The Beacon

Blog Tags: Marine Mammals

Shell Gets Green Light to Harass Marine Mammals

Bowhead whales would be affected by Shell's drilling. Image via Wikimedia Commons.

Shell now has the green light from the government to harass marine mammals and put them at risk of a major oil spill in the region.

The Arctic Ocean is home to an abundance of wildlife. In the spring, consistent and extensive polynyas—stretches of open water surrounded by sea ice—create pathways into the Arctic for bowhead whales, seals, and birds seeking to take advantage of the explosion of productivity created by summer’s constant daylight.  

For millennia, this great migration of marine mammals and seabirds has been a part of the Inupiat subsistence culture. Now, however, these animals and ecosystems are at risk. Despite the lack of basic scientific information and demonstrated ability to clean up spilled oil in Arctic conditions, our government is poised to allow companies to move forward with offshore oil drilling in the Arctic Ocean. 

Whales, walrus, and other species are protected by laws like the Marine Mammal Protection Act, but the National Marine Fisheries Service and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service may permit small numbers of marine mammals to be “harassed” by industrial activities by issuing the company an “incidental harassment authorization” or “letter of authorization.”

So what, exactly, is allowed?  According to the government, Shell’s plans will result in “Level B” harassment,” which means the activities have:

the potential to disturb a marine mammal or marine mammal stock in the wild by causing disruption of behavioral patterns, including, but not limited to, migration, breathing, nursing, breeding, feeding, or sheltering but which does not have the potential to injure a marine mammal or marine mammal stock in the wild.

According to the government documents, Shell’s drilling activities would result in harassment of thousands of marine mammals such as whales and seals

Of course, it is difficult to evaluate these numbers, or what they might mean for these populations because we are missing basic information, such as good estimates of the numbers of seals and walrus. A fuller understanding of the food web, ocean conditions, and changes due to warming would allow us to better understand the impacts of this harassment and Shell’s proposals more broadly.

humorous website is drawing attention to the impact that Shell’s proposed Arctic drilling program will have on marine mammals, but this is no joke. For its part, Shell continues to push aggressively to drill this summer even as it backtracks on commitments to protect clean air, argues with the Coast Guard about how strong its response barge must be, and loses control of its drill ship. 


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If You Were President...

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We asked our Ocean Heroes finalists: If you were elected President, what would be the first thing on your agenda?

They gave us some pretty great answers, check them out below, and don’t forget to vote for your favorite finalist! Who knows, maybe one of our finalists will be running for President themselves someday.

Adults

Michele Hunter Stop the killing of all marine mammals throughout the entire world.

Hardy Jones Expose levels of pollution.

Kristofor Lofgren I would change our energy policy, because reducing carbon and oil and gas spills, creates a healthier and less acidic ocean.

Dave Rauschkolb End offshore oil drilling.

Rick Steiner An emergency effort in clean, sustainable energy, and energy conservation, to stop climate change and its devastating impacts on marine ecosystems.

Don Voss Appoint Sylvia Earle Secretary of World's Oceans and give her free reins to establish regulations as needed.

Juniors

Sara Brenes Ban all shark finning in US, no shark products to be sold, imported or exported, create an ocean world conservation summit to try and make a plan to end shark finning, whaling and overfishing and try to create peaceful and safe ocean pact.

The Calvineers Reinforce the Endangered Species Act, especially the Marine Mammal Act so that NOAA would be better funded and more efficient at protecting marine mammals from human made dangers.

Sam Harris No killing sharks on this earth ever!!!!

James Hemphill Ban the chemical BPA from plastics to reduce the human input of toxins in the ocean.

Teakahla WhiteCloud I would ban all long-line fishing and trawler fishing and make sure all ocean laws are strictly enforced and make all reef systems National Parks.

Only a few more days of voting are left, tell us your favorite finalists today at oceana.org/heroes!

Photo Credits (clockwise from top left): Oceana/Juan Cuentos, Oceana/Maria Jose Cortex, Oceana/Carlos Suarez, Kip Evans Photography, Oceana/Carlos Suarez, Oceana/Carlos Suarez, Oceana/LX, Oceana/Juan Cuentos, Oceana/LX, Oceana/Juan Cuentos, Oceana/Enrique Talledo.


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What Motivates You?

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To be an Ocean Hero, you have to have a strong commitment to your work—so what keeps our finalists going when the going gets tough?

The voting is open for our 2012 Ocean Heroes Awards, but if you're having a hard time deciding who your favorite finalist is, here's a chance to get to know them better.

Each of our finalists has their own unique story about just what it is that motivates them to protect the world’s oceans. Here’s what they told us keeps them working hard to achieve their goals:

Adults

Michele Hunter Sometimes it's witnessing the small steps a critical patient will take because of the dutiful care and treatment we provide to our patients.  Knowing that all those hours of care made a difference. Being able to stand on the beach with your team and release an animal that you helped save is motivation enough!

Hardy Jones Frankly, what motivates me is the undeniable need for reform of the way we view and deal with the oceans. There is real danger of a collapse of the ocean ecosystem. Other motivation comes from direct contact with the magnificence of the ocean realm. Finally, I am motivated by the knowledge that I can make a difference if I put out the energy and intention to accomplish important goals.

Kristofor Lofgren I want to live in a healthy and beautiful world.  I also want to do all I can to share that wonderful world with others.  I am motived each and every day to help make the world a better place for everyone I never meet, simply because it is the right thing to do.  We all breathe the same air, drink the same water, and share the same earth.  I choose each day to bring passion to simple, good work...and that is enough.

Dave Rauschkolb The unapologetic grip the dirty fuel and nuclear industries have on our world, and seeing that clean energy and renewables are beginning to break that grip.

Rick Steiner I'm motivated by knowing the desperate state of the oceans, seeing my favorite seas and coasts lost to human ignorance and greed, and facilitating the successes I've been involved with.  There is simply no other option but to ramp up the science-based advocacy for ocean protection -- and that is a powerful motivator.  It is urgent to act, not just talk about the problem.  Knowing we can, and must, succeed.

Don Voss I am motivated by the thousands of kids I talk to each year who are interested and react to this project.  I help at least 25 new divers a year get started and into this sport and debris collection.  I am motivated by the progress in removal and changes in water quality we are finding just this year.  I am motivated when others notice what we do and want to participate and/or learn more.  I am motivated when we continue to release thousands of snagged and trapped aquatic animals.  I am spiritually motivated when I visit our Turtle rescue hospital and visit the critters we have sent there.  Turtles are awesome and send me home an activist.

Juniors

Sara Brenes I am so passionate about my belief and my drive to make a difference. I feel like I breathe, eat, sleep, and dream about sharks and our oceans. I think it is just hard wired in to me to not give up and to fight and fight and fight and reach another person and another person and another one. Just don't stop!

The Calvineers The North Atlantic right whale is the most endangered large whale in the world.  Their population has grown little in the last thirty years (from about 300 to about 450), way below the estimated 2-3,000 needed for recovery.  Until the whales recover, the Calvineers will keep up their work of educating the public.

Sam Harris I do it for the sharks. I love them.

James Hemphill My love of the ocean keeps me going.  This is a problem that will not go away.  As long as there is a large human population, there will be conflicts with the environment that need solutions.  I want to be a part of those solutions.  I have a stubborn determination to see cleaner oceans.  This is where I play, swim, surf, fish, and kayak.  I want my children to experience the same beautiful environment that I have.

Teakahla WhiteCloud Knowing that I am saving hatchlings so that the ocean will continue to live so that I will have a future to live.

Don’t forget to visit oceana.org/heroes and vote for your favorite adult and junior finalists. There’s less than a week until the voting period is over!

Photo Credits (clockwise from top left): Courtesy Hardy Jones, Oceana/Dustin Cranor, zeroXTE.com, Oceana/Carlos Minguell, Courtesy James Hemphill, Oceana/Eduardo Sorenson, Courtesy Sara Brenes, NOAA, Courtesy Michele Hunter, Courtesy Kristofor Lofgren, Flickr/Nemo’s Great Uncle (middle).


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Nominate an Ocean Hero!

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2011 Junior Ocean Hero Sophi Bromenshenkel with her snow hammerhead.

Is someone in your community doing great things for the oceans? We want to hear about them!

Nominations for our fourth annual Ocean Heroes Awards open today and we’re searching for people who work hard to make a difference and deserve to be recognized for it. Each year we choose a selection of adult and junior finalists, then let you vote to pick the winners.

What does it mean to be an Ocean Hero? The other day we took a look at previous finalists’ areas of interest, ranging from SCUBA and submarines to marine mammals and sea slugs. They work to influence lawmakers, rehabilitate animals, and reduce pollution. Every Ocean Hero is different, but they all share a passion for the world’s oceans that drives them to make a difference.

You can nominate an Ocean Hero between now and June 20th — that gives you two weeks to tell us about your friends who are working to protect the oceans. This Friday, June 8th is World Oceans Day, a good chance to look out for Heroes in your community.

We will announce the finalists on June 27th, and let you all choose our 2012 Ocean Heroes. The winners will receive a prize package that includes fantastic gifts from our corporate sponsors, Nautica and Revo.

Now’s your chance to tell us about the ocean heroes you know!


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Interesting Things About Interests

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2011 Ocean Hero Peter Wallerstein works to protect and rehabilitate marine mammals.

If you read the blog yesterday, you may recall two things: (1) the 4th Annual Ocean Heroes Contest kicks off on June 6, and (2) nearly 1/3 of Ocean Heroes finalists hail from California. Now while the a significant proportion of finalists in the contest’s  first three years have been from the same state, our 30 previous finalists cover a wide breadth of conservation issues.

For starters, if you were to ask, ‘How are the Ocean Heroes finalists helping the oceans?’, then I’d tell you there are – in my opinion – seven unique areas where people can invest their time: Political Activism, Habitat Conservation, Education, Pollution Reduction, Animal Rehabilitation, Research, and Promoting Sustainability. As you can see in the chart below, most finalists are politically active –from three girls scouts in Hawaii who rallied the state legislature to make World Oceans Day an official holiday to a physics and math professor in California who pushed Italian officials to end drilling in her native region of Abruzzo, which sits east of Rome on the Adriatic Sea.

Ocean Heroes areas of interest

Now that you see there are many different ways to put your energy into ocean conservation, you may ask, “Where is all that energy being focused?’. Amazingly, there’s no end to the different areas of focus where our Ocean Heroes commit their time and energy – SCUBA lessons for underprivileged kids (Education), developing a mooring buoy system to protect coral reefs (Conservation), saving stranded marine mammals (Rehabilitation), and the list goes on and on. As you can see in the pie chart below, marine mammals and sharks are the most popular focal points for our Ocean Heroes Finalists, but even an intense interest in sea slugs (Bonnie Lei, ’10) can earn someone a bid as an Ocean Heroes Finalist.

Ocean Heroes focus

So, whether you want to nominate yourself or someone else for conservation, education or activism, know that there’s no one sure-fire area of focus that makes someone an Ocean Hero Finalist – it’s about dedication and having an impact.


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Marine Monday: Mediterranean Monk Seal

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A Mediterrean monk seal. [Image via Wikimedia Commons.]

The Mediterranean monk seal, like its cousin the Hawaiian monk seal, is one of the most endangered mammals in the world.

Estimates suggest that they number around 400 total, with the largest populations in Greece and Morocco. Mediterranean monk seals are larger than their Hawaiian relatives, and unlike most seals, their pups are born with black fur.

Mediterranean monk seals are not migratory and can usually be found in small groups or alone. They eat primarily fish and cephalopods, and they can communicate about dangers using high-pitched noises.

Pregnant seals used to give birth on beaches, but due to habitat loss they now typically do so in sea caves, which are more protected. At about one week old, Mediterranean monk seal pups enter the water for the first time. Only about half of pups survive their first two months.

Among Mediterranean monk seals, both long-term fostering and milk-stealing are common between unrelated mothers and pups. However, mothers and pups remain together for as long as three years.

Mediterranean monk seals have a long history -- they even appeared on coins around 500 BC. Beginning in the 15th century, they were heavily hunted for skin and oil. Now, fishermen often kill Mediterranean monk seals, either in an attempt to eliminate fishing competitors or accidentally, as bycatch.


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Thursday Trivia: West Indian Manatee

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A manatee takes a rest from its exhausting feeding routine. © Oceana/Carlos Minguell

When Christopher Columbus first saw a West Indian manatee, he thought it was a mermaid – you can decide for yourself if the comparison is apt.

November is Manatee Awareness Month in Florida, so this week we’re checking in with the charismatic sea cows – and if you tweet us what makes the manatee’s teeth unique among mammals, you could win a prize.

The West Indian manatee is found in two distinct populations in the Caribbean and Florida, where they live in warm, shallow water, migrating somewhat with the seasons. They are tolerant of a range of saltiness, although they need occasional access to freshwater to keep from being dehydrated.

Manatees are about 10 feet long and can live to be about 50 years old. Despite their massive size, they are surprisingly agile, even though they swim and steer with just their tails. They are usually pale grey, although calves are darker. Their skin is constantly flaking off, likely to reduce algae. For the most part, manatees live alone, spending about six to eight hours a day eating.

Eating takes up so much of their day because their diet consists primarily of seagrass, which has a very low caloric value. Although manatees have developed a low metabolic rate to help conserve energy, they still need to eat a lot of seagrass – about 10-15% of their body weight each day (!) In addition to seagrass, manatees use their flippers to dig up roots, and will occasionally eat invertebrates or fish.


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Thursday Trivia: Sea Otters

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A sea otter relaxes in Morro Bay, CA. [Image via Wikimedia Commons]

By popular demand, this week we’re discussing sea otters, the smallest marine mammal.

Native to the northern Pacific Ocean from Russia to southern California, this charismatic critter was seriously overhunted for its fur – almost to extinction. It has been protected by international law since 1911 and its population is starting to rebound, but it is still considered endangered. Now 90% of sea otters live off the coast of Alaska. Sea otters can sometimes be found in large groups of either males or females, known as rafts.

The sea otter can spend its entire life in the ocean, including sleeping anchored to kelp beds to keep from drifting away. Because it spends so much time in cold water and has no insulating fat, it relies on its fur, which is the densest of any mammal, to stay warm. It blows bubbles of air into this coat, with 100,000 hairs per square centimeter, to keep water from penetrating to its skin.

The pictures you’ve seen are probably of sea otters floating at the surface, but they are highly adapted to life in the water. Sea otters have a large tail to steer and large hind feet that act as flippers. Sea otters can swim as fast as 9 kilometers per hour and stay underwater for almost six minutes while diving.

Sea otters also eat in the water, hunting invertebrates like mussels, snails and crabs. Otters often become "specialists" in one type of prey, depending on their skills and what is available. The otter stores its prey in skin pouches under its forearms while it returns to the surface, where it uses its chest as a table and pounds frees its tasty morsel using a rock. This makes it one of only a couple of non-primate mammals known to use tools. Sea otters often keep using the same rock for multiple dives, and have been observed washing their prey. Males are known to steal food from females.

Sea otters have voracious appetites; in fact, their hunger can be crucial to maintaining healthy ecosystems. In some areas, otters act as ‘keystone species,’ which means that they keep populations of their prey, such as sea urchins, strictly under control. Without sea otters present, urchin populations could grow rapidly and eat entire kelp forests; with sea otters present, kelp can live long enough to form forests.

Threats to sea otters include oil spills, killer whale predation, which is increasing as other prey options are becoming scarcer; infectious diseases, particularly toxoplasma; and being caught as bycatch, particularly in fisheries that use gill nets.

Learn more about the sea otter and other fascinating animals at Oceana’s marine life encyclopedia.


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Announcing the 2011 Ocean Heroes

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Peter Wallerstein (left) releases a sea lion back into the wild.

Happy World Oceans Day, everyone!

Whether you’re on the coast today or not, we hope you pause to recognize the beauty and bounty of the oceans. Starting today, we're asking all of you to take a pledge to protect the world's oceans -- but more on that later.

And now to the juicy stuff: this year’s Ocean Heroes!

More than 500 ocean activists were nominated, 12 were selected as finalists, and more than 12,000 of you voted. The results? This year’s adult ocean hero is Peter Wallerstein and the junior ocean hero is Sophi Bromenshenkel!

Peter Wallerstein is the program director at Marine Animal Rescue, a project of Friends of Animals, where he has spent the last 25 years rescuing marine mammal in Los Angeles County. He has personally rescued 3,000 marine mammals throughout his career, and also established a team of professional responders that humanely rescues hundreds of animals a year, including whales, dolphins, sea lions and seabirds.

Fittingly, Peter was out helping a stranded California sea lion when I called to give him the good news.


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Ocean Hero Finalists: Peter Wallerstein

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This is the fourth in a series of posts about this year’s Ocean Hero finalists.

For more than two decades, Peter Wallerstein has been rescuing marine animals on the coast of California.

In 1985 he founded the Whale Rescue Team, which is now part of Marine Animal Rescue (MAR), a project of Friends of Animals. Peter started a 24-hour hotline for citizens to report stranded or injured marine mammals, and he has personally rescued more than 4,000 marine mammals and birds in Southern California, from stranded dolphins to whales tangled in gillnets.

Thanks to Peter’s persistence, Los Angeles County now has the only professional marine mammal rescue team in the U.S. that conducts hundreds of rescues each year, working 24/7 if needed. In April he conducted 86 marine mammal rescues, 120 for the year so far.

Now Peter is working to address the lack of adequate care facilities for marine mammals. After a decade of work, the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) has authorized MAR to design, construct and operate a second marine mammal care facility in Los Angeles County.


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