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Judge Rules Navy Underestimated Threat To Marine Mammals From Sonar

By Tony Perry, Los Angeles Times (TNS)

A federal judge has ruled in favor of environmentalists who assert the Navy has vastly underestimated the threat to marine mammals posed by its use of sonar and explosives during training off Southern California and Hawaii.

U.S. District Judge Susan Oki Mollway in Hawaii ruled Tuesday that the National Marine Fisheries Service violated environmental laws when it decided that the Navy’s training would have a “negligible impact” on whales, dolphins, other mammals, and sea turtles.

The ruling appears to set the stage for an appeal or for the Navy to resubmit its application to the fisheries service for a permit. Other options would be for the Navy to relocate its training or adopt greater safeguards to protect sea creatures.

The ruling was hailed by environmental groups, which have long asserted that the Navy is needlessly harming whales and other animals and has resisted making changes to train in less “biologically sensitive areas.”

“The court’s ruling recognizes that, to defend our country, the Navy doesn’t need to train in every square inch of a swath of ocean larger than all 50 states combined,” said David Henkin, the Earthjustice attorney representing several groups that filed the lawsuit.

“The Navy shouldn’t play war games in the most sensitive waters animals use for feeding and breeding,” said Miyoko Sakashita, oceans director at the Center for Biological Diversity.

Navy spokesman Mark Matsunaga said the service was studying the ruling and could not comment on its details.

“It is essential that sailors have realistic training that fully prepares them to fight tonight, if necessary, and (with) equipment that has been thoroughly tested before they go into harm’s way,” Matsunaga said.

“The Navy has been training and testing in the Hawaii and Southern California ranges for more than 60 years without causing the harm alleged by the plaintiffs in this case.”

The lawsuit was aimed at curtailing Navy training from Dana Point to San Diego, off Coronado’s Silver Strand, and in the area between various Hawaiian islands.

The Navy holds a major multinational exercise off Hawaii every two years. The next is set for 2016. The Hawaii exercise, called Rim of the Pacific, and exercises off Southern California allow sailors to train in using sonar to detect submarines in shallow water, not unlike the conditions in the Persian Gulf, the Navy has said.

Much of the judge’s ruling details with the dueling interpretations about how many animals over a five-year period of training would be hurt.

The Navy asserts that training will kill 155 whales over five years. The environmentalists say the number of those killed or crippled would be much higher.

In her 66-page decision, the judge conceded the difficulty in parsing the claims and counter-claims.

She wrote that she feels like the sailor in Samuel Coleridge’s poem “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner,” who, while trapped on a ship in a windless sea, laments, “Water, water, everywhere, Nor any drop to drink.”

Photo: Official U.S. Navy Page via Flickr

Death Of Young Killer Whales Raises Worry About The Species’ Survival

By Craig Welch, The Seattle Times (TNS)

He’s trailed them and photographed them, mapped their family trees and counted their offspring, coming to identify individuals by their markings, sometimes even ascribing personalities based on behavior.

For much of the past 40 years, the dean of San Juan Island orca research has vacillated between hope and frustration about the future of Puget Sound’s southern resident killer whales.

But the death in December of J32, an 18-year-old orca known as Rhapsody — who was pregnant with a nearly full-term female calf — is pushing Ken Balcomb closer to despair.

“The death of this particular whale for me shows that we’re at a point in history where we need to wake up to what we have to consider: ‘Do we want whales or not?’ ” said Balcomb, who is with the Center for Whale Research.

With the 10th anniversary in 2015 of the government’s decision to protect these orcas under the Endangered Species Act, the numbers don’t look good.

The population of J, K and L pods has dropped from a high of 99 in 1995 to 77 in December, the lowest since 1985. No whale has given birth in more than two years — a first in the decades since the whales have been monitored. And the small number of female whales able and likely to give birth reduces the potential for a speedy rebound.

Scientists had hoped that young J32, who was just coming into adulthood, would help turn that pattern around for decades to come.

“We’ve not only lost her, but we’ve lost all of her future reproductive potential, which will potentially have an impact on the population,” said Brad Hanson, killer-whale expert with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Northwest Fisheries Science Center. “That’s disconcerting.”

The apparent cause of J32’s demise — an infection spread by the death of her unborn calf — leads Balcomb to suspect the worst. He thinks the whales’ chief source of food, chinook salmon, is in such short supply that J32 relied on its own blubber, releasing stored contaminants that harmed her immune and reproductive systems.

But officials overseeing whale recovery say it’s too soon to say the situation is dire. What caused the infection to spread is not yet clear. It’s not known if the lack of new births is a trend or anomaly. And whale numbers have been lower than this before and bounced back, suggesting to some that there is room for optimism.

After all, said Will Stelle, West Coast administrator for NOAA Fisheries, Snake River sockeye were so depleted in 1992 that only one fish — known as Lonesome Larry — returned to spawn in Idaho’s Redfish Lake. This year, after decades of work by scientists, 1,600 fish returned, nearly 500 of which were naturally spawned.

“That’s not to say the issues around Snake River sockeye are the same — they’re not,” Stelle said. “But if you look in the rearview mirror, you’ll see that in fact over the last decade we’ve made substantial progress in building the basic foundation for a long-term conservation strategy for southern residents. We’re by no means there. But a decade ago we were in the dark ages.

“This is not the time to light our hair on fire, or to run about saying ‘The sky is falling, the sky is falling,’ ” he said. “What is really important here is to take the long view.”

But Stelle agreed that a central question remains: How much time do orcas have?

J32 was born into a family where adult females tended to die early. She was the first and, presumably, only calf of a 15-year-old whale that died two years after J32 was born. The matriarch of the family died a year after that at 37 — young for a species with a life span similar to humans.

Long before J32’s carcass was towed ashore on the east side of Vancouver Island near Comox, B.C., scientists had begun to wrestle with the role that the decline of salmon may be playing in whale survival.

“The reality is, the basic problem is food,” Balcomb said.

In the 1960s and 1970s, an orca population that a century earlier may have numbered from 140 to 200 was decimated by the aquarium trade. Entrepreneurs drove orcas into net pens in coves and sold them to marine parks around the world until there were only 71 left in 1974.

Only in the past 10 years have researchers documented their troubles.

“Since then we’ve improved our understanding of the individuals themselves, their population dynamics, their geographic distribution and diet and pollutant loading and contaminants and the effects of all that on productivity,” Stelle said.

But two of the whales’ three biggest problems — the buildup of pollutants such as DDT and polychlorinated biphenyls in their blubber, and disturbance by marine traffic — appear to be worsened by a third, a reduction in available prey.

These whales can eat sockeye and halibut, but overwhelmingly prefer fatty chinook from Puget Sound and Canada’s Fraser River, distinguishing them from other fish by using sonar to sense differences in the animals’ swim bladders. Puget Sound chinook numbers have dropped to about 10 percent of their historic high. They, too, are listed for protection under the Endangered Species Act.

When killer whales are hungry, research suggests, they may metabolize poisons built up in their fat over years, and expend energy they can’t afford to lose if they have to avoid disturbances from boats and other traffic.

Yet scientists continue to disagree on how much of a role that has played in any deaths. Few whales wash up dead for them to study. Among those that have, only one — Rhapsody’s uncle, J18 — offered clues that led some, but not all, to believe that hunger was a factor in his death.

Government scientists agree that a diminished food supply is a major issue. But they’re still running tests on J32’s organs, skin and fatty tissue to help narrow down her health issues more precisely.

“If southern residents are on a lower nutritional plane, then the effects of contaminants may be allowed to cause some sort of problem in a random way that disease events would be able to take over,” Hanson said. “But a lot of times what we’re seeing is these skinny animals and a lot of people say ‘these whales are starving to death.’ But it’s not that simple.”

For example, whales hunt in groups they sometimes share prey, and may give away food to others that they themselves could use.

Regardless of whether food availability helped trigger J32’s death, government researchers share some of Balcomb’s concerns about the state of the population.

“It’s not so much that there are fewer reproductive-age females now than there used to be,” said NOAA whale scientist Mike Ford, “but rather that they may not be giving birth as often as expected.”

To Balcomb, the loss of J32 suggests that it’s time to consider drastic measures, such as a ban or steep curtailment in chinook fishing, even though fishing is likely the least of the threats chinook face.

“It’s a wake-up call. We know what the problem is, whether it’s dams or fishing or habitat destruction,” he said. “It’s just what happens when millions of people move into the watershed. (But) stopping fishing, at least for a while, is something we can do immediately.”

Stelle, whose agency helps oversee chinook-harvest levels, said fishing has been curtailed already by about 30 percent in agreements with Canada, but he couldn’t conceive of a day when he’d seriously consider an outright ban, which would violate tribal-treaty rights. Still, he doesn’t rule out more drastic cuts.

Stelle, like most experts, maintains that one of the hardest problems to address for orcas is controlling stormwater so even more contaminants aren’t flushed into the Puget Sound, where they can work their way up the orca food chain. That is likely an expensive fix.

The other is reducing development in areas harmful to chinook survival — estuaries, floodplains, areas that alter drainage into river beds. But that problem is made ever more complex by the fact that dozens of government entities oversee the decision-making.

“The particular challenges I think that are daunting can best be illustrated by driving south on (Interstate 5) and looking around,” he said. “That built-out landscape fundamentally poses the most significant challenge for us. It is: How do we reconcile the continued human-population growth projected for the basin with trying to rebuild the productivity of the most important habitats for orcas and their prey.”

Martha Kongsgaard, who leads the Puget Sound Partnership, a government agency charged with cleaning up the Sound, agreed that J32’s death illustrates how much is at stake if the region doesn’t pick up the pace in tackling these problems.

“You don’t want to raise the alarm every time a whale dies, but I think we are really on the brink of possibly losing them,” she said. “And we ignore the orcas’ incredible totemic and symbolic power at our peril. They’re telling us it’s an emergency right now.

“The death of this particular whale for me shows that we’re at a point in history where we need to wake up to what we have to consider: Do we want whales or not?

Photo via Wikimedia Commons

SeaWorld’s Troubles Increase As Public Learns About Plight Of Orcas

SeaWorld’s stock took a dive last week in the backlash against its treatment of captive killer whales.

The company reported that attendance at its marine theme parks fell 4.3 percent during the first half of the year, and predicted revenue will continue to drop substantially in the coming months.

In the entertainment business, this is known as a wake-up call. It’s time for SeaWorld to quit using orcas like trained poodles and think up a new act.

The company’s headaches began last summer with the release of a powerful documentary called Blackfish, which chronicles the exploitation of killer whales beginning with the first specimens that were herded up and taken from their family pods in the late 1960s and early ’70s.

Some of the footage is sickening to watch, and it doesn’t get much easier as the film goes on. By the time it’s over, you’re disgusted, angry — and in no mood to take your family to see orcas doing tricks for a bucket of dead fish.

Unfortunately for SeaWorld’s shareholders, Blackfish came out in July 2013, only three months after the company went public. The documentary was widely aired on CNN, and provoked such a strong public reaction that Willie Nelson, Heart and other popular music groups canceled scheduled performances at SeaWorld’s Orlando park, home to the troubled orca featured in Blackfish.

Weighing six tons, Tilikum is believed to be the largest male killer whale in captivity. He’s also a basket case—depressed and unpredictable after a long, tedious life of swimming circles in concrete pools.

No killer whale in the wild has ever attacked a human, but “Tili” has been involved in the deaths of three persons — most recently that of SeaWorld trainer Dawn Brancheau, thrashed and drowned in February 2010.

That incident, recorded on tourists’ videos, is the heartbreaking focus of the Blackfish documentary. Afterward, SeaWorld officials actually blamed Brancheau, speculating that her ponytail had incited the whale.

That was a clear signal that the company would stoop to any tactic in order to protect its lucrative performing-mammal franchise.

It didn’t work. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) ruled that SeaWorld put its trainers in dangerous situations, and ordered the company to install barriers separating the orcas from employees.

A federal judge agreed with OSHA, but SeaWorld vigorously appealed, saying that “contact with killer whales is essential to the product…”

In other words, customers won’t line up merely to observe one of the planet’s most spectacular, intelligent animals. You gotta make them critters do some stunts!

Like swim ’round and ’round with a full-grown human balancing on their nose — yeehaw, that’s educational. And also the highlight of any whale’s day…

But not so fast. In April, a U.S. appeals court ruled 2-1 that SeaWorld had exposed its trainers to “recognized hazards” while they interacted with orcas. The decision allows OSHA to set stricter rules for contact.

SeaWorld, which owns 11 theme parks in the United States, said it has already enacted new safety measures, including removing trainers from the water during the killer whale performances.

Still, California is debating a proposed ban on keeping any orcas in captivity. The publicity has hurt business at SeaWorld’s San Diego park, and was a factor in the company’s stock dropping last week.

Back in Orlando, moody Tilikum is still on display. Despite his history of attacks, the SeaWorld empire highly values his stud service.

Because it’s now illegal to take killer whales from the sea, captive breeding is the only source of fresh talent for the company’s “product.” Tilikum’s sperm is priceless, having produced more than 20 baby orcas.

For older whales that were snatched from the wild decades ago — such as Tilikum, and Lolita at the Miami Seaquarium — a return to freedom could be perilous. They don’t know how to hunt for fish, and nobody’s going to toss them a mackerel for doing somersaults in Puget Sound.

If they can’t safely be released, there’s got to be a better future. Rodeo horses get more space to roam than captive orcas.

SeaWorld says they look forward to their daily tricks, which is another way of saying they’re bored stiff most of the time.

If only the company cared about the whales as much as the staff that works with them do.

For the past year, SeaWorld has blasted Blackfish as “inaccurate and misleading,” yet the credibility of the experts and former trainers interviewed in the documentary holds up.

See for yourself. You can order the film from Netflix, iTunes or other sites.

Everybody should watch it — parents, kids and especially investors considering SeaWorld stock.

Carl Hiaasen is a columnist for The Miami Herald. Readers may write to him at: 1 Herald Plaza, Miami, FL, 33132.

Photo via Wikimedia Commons

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Ships And Blue Whales On A Collision Course Off California Coast

By Geoffrey Mohan, Los Angeles Times

Blue whales cluster for long periods of time in the busy Pacific Ocean shipping lanes off the California coast, raising concern about collisions between vessels and the endangered marine mammals, a new study has found.

Researchers used satellites to track 171 tagged blue whales over 15 years to produce the most detailed maps of the feeding areas of the marine mammals, which are protected from hunting under international regulations and are listed as endangered under the U.S. Endangered Species Act. The study was published this week in the online journal Plos One.

“It’s an unhappy coincidence,” said lead author Ladd Irvine, a marine mammal ecologist at Oregon State University. “The blue whales need to find the densest food supply. There’s a limited number of those dense places, and it seems as though two of the main regular spots are crossed by the shipping lanes.”

The biggest overlap between the whales and ships occurs between July and October near the western Channel Islands, off Santa Barbara, with somewhat smaller overlaps near the Gulf of the Farallones, near San Francisco, and farther north at the northern edge of Cape Mendocino, according to the study.

The study’s conclusions are at odds with some previous research, based on more rudimentary sightings of whales, that suggested that shifts in shipping lanes would not affect the whales because they are too widely dispersed. The new study found more dense concentrations and tracked them over longer periods of time, an average of two to three months. One whale remained tagged for nearly a year and a half.

“This is far and away the most detailed look that we’ve gotten on where these whales go, and the timing of when they’re present and when they move,” Irvine said.

“The nice thing about the satellite data is you get a longer-term snapshot that crosses over multiple years,” said Monica DeAngelis, a marine mammal biologist with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration who has worked on previous efforts to protect whales from ship collisions.

“We knew that there were important habitat features in the ocean that we inferred these animals were homing in on, for feeding. But we were not sure of the extent of importance of these features,” DeAngelis said. “It gives us a lot more insight into what whales are doing.”

The largest animals on Earth, blue whales can grow to more than 100 feet in length and can weigh 150 tons. About 2,500 of an estimated worldwide population of 10,000 congregate in the waters off the West Coast.

In 2012, the International Maritime Organization agreed to divert southbound ships more than a mile away from Santa Cruz and Santa Rosa islands, off Santa Barbara, and elongated another lane in the Gulf of the Farallones, off San Francisco. Both changes came out of concern raised by increased blue whale sightings near areas where an upwelling in deep sea currents dishes up dense schools of krill, the primary food source of blue whales.

The process took years, and any new dialogue about further shifts is expected to take awhile, DeAngelis said.

The shipping industry, which has supported additional research on whale populations and behavior, has been somewhat wary of new regulation of shipping lanes.

“We’re looking to improve the science, and get the best handle we can on what the abundance, distribution, and behavior of these animals are so we can develop the best management strategy,” said T.L. Garrett, vice president of the Pacific Merchant Shipping Association, a trade group that represents ocean carriers. “But it needs to be recognized by all parties. We don’t have adequate data to make those kinds of management decisions yet.”

Garrett said he was not surprised by the report’s findings that whales and ships intersect at certain times, given what is known about the species’ wide patterns of movement. The association and the industry support efforts to develop real-time tracking of ships and whales, as is done for the right whale on the Atlantic Coast.

Garrett cautioned, however, that changes to shipping lanes could have unintended consequences for shipping and other marine life.

DeAngelis agreed. “You wouldn’t want to put something in place that would be beneficial to the blue whales but then might be detrimental to humpback whales or fin whales_or ocean users,” she said.

Researchers, regulators, shippers, and other interested parties are planning to meet in the fall to discuss the latest data, DeAngelis and Irvine said.

Photo via WikiCommons

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