun to somebody’s head?”

Staff members contacted local police, and they started locking the doors to the group’s office. In late January, someone left the door unlocked, and a man burst into the office and approached the secretary. “He just starts [yelling], ‘I want to know, I demand to know,’” says Shelia Dean, 75, the group’s director. “He was very frightening.”

Along with picking up sick baby seals and dolphins, the MMSC helps to carry out examinations on the bodies of dead whales when they wash up on the shores of New York and New Jersey in order to collect scientific data, and hopefully help determine a cause of death. And in recent months, whales have been washing up on these shores with alarming frequency. Eight large whales, including sperm whales and humpbacks, have washed up in the area since December. Those deaths have become a focal point in the clean energy culture war, with conservative media commentators blaming them on preliminary site-mapping work for offshore wind developments. But evidence to support those claims hasn’t turned up. That’s brought down the ire of many people opposed to offshore wind on small animal welfare organizations like MMSC for supposedly hiding the truth of what killed those whales.

The work to actually examine those carcasses is grueling and tedious. It involves sourcing backhoes or other construction equipment to maneuver the school bus-sized animals, taking measurements, and then, when possible, undertaking difficult necropsies. A trailer parked in front of the MMSC’s offices houses the necessary equipment: smocks and boots, along with large knives and hooks for pulling off layers of cetacean skin and blubber to examine the animal and take tissue samples. It’s a messy, smelly business. In humpback whales, gasses from the whale’s putrefying innards often begin to swell the sack under the whale’s mouth. If it bursts, it can splatter anyone standing nearby with whale guts. If a whale had broken bones from being hit by a ship, for instance, the necropsy can help examiners tell if the ship strike occurred before or after the whale died. MMSC and other groups that collaborate on the necropsies then forward that information to the federal government, which provides some of their funding.

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Humpback whale strandings across the East Coast have been elevated for the past seven years, an “unusual mortality event” as the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA) Fisheries department calls it. Scientists were able to examine about half of the 178 animals that were reported, and of those, about 40% showed evidence of being killed by ships, or by entanglement with fishing gear. That may have to do with their food sources, mostly small fish, moving closer to shore, bringing more whales into danger from being hit by large boats in shipping lanes. The results for the other whale carcasses were inconclusive, often due to the bodies being too decomposed to examine properly.

Read more: The First U.S. Offshore Wind Farm Could Be a Lifeline for Struggling New England Cities

Finding such whale bodies used to be relatively rare, but starting in 2007, whales started washing up more regularly, says Rob DiGiovanni, the chief scientist at the New York-based Atlantic Marine Conservation Society. But whale sightings have also been on the rise, potentially indicating that the overall population has increased. “Really the biggest question is: are we seeing more whale strandings, or are we seeing more whales, and strandings are occurring?” says DiGiovanni.

But another theory has been circulating online and on conservative talk shows—that the offshore wind industry, which has been conducting work off the coast of New York and New Jersey as it prepares to install massive wind turbines, is responsible for the whale deaths. Some New Jersey politicians have called for a moratorium on offshore wind work until it can be ruled out as a cause of the whale deaths, though there’s no evidence to support claims that wind development has anything to do with the whales washing up, according to federal fisheries experts.

Despite that lack of evidence, some conservative news commentators have implied that there could be a conspiracy by scientists to hide the offshore wind industry’s supposed role in whale deaths. “How much you want to bet that those scientists find no conclusive evidence that wind farms are a threat to the whale population,” Newsmax host Rob Schmitt said on his Newsmax program on Feb. 2. “Because they always seem to get the result that they want.” Such comments are echoed on community anti-wind power Facebook groups.

Those speculations have left MMSC in the crosshairs of the clean energy culture war, with staff at the small organization bombarded with hostile messages and phone calls from locals and people around the country incised by their supposed role in a coverup. “We understand that they are upset and saddened by these whale deaths,” says Pagel. “We are too, but there’s humans on the other end of [MMSC’s] social media [accounts], and the emails, and the phones.”

The group’s headquarters doesn’t exactly betray much in the way of connection to powerful offshore energy interests. MMSC is based out of a collection of small buildings off a busy road in Brigantine. There’s a small, cluttered office, a building with a small pool of piped-in bay water for holding injured dolphins and seals, and a one-room museum housing various bones and whale parts that the group has collected.

“There’s been only one stranding center in New Jersey for the past 45 years—why do you think that is?” Dean says. “Because there’s no money in it.”

Read more: U.S. Fishermen Are Making Their Last Stand Against Offshore Wind

The offshore wind companies did offer to provide some funding in recent years, but Dean says she turned them down—the turbines are controversial in this area (some people fear the turbines will harm the environment or tank coastal housing prices) and she didn’t want to appear to be biased towards the developers. Not that they couldn’t have used the cash. “Everybody’s underpaid here,” says Dean. “I keep hoping I win the lottery so I can pay everyone what they’re due.”

One specific claim made by some anti-wind advocates is that scientists are refusing to examine the dead whales’ inner ears, which they say could show lesions indicating damage from sonar systems used by offshore wind mapping crews. Asked about those accusations, Dean picks up an object in the museum about the size and shape of a conch shell. It’s a whale’s ear bone, she says, but you can’t just scoop out the insides to examine it—the bone casing has to be carefully chipped open. And in the case of partially decomposed whales—as many of those that have washed up recently have been—doing so wouldn’t be much use. “After they’re dead three or four days, there’s nothing left here—it’s mush inside,” she says. “You look at the flesh [of the whale] and it smells and it’s starting to get jelly-like. You’re not going to get anything out of this at all.”

Part of the conspiracy narrative has suggested that organizations like MMSC haven’t been examining animals thoroughly enough. But full necropsies often simply aren’t possible. The process typically takes all day, but for one late January stranding in New Jersey, for instance, examiners only had an hour and a half to do their work, due to the rising tide. Another New Jersey stranding occurred on Christmas Eve near the Atlantic City boardwalk. It would have taken until after Christmas to put together a team to examine the whale, Dean says, but the town wanted the carcass off their beach before Christmas tourists came into town.

Notably, MMSC helps examine and collect data from the stranded whales, but they’re not the ones who put the pieces together to solve the overall puzzle of what’s going on. That’s up to federal scientists at NOAA Fisheries. On Feb. 9, Kim Damon-Randall, director of NOAA’s Fisheries Office of Protected Resources, told New York Public Radio that the agency is still “following the science to figure out what’s happening with these whale deaths.”

“A lot of people like to direct their anger at us, but we’re not the people that can provide the answer,” says Pagel, of MMSC. “We’re still waiting for the same answers the public is waiting for.”

To a large extent, though, the outrage appears to stem from a backwards logic: that if no evidence to connect whale deaths to offshore wind emerges, it means the evidence is being hidden on purpose—not that the proof simply doesn’t exist in the first place.

“When we take a rotting carcass and try to find something, it’s a little difficult,” says Dean. “I think that people watch too much television and they think we’re NCIS or something. It’s just not like that.”

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Write to Alejandro de la Garza at alejandro.delagarza@time.com