Impacts on Whales

Several large whale species utilize Cape Cod Bay – most notably minke whales, humpback whales and North Atlantic right whales. Fin and sei whales are also seasonally found in New England waters. All marine mammal species are protected under the Marine Mammal Protection Act. Endangered species of whales, such as humpbacks, fin, sei and right whales, are further protected under the Endangered Species Act.

With large whales, we are most concerned with habitat degradation of Cape Cod Bay by Pilgrim’s daily operations. Pilgrim has been discharging heated water into the Bay and killing billions of marine organisms every year with its cooling system for the past 40+ years — both of which can impact whales’ food sources.

All of Cape Cod Bay is designated as critical habitat for right whales (Eubalaena glacialis) – one of the rarest large whales in the world with approximately 500 individuals left [1]. The whales mostly utilize Cape Cod Bay during winter and early spring to feed, socialize and nurse calves, although individuals can be found in the Bay year round [2].

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North Atlantic right whale critical habitat in the Northeast, including Cape Cod Bay.

Pilgrim is slated to shut down no later than June 2019. The good news about closure is that the health of Cape Cod Bay will begin to improve after shut down, as the daily intake and discharge of 500+ million gallons of seawater is drastically reduced to about 3,000 gallons until cooling activities completely cease for Pilgrim’s spent fuel pool (likely 5-10 years post closure). However, it’s still critical that we continue to monitor environmental impacts and risks during this ending period. We need to ensure the best possible decommissioning plan and site cleanup (prompt and full cleanup of soils and groundwater) and will ask federal regulators to prohibit a 60-year deferment for cleanup (typical under the common “SAFSTOR” process) because it would lead to further leaching of contaminants into Cape Cod Bay especially as sea levels rise. It’s also important to advocate for Pilgrim nuclear waste storage areas to be properly sited farther away from the shoreline. As climate change brings greater storms and coastal impacts, problems such as accidents and potential leaks into Cape Cod Bay will be more prominent within a decade. So even after closure, concerns will still exist for right whale and their habitat in Cape Cod Bay. Learn more about Pilgrim’s decommissioning >>

Right Whales, Wrong Place…

Right whales were so-named because they were considered the “right” whale to hunt. They are slow-moving, are often found relatively close to shore, float when dead, and have an extremely thick blubber layer that yields an abundance of oil – all reasons they were nearly hunted to extinction in the early 1900s. Although they are now protected by the Endangered Species Act (ESA) and the Marine Mammal Protection Act, the population has had difficulty recovering due to modern man-made threats. It’s estimated that less than 500 individuals remain alive today.

The species currently faces three main threats: ship strikes, habitat degradation, and entanglements in fishing gear. Of particular interest to CCBW is habitat protection for right whales. Critical habitat was designated for right whales in 1994, including in Cape Cod Bay. Critical habitat is designated under the ESA, since an endangered species can only be protected if its habitat is also protected, and includes areas critical to feeding, calving, mating, migration, etc.

In 2016,  NOAA Fisheries announced that right whale critical habitat areas were significantly expanded (including almost all of the Gulf of Maine and ALL of Cape Cod Bay) — though excluded some important migratory corridors along the east coast.  Learn more about the expansion of critical habitat here >>

While operating, Pilgrim’s potential impacts on critical habitat for right whales are two-fold.  First, Pilgrim takes over half billion gallons of water per day from the bay, drawing in marine organisms including billions of plankton every year – some species that right whales feed on.  Second, Pilgrim discharges hot and polluted water into areas that would be protected habitat.

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right whale mom, Wart, swims close to Pilgrim in January 2013. – (click to see larger image)

Learn More:

Listen to this great Living on Earth INTERVIEW with Whale and Dolphin Conservation about the right whale mom-calf pair spotted in Cape Cod Bay in January, 2013. This was the first mom-calf right whale pair in Cape Cod Bay in 27 years, and perhaps the earliest right whale birth in the region!

Read about past efforts (2013) to get the Nuclear Regulatory Commission and the National Marine Fisheries Service to reassess the impacts of Pilgrim on right whales based on this mom-calf sighting.

Read about our efforts to get a error fixed (2013) in Pilgrim’s license intended to help protect endangered wildlife.


[1] North Atlantic Right Whale Consortium. 2011. 2011 Annual Report Card. <http://www.narwc.org/pdf/2011_report_card_addendum.pdf> Accessed 10/10/2012.

[2] Massachusetts Ocean Management Task Force Technical Report. 2004. Estuarine and Marine Habitat. 101-127.; Mayo CA, Nichols OC, Bessinger MK, Brown MW, Marx MK, and Browning CL. 2004. Surveillance, monitoring, and management of North Atlantic right whales in Cape Cod Bay and adjacent waters – 2004. Final report submitted to the Commonwealth of Massachusetts , Division of Marine Fisheries. Center for Coastal Studies, November 2004; Delorenzo AS. 2005. An assessment of the habitat quality and nutritional intake of North Atlantic right whales in Cape Cod Bay. Dissertations and Master’s Theses from the University of Rhode Island. Paper AAI3186903.

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