Saturday, February 13, 2016

What a Whale Of A Week!

Right whales, © Sea to Shore Alliance/NOAA, NOAA permit #15488

Never give up, never surrender! That has been our mantra for more than six long years of pushing theNational Marine Fisheries Service to expand designated critical habitat for the critically endangered North Atlantic right whale. Although we had to go to court twice to force the agency to act on our 2009 petition, the Fisheries Service recently published its final rule designating nearly 30,000 additional square miles of critical habitat. All told, this means nearly 40,000 square miles of ocean habitat will now receive special management consideration and protection.
The Right Whale to Protect
Right whale and calf © FFWCC and NOAA
North Atlantic right whales are protected under both the Endangered Species Act (ESA) and the Marine Mammal Protection Act. These laws have helped bring the right whale back from the brink of extinction caused by 18th and 19th century whaling. With only around 500 animals left, however, the right whale still has a long road ahead to recovery. Today, the two biggest direct threats to right whales are ship strikes and entanglement in fishing gear. Defenders and our allies have worked tirelessly to protect right whales from these threats by advocating for slow-speed zones to prevent whales from being hit, as well as fishing gear restrictions to reduce the number of entangling vertical lines whales may encounter.
But ship strikes and entanglement are not the only threats to right whales. Their ocean habitats are increasingly busy and threatened with development pressures from new industries (such as offshore energy and aquaculture) as well as oil spills and other water pollution. Under the ESA, the Fisheries Service designates critical habitat for a species when it finds that specific areas are essential to that species’ conservation. Critical habitat requires federal agencies to make sure human activities requiring federal permits (like offshore energy development and aquaculture facilities) don’t damage or destroy the habitat that whales need to survive. The right whale’s previously-designated critical habitat has covered only about 4,000 square miles – a mere fraction of the 55,000 square miles of ocean habitat that this highly migratory species needs. Thankfully, the new designation protects two more key pieces of right whale habitat.
Critical Habitat Unit 1 – The Feeding Grounds
Right whale and calf, © NOAA
As a type of baleen whale, the right whale manages to reach a length of 45 to 55 feet and a weight of up to 70 tons by filter-feeding on zooplankton, tiny animals that drift in the ocean. Copepods, a type of microscopically small crustacean, are the right whale’s primary prey. They are ten orders of magnitude smaller than their right whale predators. As you might imagine, it takes a lot of copepods to grow a right whale! Right whales feed in areas where ocean currents, temperature, and geographical features combine so that copepods are concentrated in massive numbers. Protecting such areas helps ensure right whales have enough to eat not only to survive day to day, but also to build up blubber reserves for the demands of pregnancy and nursing. Part of the newly-protected habitat is an area off the coasts of Maine, New Hampshire, and Massachusetts, in the cold, nutrient-rich waters where copepod aggregations occur.
Critical Habitat Unit 2 – The Breeding Grounds
Each year, female right whales leave their cold, deep foraging grounds in the north for warmer, shallower, and calmer waters in the south. These areas have ideal conditions for mother whales to calve and nurse their babies. For baby whales to survive, mother-calf pairs must stay close together in calm waters that strike the right temperature balance for the needs of both hungry, weak, and blubber-poor baby whales and their lactating, fasting, blubber-rich mothers. With only around 500 of these whales remaining, ensuring the safety of the next generation of whales is vital to their recovery. To protect these waters, the Fisheries Service designated an area of critical habitat from Cape Fear, North Carolina, down to just south of Cape Canaveral, Florida.


Among the most endangered whales in the world, North Atlantic right whales are making a slow comeback since whaling decimated their population. Yet today, they still face a number of man-made threats.

Read More »

The Missing Piece
We are happy to see that the Fisheries Service finally took action to expand right whale critical habitat into these areas that are so essential for the species’ survival and recovery. However, the Service’s action still falls short in one vital respect. The agency refused to designate any migratory habitat linking Units 1 and 2, even though right whales travel up and down the coast each year. Protecting feeding and breeding habitats is a start, but it doesn’t go far enough if the right whale habitat linking them is at risk. It looks like we’ll need to roll up our sleeves and get back to work to ensure right whales and their habitats are protected along the entire Atlantic coast. But for today, we celebrate this long-fought and hard-won victory for right whale protection.
Sea Shepherd Is Hunting the Last of the World’s Most Notorious Poaching Vessels. Illegal Chilean sea bass fishing could be coming to an end.
Sea Shepherd’s hunting of poaching vessels in the remote Southern Ocean is not as well known as its efforts to stop Japanese whale hunters, but for one species it’s a lifesaver.
The deep-sea-dwelling Patagonian toothfish that inhabits the region has been a lucrative target for illegal fishing. Six vessels, which Sea Shepherd has dubbed the Bandit 6, have been raking in big bucks skirting international fishing regulations. The ships are capable of catching more than $1 million worth of toothfish—popularly known as Chilean sea bass—before returning to port.
The boats have operated mostly unencumbered in the remote expanse of the Southern Ocean, often avoiding capture by flying under “flags of convenience” that hide the vessel’s ownership and make prosecution difficult. The Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources has put the ships on its blacklist.
A toothfish—known as ‘white gold’ by poachers—caught in an illegal gill net. (Photo: Jeff Wirth/Sea Shepherd Global)
“What made them stand out was their brazen return to Antarctica, year after year, in spite of being repeatedly spotted by customs vessels and other legal operators,” said Sid Chakravarty, captain of the Sea Shepherd vessel Steve Irwin. “We realized that the vessels were deliberately exploiting the loopholes in international law and acting with a purpose, fully aware of the immunity they enjoyed.”
But thanks in part to Sea Shepherd’s two-year-long "Operation Icefish" campaign, only one vessel of the Bandit 6 is still in operation. Officials in Senegal on Tuesday detained the Kunlun, a toothfish-poaching vessel Sea Shepherd has been pursuing for more than a year.
In February 2015, Chakravarty, who was then captain of the Sea Shepherd’s vessel San Simon, chased the Kunlun for eight days out of Australian fishing waters. The boat was fishing with illegal gill nets that drag along the seabed, capturing and killing fish indiscriminately.
Sid Chakravarty, captain of the Sam Simon. (Photo: Paul Petch/Sea Shepherd Global)
A month later, the Kunlun showed up at a dock in Phuket, Thailand, trying to off-load 182 tons of toothfish the ship was reporting as grouper fish. The vessel escaped customs after five months in port and showed up in Senegal in February, renamed the Asian Warrior.
“It is incredibly satisfying to know that the Kunlun, which was chased out of the Southern Ocean by my vessel in February 2015, has been unable to resume its illegal fishing operations,” Chakravarty said. “The work done by Sea Shepherd completes and at times fills the gaps in the work of governments, which are restricted by outdated legal conventions.”
The poaching vessel the Viking is wanted for a decade's worth of illegal fishing in the Southern Ocean. (Photo: CCAMLR)
The capture of the Kunlun leaves the poaching vessel the Viking as the lone bandit on the high seas.
According to Sea Shepherd, the Viking is suspected to be fishing in Antarctica, once again using banned gill nets in the region. Chakravarty and the crew of the Steve Irwin are searching for the Viking.
“Once the vessel is located, the role of the [Sea Shepherd] is twofold,” Chakravarty said. “One, to afford immediate protection to marine wildlife by blockading the illegal operations of the Viking, and two, to embark on a pursuit of the vessel and work with international law enforcement agencies to ensure the vessel is detained upon arrival in port. Using the evidence collected, Sea Shepherd’s aim is to aid and assist ongoing investigations with regards to the Viking.”
That plan worked in 2014, when Sea Shepherd Capt. Peter Hammarstedt and the crew aboard the 788-ton Bob Barker embarked on a 110-day, 10,000-nautical-mile ocean pursuit of the Nigerian-flagged boat Thunder, which was illegally fishing in the Southern Ocean.
The Thunder, considered the most notorious poaching vessel among the Bandit 6, ended up sinking at sea, with the crew and captain rescued by Sea Shepherd. In October 2015, the Thunder’s captain and two senior crew members were found guilty of multiple charges of illegal fishing, given 32 to 36 months of jail time, and fined more than $17 million by a court in São Tomé and Príncipe—an island nation that lies off the west coast of Africa in the Gulf of Guinea.
The poaching vessel the Thunder sinks as Sea Shepherd vessels watch from a safe distance. (Photo: Simon Ager/Sea Shepherd Global)
“The aim of this mission is to locate [the Viking] and replicate the successes of the previous missions and to deliver a final blow to the illicit toothfish trade,” Chakravarty said.
Act Now to End Orca Captivity in the U.S.
About the letterU.S. marine parks have been in hot water ever since the release of the revealing film Blackfish in 2013, and Congress is finally responding to the public outcry. Reps. Adam Schiff and Jared Huffman, both from California, introduced the Orca Responsibility and Care Advancement Act (H.R. 4019) on Nov. 17. Please write to your representative and ask him or her to support this groundbreaking bill that would phase out orca captivity once and for all.
The ORCA Act would prohibit orca breeding, wild capture, and the import or export of orcas for the purposes of public display across the U.S. The 25 orcas in the U.S. would be the last generation to ever live in tanks.
John Hargrove, a former marine park trainer who has spoken out about the suffering he witnessed while on the job, said, “It's time for Congress to take action. I know firsthand how dangerous these facilities can be for animals and trainers, and I’ve seen the physical and mental abuse that killer whales are forced to endure. The ORCA Act would protect not only future generations of orcas but also make a statement that this sort of exploitation is unacceptable.”
Stranded whales: How whale strandings happen.
The British coastguard recently abandoned their search for a sperm whale that could have become the seventh stranded whale in the country in recent weeks.

On Tuesday, after the sperm whale was seen approaching the coast of Mundesley, rescuers began an operation to help it. However, after being unable to see it inside the search area for 90 minutes, the coast guard ended the rescue effort. 

"We've carried out an extensive search and are confident that if the whale was in that search area, we'd have found it," the Huffington Post quoted Keith Griffin, station officer for the Happisburgh and Mundesley coastguard team, as saying, citing Sky news.

"Low tide has now passed so with a bit of luck it will return to deeper waters and stand a chance of survival."

Experts reckon the survival rates for whales strandings are usually low and as many as 30 whales are reported to have died in Europe's North sea this year.

There are several reasons and scenarios that may cause a whale stranding.

A whale may become stranded when illness or injury affect its navigation system, and once in shallow waters, the whale can easily get trapped in the changing tide. 

Since whales live in tight-knit groups, one sick animal's calls of distress can cause an entire pod to respond and strand itself too.

Horrific Hunting of Humpback Whales.
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