Saturday, September 3, 2016

A Whale Of A Week

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Dolphins, whales and countless other marine mammals are at risk in the Atlantic Ocean unless we act now. Oceana is working to prevent Big Oil companies from opening up huge swaths of the Atlantic to dangerous seismic airgun blasting. Add your name now to help suspend all oil and gas exploration in the Atlantic >> Act Now

Did Japan Just Win the Whale WarsSea Shepherd agrees to stop harassing Japanese whale hunters, but the activists say their compatriots will continue fighting the annual slaughter in the Southern Ocean.

The whale wars are over.

Or are they?
(Photo: Greg Wood/AFP/Getty Images)
Each year, the international Sea Shepherd movement dispatches vessels to harass Japanese ships hunting whales in the Southern Ocean. Using acid-filled bottles, smoke bombs, lasers, and metal-reinforced rope to damage propellers and rudders, Sea Shepherd activists aim to stop the slaughter conducted by Japan’s Institute of Cetacean Research in violation of international whaling regulations.

But last week, the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society, the international coalition’s U.S. branch, and its founder, Paul Watson, settled a five-year legal battle in federal court with the ICR and Kyodo Senpaku Kaisha, the company that furnishes whaling vessels and crews. Sea Shepherd USA agreed to a permanent injunction that bars the group from attacking or endangering whaling vessels or approaching any whalers closer than 1,500 feet.

The settlement also prohibits Sea Shepherd USA from providing money or property to anyone, including other Sea Shepherd entities, to support the confrontations. Sea Shepherd USA has a long history of battling Japanese whalers—in court and in the icy Southern Ocean. From 2005 until 2012, Watson and his group sent ships to take part in the dangerous high-seas dramas that captivated audiences in the Animal Planet reality series Whale Wars and, according to the Sea Shepherd, saved the lives of 3,651 whales.

A temporary injunction against the U.S. group was first imposed by a U.S. federal judge in 2012. In 2015, Sea Shepherd agreed to pay the whalers $2.6 million for violating that injunction.

As part of the settlement, Sea Shepherd will receive compensation from the whaling operators for a 2010 incident in which a Sea Shepherd–affiliated powerboat, the Ady Gil, was rammed and sunk by a Japanese whaling vessel.

But Sea Shepherd contends that there is nothing in the permanent injunction to prevent other Sea Shepherd groups from continuing the harassment, as long as they are not acting “in concert” with the U.S. group.

“We are independent and separate entities, and people in Australia and Europe are quite offended that the U.S. would presume to have any jurisdiction over that,” Watson said. “These are Dutch-registered ships owned by a European entity in Australian waters going after Japanese fishermen. What possible jurisdiction could they have? It only covers Sea Shepherd USA’s involvement.”

The U.S. group’s general counsel, Peter Rysman, concurred with that interpretation.

“We will not operate a campaign in the Southern Ocean, nor will we cooperate or encourage or facilitate in any campaign by the other Sea Shepherd entities,” Rysman said. “If we were to act in concert with them, we would be found in contempt of the injunction. That’s why we won’t.”

An attorney for the whaling operators declined to speak on the record.

But a U.S.-based spokesman for the Institute of Cetacean Research, Gavin Carter, suggested that any Sea Shepherd group might still be in legal jeopardy if it harasses the whalers.

“It puts the ICR in a strong legal position, and it has achieved the objective to ensure safety at sea, not just for the Japanese vessels and crew but also the crews on the other vessels,” Carter said.

“I think that if Sea Shepherd and its affiliates do break their injunction,” he added, “they are taking a substantial risk that could lead to significant penalties, which would depend on the circumstances.”

Jeff Hansen, managing director of Sea Shepherd Australia, vowed to take on the whalers when they head out in December to kill up to 333 minke whales.

“We are not concerned about the U.S. court settlement as it does not have any effect on Australian law,” Hansen said in a statement.

On Tuesday, Sea Shepherd Global announced it was adding a high-speed patrol vessel to its fleet, the Ocean Warrior, which it says will be able to outrun Japanese whaling ships for the first time. “Speed can be the deciding factor when saving the lives of whales,” Alex Cornelissen, the group’s chief executive, said in a statement.

Last November, the Federal Court of Australia fined Kyodo Senpaku Kaisha $711,000 for violating a 2008 injunction against whaling in the Australian Antarctic whale sanctuary.

It was yet another blow to Japan’s effort to continue the hunt.

The international community has excoriated Japan for authorizing the whaling, which the country claims is conducted purely for “scientific research.”

In March 2014, the International Court of Justice ruled that the country’s whaling program was not scientific and violated a 1986 commercial whaling moratorium.

Last April, an expert panel appointed by the IWC determined that Japan’s whaling program was not scientifically based, noting that whale research can be conducted through nonlethal means.

Japan agreed to conduct only nonlethal research in the 2014–15 season. But this season, the fleet returned to port with 333 minke whales, and it plans to take the same number annually for the next 11 years.
Starved for Salmon, a Unique Clan of Orcas is Slipping towards Extinction. The Salish Sea’s resident killer whales are as central to the Pacific Northwest’s culture as salmon are to its cuisine. For thousands of years, the salmon have filled our bellies while the whales —10-ton torpedoes piloted by playful, cunning, compassionate minds — have fueled our dreams. But with wild salmon at a fraction of their historic numbers, we’re in danger of losing the 'Southern Residents' for good.  

Blackfish, redfish
Killer whales are divided along family lines that have their own languages, social behavior and hunting styles. Some ‘offshore’ clans specialize in hunting sharks, and have teeth sandpapered down to nubs to prove it. The ‘transient’ groups dine on seals and other whales. Resident whales eat fish. 
The 83 remaining members of the Southern Resident group are fiends for one species of fish — Chinook salmon. According to Deborah Giles, the research director of the Center for Whale Research, 80 percent or more of the whales' diet comes from these fish alone. 
Chinook salmon caught off Astoria, Oregon, around 1910. Modern fish are significantly smaller than these "June hogs."

Resident orcas have been genetically isolated from their mammal-eating relatives for 300,000 to 700,000 years. Until European colonizers arrived, their laser focus on Chinook was an adaptive jackpot. Modern Chinook average 13 or 18 kilograms (30 or 40 pounds) at maturity. In better times, their ancestors could weigh up to 61 kilograms (135 pounds) and grow five feet long. 

Compared to Chinook, other salmon are less-fatty featherweights. The average weight for Coho is 4 kilograms (8 pounds). For Chum, it’s 4 to 8 kilograms (8 to 15 pounds). Southern Residents can and do hunt these fish, but they don’t offer much reward for the effort it takes to catch them.

River hogs
Southern Residents can search as far as California or British Columbia for their favored prey. In the summer, they feed on Chinook that converge in Puget Sound and the Salish Sea. In winter and early spring, they often head to the mouth of the Columbia River. 

There, they gorge on Chinook “loaded with super amounts of protein and fat,” said Bert Bowler, a former Idaho Fish and Wildlife biologist. “It’s how the orcas, no doubt, really thrive.” 

Chinook that spawn in the Columbia River Basin are at just 5 to 10 percent of their historic numbers. All Chinook populations are either threatened or endangered. Overall, 10 to 16 million salmon of all species once passed through the mouth of the Columbia River every year. In 2016, official tallied only about 2 million.

Once, four or so of the biggest, fattest Chinook could have comfortably fed a 10,000 kilogram (22,000 pound) male orca for a day. “Now,” said Deborah Giles, the research director of the Center for Whale Research, “these whales have to work harder to find fewer, lower quality fish.”

Lean years
Few southern resident calves survive to adulthood. Credit: NOAA

As salmon wither, the orcas do too. In recent years, for every one calf born to the three Southern Resident pods, two whales have died. This unique cetacean society is on the razor’s edge of extinction.

To trained eyes, Southern Residents appear emaciated — rather than a robust bullet shape, many sport “peanut heads” from shrunken fat deposits.  And they die in weird and worrying ways. Sam Wasser, a biologist at the University of Washington, found that nearly 65 percent of all Southern Resident pregnancies end in spontaneous abortion. A further 50 percent of calves die soon after birth.

The sickly calves can take their mothers with them. Rhapsody, or J32, a lively female who had been orphaned as a young calf, washed up dead at the age of 18. A necropsy revealed that she was malnourished, and had likely picked up a fatal infection from carrying a lifeless fetus.

Even whales in their prime can fade swiftly. L57, a massive male that Giles described as “the Clint Eastwood of killer whales” died in 2008 at the age of 31. Giles suspects that L57 was a victim of his own success — it takes a lot of Chinook to maintain such an enormous presence.

Better-off relatives
Starvation compounds every other threat the Southern Residents face. The din of ship noise and navy sonar can drown out echolocation and communication. Persistent toxins like flame retardants, PCBs and DDT — banned in 1972 in the United States but still pervasive in the ocean — work their way from polluted water into fish, and then into whales. 
Between 1965 and 1975, around 45 southern residents were captured for marine parks. Only Lolita, who lives alone in the Miami Seaquarium, is still alive. Credit: Terrell C. Newby, Ph.D.

These compounds are particularly dangerous because they’re fat-soluble. When a whale loses a lot of weight in a short time — when she goes hungry, for instance, or when she suckles a calf on fat-rich milk — the stored chemicals are released. In humans, these toxins have been linked to reproductive disorders, low birth weight, low IQ and cancer.   

But, Giles explained, other groups of orcas in similar circumstances are thriving. “There are mammal eating killer whales that occur in the same water as the Southern Residents, but their populations are increasing,” said Giles. “And technically, they’re more toxic.”

The Northern Resident population, which ranges from Vancouver to Alaska, has 290 individuals and has been growing at a rate of 2.2 percent per year since 1974. They’re similar in many ways to their southern relatives — except they get plenty of Chinook.

 “I’m hopeful that the whales could have a turnaround,” Giles said. “But we need to be making some serious changes in our policies. The problem for this particular population is that we don’t have time.”

New Oceana animated maps show dolphins and whales threatened by seismic airgun blasting in Atlantic Ocean

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Press Release Date
Wednesday, August 24, 2016
Location: Washington, D.C.
Contact: Dustin Cranor: 954.348.1314 

Today, Oceana released new animated maps showing dolphins and whales threatened by proposed seismic airgun blasting in the Atlantic Ocean. The maps, which are based on groundbreaking research from Duke University’s Marine Geospatial Ecology Lab, draw from 23 years of data to show us the density of bottlenose dolphins, and endangered fin, humpback and sperm whales overlaid with the current seismic airgun permit application area, over the course of a year. 

Despite the recent decision to protect the Atlantic Ocean from offshore drilling, seismic airgun blasting, an extremely loud and dangerous process used to search for oil and gas deposits deep below the ocean floor, is still being pursued in an area twice the size of California, stretching from Delaware to Florida. According to government estimates, seismic airgun blasting could injure as many as 138,000 whales and dolphins, while disturbing millions more.

“These maps confirm what we’ve long feared, that dolphins and whales along the East Coast are at risk from dangerous seismic airgun blasting for oil and gas,” said Claire Douglass, campaign director at Oceana. “Hearing that whales and dolphins could be injured is one thing, but seeing the scale of the threat is another. President Obama should stop seismic airgun blasting and protect our coast.”

In recent months, opposition to seismic airgun blasting has continued to grow. New bipartisan letters from more than 150 state representatives in Delaware, Maryland, North Carolina, South Carolina and Georgia were recently sent to President Obama urging him to oppose these activities in the Atlantic Ocean. In early July, 15 coastal mayors in South Carolina made headlines when they sent a similar letter to the Obama administration. New legislation has also been introduced in Congress aimed at protecting the Atlantic from such activities. The Atlantic Seismic Airgun Protection (ASAP) Act, which is led by Sens. Cory Booker (D-NJ) and Robert Menendez (D-NJ) in the Senate and Reps. Don Beyer (D-VA) and Frank LoBiondo (R-NJ) in the House, would establish a moratorium on geological and geophysical activities related to dangerous oil and gas exploration along the East Coast.

“We already know that the noise from seismic airguns is especially concerning for marine life, including fish, turtles, whales and dolphins, which depend on sound for communication and survival,” said Dr. Ingrid Biedron, marine scientist at Oceana. “The noise from these blasts is so loud that it can be heard up to 2,500 miles from the source, which is approximately the distance from Washington, DC to Las Vegas. These animated maps clearly show that marine life, including dolphins and whales, would be profoundly impacted by the proposed seismic blasting.”

Last year, 75 leading marine scientists sent a letter to President Obama on the impacts of seismic airgun blasting in the Atlantic Ocean, stating that “the magnitude of the proposed seismic activity is likely to have significant, long-lasting, and widespread impacts on the reproduction and survival of fish and marine mammal populations in the region, including the critically endangered North Atlantic right whale, of which approximately only 500 remain.” 

To date, more than 115 East Coast municipalities, over 1,100 elected officials, roughly 1,100 business interests, including 25 business associations and chambers of commerce, and fishing interests such as the Mid- and South Atlantic Fishery Management Councils, The Billfish Foundation, The International Game Fish Association, the Southern Shrimp Alliance and the Southeastern Fisheries Association, have all publically opposed offshore drilling and/or seismic airgun use. Each has cited threats to marine life, coastal communities and local economies. Along the Atlantic coast, nearly 1.4 million jobs and over $95 billion in gross domestic product rely on healthy ocean ecosystems, mainly through fishing, tourism and recreation.

To access the animated maps and more information about proposed seismic airgun blasting in the Atlantic, please visit