Blog Tags: Whales
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.
A 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.
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.
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.
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.
The spring issue of Oceana magazine is now available online! We are especially excited about the Q&A in this issue, which I did with sperm whale researcher Shane Gero.
Gero, who wrote an incredible guest blog post for us last year, is working on his PhD at Nova Scotia's Dalhousie University, and is the lead researcher for the Dominica Sperm Whale Project.
He has has spent thousands of hours at sea observing families of sperm whales off the coast of the Caribbean island of Dominica. His research marks the first time that scientists have tracked individual sperm whales from birth into maturity, and it provides insights into sperm whale society, diet, genetics, communication and culture. Prepare to be amazed:
How did you become interested in sperm whales?
They are the largest of the toothed whales, among the deepest divers, have the planet’s largest brain, and they can be found in every ocean and most coastal seas and gulfs on the planet, so as a result they are a significant part of the ocean ecosystem. They also live in complex multi-level societies, have a highly sophisticated communication system, and show signs of culture – so there are lots of interesting questions to explore.
During your research have you become attached to any of the individual whales?
I don’t pretend that the animals know who I am, but I have followed some of these whales since birth. I have been there as they have played with their siblings, nursed from their mothers and through the toils and troubles of growing up. As a result, I feel an obligation to them to share their stories in an effort to ensure they have a healthy ocean in which to raise the next generation.
What do you see as the biggest threats facing sperm whales?
While whaling for sperm whales has largely stopped, humans are still the sources of the major threats to sperm whales. Chemical and heavy metals are being found in the tissues of animals from around the world, including those as far away as Antarctica, and animals can become entangled in fishing gear including longline and gill nets. But ocean noise is increasingly being seen as a major threat to cetaceans around the world.
Close your eyes and imagine you’re a sperm whale. Your world is mostly darkness. In order to stay connected with your family you play a constant game of Marco Polo. You see with sound. Now imagine a constant background noise from all around blurring the echoes. As humans it might compare to living in a rock concert your whole life, just asking your neighbor a simple question would be difficult.
Why do you think sperm whale conservation is important?
On an evolutionary timeline, sperm whales are among the oldest of the toothed whales. They have lived in the oceans for longer than modern humans have walked upright. Both the whales and humanity depend on the ocean for survival, so in some ways, I am not asking people to care about sperm whales specifically, I am just asking them to care. If more people feel the shared burden we all have to protect the oceans then I will have done my job.
Anything else you want to share about sperm whales or your research?
Ultimately, what I have learnt from these families of sperm whales thus far is simple. Love your family. Learn from your grandmothers’ experience. Be a good neighbor. Share the burden of your responsibilities by working together. Spend time with your older brother because eventually he moves away. And most importantly, life, it seems, is about the relationships one builds with those around them.
Last week we had a great time at the Washington, DC premiere of “Big Miracle,” the true story of an activist who spearheads an international effort to save three gray whales trapped in the ice in northern Alaska.
The film stars Drew Barrymore and John Krasinski (“The Office”) and Oceana board member Ted Danson also makes an appearance as – get this – an an oil executive.
The movie comes out this Friday, Feb. 3, and we’re excited to be included in the film’s promotion. Starting today, for every two or more tickets you purchase on Fandango, Big Miracle and Universal Pictures will donate $1 to Oceana – up to $10,000!
Did you know that the brown pelican relies on northern anchovy for food? Or that the endangered blue whale feeds exclusively on tiny krill at rates of up to 4,000 pounds per day? Or that a record number of young sea lions were stranded on California beaches last year because they didn’t have enough small fish to eat?
Individually they don’t look like much, but small fish and invertebrates called “forage species” school up to form massive underwater bait balls.
These forage fish are the foundation of the marine food web and provide food for nearly everything else higher up the food ladder. Forage species, such as Pacific herring, Pacific sardine, anchovy, smelts, squid and krill are the critical prey for whales, dolphins, sea lions, many types of fish, and millions of seabirds.
Our new report, “Forage Fish: Feeding the California Current Large Marine Ecosystem,” shows the value of forage fish for fisheries and wildlife – and demonstrates that it’s high time that our fisheries managers recognize their big impact in the ocean.
How many forage fish are needed to feed our ocean’s wildlife and preserve the benefits forage species provide us? That is the question we are asking managers to answer and take into account when setting catch quotas.
As consumers we enjoy forage fish without even realizing it. Activities, such as whale watching, enjoying fresh wild salmon for dinner, and going sport fishing, are all possible because those top predators survive on forage fish. And they are important for the economy, too -- tourism, recreation activities, and fishing brought in over $23 billion in GDP to California, Oregon, and Washington combined in 2004 alone.
Oceana is the first conservation group to assess the current status of Pacific forage fish. Our new report details the role of forage species in the California Current marine ecosystem, the threats to forage species populations, and the flawed management structures currently in place. The report documents the large gaps in stock information and show the fisheries mismanagement taking place at multiple levels of state, federal and international government.
Providing and maintaining a healthy, sustainable ocean ecosystem does not mean shutting down existing fisheries—but it does call for change. The challenge is to extend the principles in our new report to create a new way of managing our resources that goes beyond single-species management, and considers the role of forage species within the ecosystem as a whole.
By highlighting the colossal importance of these tiny forage species, Oceana aims to ensure a healthy, diverse, productive, and resilient California Current marine ecosystem. Be sure to check out the full report and let us know what you think!
Troubling news for the Arctic: This week the government decided to uphold its 2008 decision to lease parts of Alaska’s Chukchi Sea for oil and natural gas drilling.
The decision comes despite an environmental impact statement, released in August, which stated that the approval of Chukchi Sea development will harm subsistence activities, air and water quality, threatened and endangered species, wetlands, and a multitude of mammal, bird and fish species.
We are continuing to fight against unsafe Arctic drilling by filing litigation, raising grassroots support, and conducting further research into the possible effects of oil drilling and spills in the Arctic. You can help by donating now.
Another recent study, conducted by the US Geological Survey for the Department of the Interior, found serious gaps in the scientific knowledge about the possible consequences of Arctic drilling.
Dr. Chris Krenz, Arctic Project Manager for Oceana, said of the decision:
“If corporate oil giants will get to make trillions of dollars from the nation’s oil in the Chukchi Sea, we can afford to spend a few million dollars on science to understand how the Arctic Ocean functions and make sure development is done right.
We know the Arctic is home to such iconic species as polar bears, walrus and beluga whales. We know the bounty of the Arctic seas supports the subsistence way of life for coastal communities. Yet we know very little about how the different components of this ecosystem fit together. With receding sea ice, the Arctic is becoming more accessible.
Just because we can now reach this place doesn’t mean we should develop it. The science simply is not yet there to determine if this kind of industrial activity is feasible without destroying the remote and fragile offshore Arctic.”
Just over a week ago, we delivered nearly 33,000 signatures from our dedicated activists, asking the government to delay Chukchi lease sales until more detailed research can determine whether and how Arctic oil drilling can be accomplished safely.
Last week, in a culmination of several years of work, our European colleagues presented a proposal to protect 15% of the marine area around Spain’s Canary Islands. If the proposal is accepted, it would multiply the current protected area by 100.
Here’s the back story: In 2009 the Oceana Ranger, our research catamaran, sailed to the Canaries, which are off the coast of Morocco. Over the course of two months, the crew documented the seamounts and seabeds of the archipelago, and found a dozen species never before seen in the area, and filmed many rare species, including three-foot-tall glass sponges, Venus fly-trap anemones and lollipop sponges. (For more on the Canaries see this piece from our magazine last winter.)
From CNN.com on Monday:
"We can see the beaches; we can see the dead animals; we can get a count on turtles and whales and all this stuff -- and all of that is eye-level observation," said [Ed] Overton, a professor emeritus at Louisiana State University and a veteran of oil-spill science.
"What we don't know is what damage is done ... to little creatures down below the surface -- or just at the surface -- that we never see."
Today’s Oil Spill Quote of the Day features Elizabeth Griffin Wilson, one of our very own scientists:
From yesterday’s Guardian:
Some 1,020 sea turtles were caught up in the spill, according to figures (pdf) today – an ominous number for an endangered species. Wildlife officials collected 177 sea turtles last week – more than in the first two months of the spill and a sizeable share of the 1,020 captured since the spill began more than three months ago. Some 517 of that total number were dead and 440 were covered in oil, according to figures maintained the Deepwater Horizon response team.
You may recognize this funny looking marine mammal as the large, talking cartoon whale from Will Ferrell’s “Elf” but the narwhal (or “corpse whale” in Old Norse) actually is a very real toothed whale that lives in cold, Arctic waters.
Only male narwhals have the characteristic long tusk, which is actually a super long tooth that can grow up to 10 feet. It is unknown exactly what purpose this tooth serves but scientists do know that it is not used for hunting.
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