By DONALD WITTKOWSKI
Ocean City has become the latest community to call for an investigation into whether a series of whale deaths at the Jersey Shore and elsewhere along the East Coast are being caused by development work on a proposed offshore wind energy project.
Mayor Jay Gillian and City Council want an immediate halt on the Ocean Wind 1 project pending the competition of a full investigation into seven whale deaths along the New Jersey and New York coast since early December. In addition, two other dead whales washed up recently on beaches in Maryland and Virginia.
Gillian and the seven-member governing body expressed their alarm about the number of the whale deaths in a strongly worded resolution approved Thursday night at a Council meeting.
“The mayor and City Council of the City of Ocean City are calling for an immediate suspension of all offshore wind development activity until a comprehensive, thorough investigation is held by federal and state agencies that confidently concludes these activities are not a contributing factor to recent whale deaths,” the resolution states.
During the meeting, Gillian said that Orsted, the Danish company that is developing the wind farm, has been “throwing a lot of money at communities” in an attempt to line up support for the controversial project.
“It is all about the money. Everybody should keep their eye on that,” he said.
Four of the dead mammals were humpback whales that washed up on beaches in Atlantic and Cape May counties, including two in Atlantic City, one Strathmere and most recently one in Brigantine.
“The Ocean City community is heartbroken over the latest young whale to wash ashore in the vicinity of Brigantine on January 12th, 2023,” the resolution says.
Ocean City now joins with other Jersey Shore communities and a number of federal and state elected officials who are demanding that preliminary work be stopped on the wind farm project until an investigation is completed to determine the cause of the whale deaths.
The towns of Brigantine and Ventnor are among them, along with state Sen. Vince Polistina of Atlantic County and U.S. Rep. Jeff Van Drew, whose Second Congressional District includes the shore towns of Atlantic and Cape May counties.
“The Ocean City community supports clean energy programs, but seeks to first fully understand the cause of these tragic deaths and what can be done to prevent future losses,” the resolution says.
Orsted has proposed building a wind energy farm 15 miles off the South Jersey coast between Atlantic City and Stone Harbor. As part of the project, Orsted wants to run a transmission line under the beach and through environmentally sensitive areas of Ocean City to connect the offshore wind turbines to the land-based electric grid at a substation at the former B.L. England Generating Station in Marmora.
Ocean City and Cape May County officials have been adamantly opposed to Orsted’s plans for both the wind farm and the transmission line. They believe the project could harm the tourism industry, commercial fishing operations and marine life at the shore. They also say the towering wind turbines would create a visual blight when viewed from land in Ocean City.
Osted, meanwhile, has maintained that it has not been doing anything related to the wind farm’s development that would harm whales or other marine life.
“As the world’s most sustainable energy company, we prioritize coexistence with our communities and marine wildlife. When offshore, we combine human surveillance and state-of-the-art technical equipment to avoid any impact on marine wildlife as we build projects to advance New Jersey’s clean energy ambitions,” the company said in a statement in early January.
During the public comment portion of the City Council meeting Thursday night, Ocean City residents indicated they are either skeptical of Orsted’s claims or simply do not believe the company.
“We need to protect our national coastline. It’s a treasure,” said Roseanne Serowatka, a representative of the environmental group Protect the Coast NJ.
Besides questioning the environmental benefits of offshore wind projects, Serowatka characterized them as an economic “disaster.”
Chuck Deal, an Ocean City resident, predicted that the wind farm would be costly to build, will result in higher electricity costs to consumers and will be “environmentally unsound.”
Deal also questioned why Orsted’s former U.S. partner, the New Jersey-based Public Service Enterprise Group, recently withdrew from the wind farm project by selling its 25 percent ownership stake to Orsted.
“This is a major, major utility that has decided that this is not going to work,” Deal said of PSEG.
Former Ocean City Councilman Mike DeVlieger, who has been one of the most outspoken critics of the wind farm, said he believes Orsted’s preliminary work on the project has been harming the whales’ internal navigation systems and making them confused.
“They’ve got them out there drunk driving,” DeVlieger said, asserting that the whales are like impaired drivers and may be colliding with shipping traffic off the coast.
The Marine Mammal Stranding Center in Brigantine and the National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) have said that at least some of the dead whales may have been killed by vessel strikes. Post-mortem test results are still pending on other whales.
NOAA also said that the high death rates of whales in recent years predate any offshore wind activity in the Atlantic Ocean.
Ocean City officials, though, remain unconvinced. The resolution calling for a moratorium on the offshore wind activity says more research is needed to determine “the potential impact such activity has on whales and other marine life.”
In other business, City Council approved a new three-year contract with a company that uses falcons and hawks to chase away the pesky seagulls that try to steal French fries, pizza and other food from beachgoers and visitors on the Boardwalk.
Gillian and City Business Administrator George Savastano said the bird-abatement program has been successful in the past four years in pushing the annoying gulls away from the Boardwalk and back into their natural habitat of the ocean and bays.
“The objective is to stop the gulls from unnatural behavior, and that’s preying on humans and their food,” Savastano told the Council members.
The Council members agreed that the contract with East Coast Falcons has resulted in a sharp decline in the number of seagulls hovering over the Boardwalk and menacing people for their food.
“This is a good thing. It’s good for the birds and good for our guests. It’s good for everybody,” Gillian said.
This year, Ocean City is expanding its contract with East Coast Falcons to have the company use its raptors to scare away the seagulls from other parts of the resort – including the downtown shopping and dining areas – not just the Boardwalk and beaches.
Councilman Bob Barr was the only member to vote against the contract. The contract is for $316,920 in the first year. The total for three years is expected to be just over $950,000.
Barr said he was uncomfortable voting for a major contract before knowing whether it could possibly have an adverse impact on the upcoming municipal budget for 2023.
Responding to Barr’s concerns, Gillian said the “budget’s going to be fine.”
Representatives of the local business community said it is important to keep the aggressive seagulls away from all of the areas in town that are popular with summer tourists.
“In the end, this comes down to public safety,” said Wes Kazmarck, president of the Boardwalk Merchants Association.
Kazmarck said he has been “blown away” by how effective the seagull abatement program has been since it first began in the summer of 2019.
However, some members of the public wanted Council to table the contract with East Coast Falcons.
Bill and Sheila Hartranft objected to spending so much money to chase away birds that are a natural part of the shore’s ecosystem.
“The gulls were here long before we were,” Sheila Hartranft said. “Now, we just want to get rid of them.”
Donna Moore, a local environmental advocate, said the raptors not only harass the gulls, but others native shore birds as well, including terns, sandpipers and black skimmers.
“Everything is interrupted when we introduce a foreign set of raptors,” Moore said.
Dave Hayes, another Ocean City resident, questioned whether the expansion of the contract to include the downtown area was designed to “cater to the restaurants” that don’t want seagulls bothering their customers.
“Let them pay for it themselves,” Hayes said, arguing that the restaurants should shoulder the cost of protecting their customers from the gulls, not the taxpayers.
However, Danielle Guerriero, president of the Downtown Merchants Association, read a statement from local restaurant owners in favor of the contract. The statement said that the gulls were “completely out of control” before the bird abatement program began.
“It’s truly remarkable how the program works,” Guerriero said of the turnaround since East Coast Falcons took over.