Government considers reducing area set aside for endangered porpoise

NewsA vaquita marina trapped in a gillnet. A vaquita marina trapped in a gillnet. ©OMAR VIDAL

Reduced numbers of remaining vaquitas is justification for the change, says environment ministry

Published on Monday, March 1, 2021

The federal government said Saturday it is considering reducing the area in the upper Gulf of California where the critically endangered vaquita marina porpoise is protected.

The measure would reduce the area where there is a ban on the use of gillnets, in which the world’s smallest porpoises are prone to becoming entangled and dying.

But there are fears that allowing the nets to be used across a larger area of the gulf would increase the risk of the species going extinct. There are currently as few as 10 vaquitas in the Gulf of California, the only place in the world they live.×150&!3&btvi=1&fsb=1&xpc=fjinHiZwlu&p=https%3A//

The Environment Ministry (Semarnat) said that a decrease in the number of vaquitas and the area where they have been seen in recent years provides justification for reducing the size of the protected area.

The area extends from the Colorado River delta in the north of the Gulf past the fishing town of San Felipe on the west coast and near Puerto Peñasco on the east coast.

“The possibility of modifying the area of gillnet bans is being studied,” Semarnat said in a statement.

“There have been enough technical studies to indicate a possible reduction in the zone, according to the recent distribution of the vaquita marina in the area.”

The ministry said the possibility would be discussed by a group that includes fishermen, academics, members of the general public and government officials. A first report on the outcome of the discussions will be presented on March 26, Semarnat said.

Many fishermen have vehemently opposed the gillnet ban because they use the nets to catch totoaba, another endangered species whose swim bladders are considered a delicacy in China and yield thousands of dollars per kilogram. Mexican drug cartels are said to be involved in the illegal fishing and trafficking of totoaba, a large member of the sciaenidae, or drum, family of fish.

Fishermen have staged protests against the gillnet ban and attacked vessels operated by Sea Shepherd, a marine conservation group that removes nets in the protected area. Fishermen have also clashed with the navy, which carries out patrols against illegal fishing in the Gulf of California.

Alex Olivera, Mexico representative for the Center for Biological Diversity, said that reducing the size of the protected area would inevitably increase the likelihood of the small remaining population of vaquitas encountering a gillnet.

“Reducing the zone … means cutting the area available to the vaquita marina, and of course this species doesn’t live in a pen, it lives in the marine environment, so as soon as it leaves the zone, it could face gillnets, which are a threat,” he said.

The new humpback? Calf sighting sparks hope for imperilled right whale

Shy giant’s journey back from the brink of extinction has received less attention than its charismatic cetacean cousin{%22adsConfig%22:{%22adTagParameters%22:{%22iu%22:%22/59666047/,%22cust_params%22:%22sens%3Df%26si%3Df%26vl%3D0%26cc%3DUS%26s%3Denvironment%26inskin%3Df%26se%3Dseascape-the-state-of-our-oceans%26ct%3Darticle%26co%3Dashifa-kassam%26url%3D%252Fenvironment%252F2021%252Ffeb%252F18%252Fthe-new-humpback-calf-sighting-sparks-hope-for-im}}}&enablejsapi=1&origin=’s most endangered right whale spotted off Spanish island – videoSeascape: the state of our oceans is supported by

The David and Lucile Packard Foundation

About this contentAshifa Kassam@ashifa_kThu 18 Feb 2021 01.00 EST


It was a memorable finale to a day out on the Atlantic: a four-metre whale calf gliding past the boat as the divers returned to the Spanish island of El Hierro in the Canaries. Their incredible luck, however, would be made clear hours later, as researchers around the world clamoured for more details after seeing the 47-second video of the encounter online.

The divers had unwittingly stumbled across a North Atlantic right whale – one of the world’s most endangered whales. What made the December encounter extraordinary was that the recently born calf, which appeared to be alone, was spotted thousands of miles away from the species’ usual haunts along the eastern seaboard of Canada and the US.

“When I realised what it was, my hair stood up on end,” says Natacha Aguilar, a marine biologist at the University of La Laguna in Tenerife. “This is a species that has been considered extinct on this side of the Atlantic for about 100 years. And all of a sudden this newborn calf appears in El Hierro.”

This is a species that has been considered extinct on this side of the Atlantic for about 100 years

Natacha Aguilar, marine biologist

More than a dozen volunteers sprang into action, combing the area for any sign of the calf or clues as to how it had ended up in the archipelago long after centuries of whaling wiped out all traces of the species from European waters.

A handful of sightings in European waters over the years had been linked to whales with a penchant for transatlantic journeys. But Aguilar was tantalised by another – albeit more unlikely – possibility. “It could suggest that the species could be starting to recolonise the north Atlantic on the European and African side.”

The sighting was a bright moment for scientists tracking a species that has long been in the spotlight for all the wrong reasons. Since 2017, records show that 47 North Atlantic right whales have been found dead or seriously injured – a devastating blow to a species that has dwindled to fewer than 400 members.

Most of these incidents have been linked to interactions with humans. As North Atlantic right whales turned up snarled in fishing lines, nursing deep wounds from ship strikes or reeling from ocean noise, fear began to set in that the species would be the first great whale to become extinct in modern times.

A North Atlantic right whale swims with a fishing net tangled around her head off the coast off Daytona Beach, Florida.
A North Atlantic right whale swims with a fishing net tangled around her head off Daytona Beach, Florida. Photograph: NOAA/Alamy

It was an unnerving turn for a species that just over a decade ago had been a symbol of resilience. Having been nearly hunted to extinction by whalers – right whales were easy targets as they move slowly, linger in coastal areas and float when killed – the species was the first whale to be protected by law, in 1935.Advertisement

Safeguarded from commercial whaling, their numbers began to slowly increase, galvanising hope that the risk of extinction had been staved off.

Further optimism came from another species that had forged a remarkable comeback after as much as 90% of their population was wiped out by whaling: humpback whales, whose numbers have now climbed into the tens of thousands.

“Humpback whales are one of the greatest conservation success stories of the 20th century,” says Chris Johnson of the WWF’s Protecting Whales and Dolphins initiative. “It’s not perfect but they’ve bounced back.”

Even at its lowest point, however, the global population of humpback whales was believed to number in the thousands – far exceeding the estimated population of 356 North Atlantic right whales in 2019.

“Are North Atlantic right whales the new humpback? I would say yes,” says Johnson. “In that we can succeed at this, too. But it’s going to take all of us. There are important decisions that we need to make in the next few years if we’re going to have species like the North Atlantic right whale around.”

A North Atlantic right whale in the Bay of Fundy, Canada
A North Atlantic right whale in the Bay of Fundy, Canada. The whale can be easily identified by the white calluses on its head. Photograph: Brian J Skerry/NG/Getty

Central to saving these whales are the ships that ply the routes off the east coast of North America, as well as the fishers who harvest its waters, rich in lobster and snow crab. Data from US officials suggests that more than 85% of right whales, which can reach the length of a city bus and weigh as much as 70 tonnes, have been entangled in fishing gear at least once.Advertisement

Mitigation measures – put forward after right whales were found ensnared in hundreds of metres of heavy ropes or dragging traps that weigh as much as 60kg – have at times sparked protests from fishing communities who see such moves as an attack on their livelihoods.Calls from the deep: do we need to Save the Whales all over again?Read more

As a result, debate over how best to protect the whales has often been drawn out, wasting precious time for a species on the brink of extinction. “We can’t lose a single whale a year right now,” says Heather Pettis, a scientist at the New England Aquarium, Boston, US. “They really need some immediate action.”

The push for protections has been further complicated by a warming ocean. “This is climate change in action,” says Moira Brown of the Canadian Whale Institute. “You have the most endangered large whale in the north Atlantic having to go further afield to find food because the Gulf of Maine is warming up.”

This search for food has been blamed for the whale’s increased presence in Canada’s Gulf of St Lawrence, an area teeming with ship traffic. It’s a bitter twist on an earlier conservation victory: in 2003, shipping lanes were rerouted in the nearby Bay of Fundy to avoid an important area for the whales.

“When we think of climate change, we think of things happening like the glaciers melting over 100 years,” says Brown. “This has happened in a decade. The pace is phenomenal.”

A 9-year-old male North Atlantic right whale lies dead on a beach in New Brunswick off Canada after being towed onto the shore the night before. The whale was known to researchers who said that in its short life it had endured at least one vessel strike and three entanglements in fishing gear.
A 9-year-old North Atlantic right whale lies dead on a beach in New Brunswick, Canada after being towed onto the shore. The whale was known to researchers who said it had endured at least one vessel strike and three entanglements in fishing gear. Photograph: Nathan Klima/Boston Globe/Getty

The overlapping threats facing the whales hint at the complexity of the conservation issues involved, four decades after a groundswell of support pushed the International Whaling Commission to impose a moratorium on commercial whaling, says Greenpeace’s Willie Mackenzie.Advertisement

“Directly shooting them in the head with a harpoon is obviously a bad thing,” says Mackenzie. “But if we’re talking about ship strikes or fishing interactions, what’s the answer? You don’t get as many fish? You shouldn’t buy as much stuff? It’s not a direct cause and effect thing that people can understand very simply.”

He ascribes some of the success of the earlier campaign to imagery, whether it was the blood-soaked horror of commercial whaling captured by Greenpeace, or the awe-inspiring acrobatics of whales. The same strategy is now complicated by the fact that many of the species most at risk today are shyer and less well-known.

There’s a PR job here – humpbacks are really good at it and right whales not so much

Willie Mackenzie, Greenpeace

“There’s a PR job here and humpbacks are really good at it and right whales not so much,” he says, citing images of humpbacks spectacularly leaping out of the water or slapping their tails on the surface. “If you want to show people the majesty of a whale, that’s the picture you have to show them because they’re not going to be very excited about a black lump in the ocean or a really distant picture of something deep diving.”

Around the Canary Islands, more than six weeks after the North Atlantic right whale was spotted, researchers continue to search for clues. “Right now, there’s not much hope that it will appear again,” says Aguilar. “A newborn of that age is dependent on the mother. Maybe they’ve reunited and are still in the area. But if it is still not with its mother and has not been adopted by another whale, then it has died.”

Still, she is quick to characterise the sighting as a “historical moment” for the region. “It was a moment that gave me shivers and made me want to cry,” she says. “To have a whale considered extinct appear in the Canary Islands, it’s proof that nature, if we take care of it, has an enormous capacity to recover.”

China adds more than 500 species to wildlife protection list

By Reuters Staff


SHANGHAI (Reuters) – China has added 517 species to its list of major protected wild animals, part of its campaign in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic to end the wild animal trade and destruction of habitats.

A joint statement on Friday by the forestry and agriculture ministries said adjusting the list had become “extremely urgent” because of recent changes in China’s wildlife situation. A total of 980 wild animals are now under state protection.

The ministries promised to work with local governments to identify and protect the habitats of the animals added to the list, which include the endangered large-spotted civet and several species of birds that have dwindled in number in recent years.


Those who hunt and traffic the animals face fines and even custodial sentences for “level one” protected species, such as the critically endangered panda, pangolin and Yangtze finless porpoise.

China has been trying to crack down on the wildlife trade since January 2020, after the first cases of COVID-19 were linked to a seafood market in the central city of Wuhan that was known to sell exotic animal species.

Scientists speculate that the coronavirus that causes COVID-19 could have crossed into humans from bats through an intermediary species, with pangolins often identified as a potential candidate.

China has also promised to step up efforts to protect forests and wetlands, and to seal off nature reserves behind “ecological protection red lines” in a bid to reduce human exposure to virus spillovers.

China’s parliament announced plans to implement a permanent nationwide ban on wildlife trade and trafficking in February, though it left big loopholes for the captive breeding of animals traded for fur or used in traditional Chinese medicine.

In the first nine months of 2020, China prosecuted more than 15,000 people for wildlife crimes, up 66% from the same period a year earlier, state prosecutors said.

What Will It Take to Fully Recover Wolf Populations?

National parks are important but insufficient for species revival


In 1987, a farmer near the town of Pouce Coupe, British Columbia, saw four gray wolves on his property and shot one of them. The wolf happened to be radio-collared, and the farmer reported the collar to authorities. The data revealed that the five-year-old female wolf had traveled all the way from Montana’s Glacier National Park—a distance of some 540 miles. This wolf, which was among the first litter of radio-collared wild-born wolves in the western United States, had loped through protected national parks and private ranches, crossed interstate highways, dodged traffic, and, along the way, avoided the rifle crosshairs of ranchers—until it met the last one.  

That one wolf’s story is significant because it illustrates the opportunities and challenges that confront any wolf trying to recolonize the species’ former habitats. Before that event, biologists knew, via radio-collar tracking, that wolves traveled as much as 30 miles a day—but they didn’t know how far they would disperse. “This wolf was miles and decades away from the Yellowstone reintroduction,” says Diane Boyd, who is now the wolf and carnivore specialist of Montana Fish, Wildlife, and Parks Region 1. “Wolves were making a strong comeback in Montana on their own, [even though] Yellowstone was in the limelight for their reintroduction efforts.”“This is the most successful conservation story in North America.”

When many people think of wolf restoration, they naturally flash on the historic reintroduction of wolves to Yellowstone National Park in 1995 and 1996. Most people aren’t aware that wolves were simultaneously reintroduced in Idaho’s Frank Church Wilderness of No Return, and that, even before those notable events, wolves naturally recolonized Glacier National Park, in far northwestern Montana, in the early 1980s. National parks like Yellowstone and Glacier, it turns out, are only one part of the wolf recovery story.

“Parks and wilderness areas aren’t big enough [for full recovery],” says Michael Jamison of the National Parks Conservation Association.

Today, wolves have successfully recolonized many western states, including Montana, Idaho, and Wyoming, while dispersals from those packs have migrated even farther outward to Washington, Oregon, and California and, more recently, to Colorado, Utah, and even Arizona. “This is the most successful conservation story in North America,” Boyd says. 

As wolves rebound across the western United States, conservation biologists are looking at ways to connect migration routes that are independent of traditional land conservation models in order to allow the species to disperse and diversify its gene pool. Parks are a good start, but such protected areas are biological islands in a sea of private property, too small to hold on to all of their wildlife. Once wolves leave the safety and security of protected areas, they have to find suitable habitat, navigate roads, and dodge hunters and ranchers intent on killing them. In order to achieve full recovery, biologists and wildlife conservationists say, we need to connect together the isolated refuges of the parks. “We have to connect the dots,” Jamison says.

“Public land holdings are puppy factories,” says Carter Niemeyer, a retired US Fish and Wildlife Service wolf trapper who has studied wolves for 50 years and helped bring wolves down from Canada’s Jasper National Park to Yellowstone and Idaho’s Frank Church Wilderness. “They are essential for pumping out animals.” But if wolves leave their family pack, they have “a one-way ticket” out if they leave the park because “outfitters, hunters, and trappers are on the edge knocking the hell out of them.” Idaho law, for example, allows individual hunters and trappers to kill up to 30 wolves a year. “All the different categories of public lands are central to dispersing animals and migrating species,” Niemeyer says. 

Despite the threats from hunters and other obstacles such as roads, gray wolves are thriving in a way they haven’t in generations. There are an estimated 145 wolves in eastern Washington, and now 22 packs and 158 wolves in Oregon. There are at least a thousand wolves in both Idaho and Montana. Wyoming has 311 wolves. Experts estimate that California has 15 to 20 wolves. Voters in Colorado recently approved a ballot measure directing the state’s parks and wildlife agency to reintroduce wolves there—the first time that wolf reintroduction has been initiated via a popular referendum. 

“One of the most important keys to wolf recovery is dispersal,” Boyd says. Wolves are dispersing from the epicenters like Glacier, the Frank Church Wilderness, and Yellowstone and moving westwards with ease because there are continuous forest corridors. But if they move south out of Yellowstone into Wyoming, there is an open expanse of land where they are considered varmints and can be shot on site or even aerially gunned down in fracking fields. Lone wolves have trouble making safe passage to distant lands because of the old rancher mentality of “shoot, shovel, and shut up.”


For the wolves themselves, such dispersals are often arduous; for humans, they can be inspiring. In 2009, a Yellowstone female made it to Colorado. In 2008, a female wolf named B-300 swam the Snake River to cross into northeastern Oregon from Idaho. The following year, she mated and had pups. One of them was the famous OR-7—the first wolf to appear in California in more than a century. That wolf found a mate and is now back in southwestern Oregon. 

In 2014, wolf scat was found on the North Rim of the Grand Canyon in Arizona and later confirmed to belong to a gray wolf from the northern populations. Experts believe dispersals this far south means that the northern gray wolf populations could reintegrate with the Mexican gray wolf populations in the Southwest and help diversify the wolf gene pool. Also, in 2014, a four-year-old male from the Boundary Pack in northern Idaho was identified in Utah’s Uinta Mountains.  

A few years later, OR-54, a pup of OR-7, was the 54th wolf to be collared in Oregon. Since January 2018, this female has traveled more than 8,700 miles looking for a mate. She never found one, and in the course of her search, she has crossed back and forth from Oregon to California twice, passing through nine counties. Along the way, the she-wolf also killed some livestock. In December 2019, her radio collar went silent. 

If wolves don’t get shot once they leave protected areas, there is a very high chance they will be hit by a car. The 4.18 million miles of roads that crisscross the United States carve up and fragment important habitat. In an early sign of wolf expansion, eight years after the Yellowstone reintroduction, a two-year-old female from Yellowstone’s Swan Lake pack was hit on Interstate 70 near Idaho Springs, Colorado. And once a road is constructed, it opens up former wildlands to the disturbance of human development and more habitat loss. 

So, have wolves fully recovered? 

Not exactly. The only truly healthy wolf populations that remain are in Alaska and Canada, where 90 percent of the wolves in North America live. This is mostly a function of viable habitat: Most of Alaska and Canada are undeveloped, and so there are simply fewer people, fewer hunters, fewer antagonistic ranchers, fewer vehicles, and fewer roads. In the Lower 48, wolf recovery—for all of its successes—remains precarious. According to the Center for Biological Diversity, there are no more than 6,000 wolves in the continental United States, and they occupy less than 10 percent of their historic range.   

Boyd says she was midway through her career before she realized “people were going to make or break wolf recovery.” She smiles and reflects about how she loved wildlife but dreaded people. “Basically, the first 10 to 15 years of my career, I was kind of a misanthrope living in the North Fork Valley and running crews of dedicated volunteers. All we did was live and breathe wolves.” Now she spends most of her time creating “wolf tolerance zones” by mitigating problems with farmers and ranchers and correcting information. “Only through education can conservation be implemented.” “The old methods of conservation need to evolve into more complementary land-use models that include private lands held in conservancies and agricultural lands featuring a matrix of working acreage and wildlands.”

Boyd and Niemeyer agree that a lot of wildlife management is spent at the kitchen table in a ranch house, drinking coffee and getting acquainted. “Talking about the issues as well as forming relationships of trust,” Niemeyer says.

But even if conservationists succeed in cultivating human tolerance of wolves, the animals will remain isolated in protected areas unless we can construct migration corridors. Wolves and other animals don’t, of course, understand borders and boundaries as lines drawn on the maps. “The flipsides of boundaries are connections,” Jamison says. “Critters are going to go where critters have always gone, and sometimes that is inconvenient for us to figure out.”  

That means that the old methods of conservation need to evolve into more complementary land-use models that include private lands held in conservancies and agricultural lands featuring a matrix of working acreage and wildlands. “Conservation has to wrangle with a pretty colonialist past of just putting lines on a map around pretty places that happened to be other people’s homes for thousands and thousands of years,” Jamison says. 

One example of a new land-use designation is the proposed 130,000-acre Cultural Heritage Area in the Badger-Two Medicine portion of Montana’s Lewis and Clark National Forest. If established as envisioned, roughly half of the area will be set aside for conservation and the other half for cultural heritage preservation. “We have to work and heal our relations because all of the easy stuff has been done,” Jamison says. “New designations will deal with the fact that humans live here. But that is what connectivity is: linking up migrations and corridors by connecting the islands through existing land ownership and connecting people.” 

In other places, wildlife migration corridors can be established through relatively simple methods such as building wildlife overpasses or underpasses to allow safe access across highways and interstates—a  measure that also cuts down on vehicle collisions with wildlife and saves both animal and human lives. Another strategy is to create wildlife-friendly ranches that, among other measures, commit to removing the lowest strand from barbed-wire fences to allow pronghorn antelope to move through, or removing fences and opening fence gates at certain times of the year to allow elk or other game to move through. “Wolves can get around most obstacles, but the fewer the fences, the more receptive the land is to dispersal and migration of wildlife the better,” Niemeyer says.

“Nature’s a nomad, and she needs to move now more than ever because of a rapidly changing climate, compounded by the rapid development of landscapes, whether it is for industry or for highways or subdivisions,” Jamison says. “Critters are forced to move in ways they’ve never been forced to move before.” 

Trump strips protections for Northern Spotted Owl

Published January 15, 2021

Northern Spotted Owl
Northern Spotted Owl. Photo by Shane Jeffries/U.S. Forest Service

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Just last month, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) said the Northern Spotted Owl needed to be reclassified from threatened to endangered, reflecting continued loss of the old-growth forests it needs to live — particularly on private and state lands — and the on-going spread of the invasive Barred Owl, which competes with the Spotted Owl.

The Trump administration declined to uplist the bird, and this week, it pounded another metaphorical nail in the owl’s coffin. On Wednesday, FWS published a final revised critical habitat designation for the Northern Spotted Owl that excludes nearly 3.5 million acres, mostly in Oregon, from federal protections. This is a massive increase from the 204,653 acres in Oregon the FWS proposed to exclude in August.

“Even in its final week, the Trump administration is continuing its cruel, reckless attacks on wildlife at a breakneck pace,” said Noah Greenwald, endangered species director at the Center for Biological Diversity. “This revision guts protected habitat for the Northern Spotted Owl by more than a third. It’s Trump’s latest parting gift to the timber industry and another blow to a species that needs all the protections it can get to fully recover.”

Section 4(b)(2) of the Endangered Species Act requires the Service to balance the benefits and costs of designating areas as critical habitat and consider excluding areas if the costs are too high. The Service did not conduct a new economic analysis but rather relied on a 2012 analysis that found some incremental costs of designating in terms of lost timber harvest. The agency reversed its own previous conclusion that the benefits outweighed the costs.

This is consistent with a recent rule put out by the Trump administration that emphasized giving additional weight to economic costs raised by industries in making critical habitat designations and which the Center for Biological Diversity, along with partners, will challenge.

Based on this analysis, the new critical habitat revision excludes approximately 3,472,064 acres, cutting acres of protected critical habitat originally designated in 2012 by more than a third.

“Excluding millions of acres of federal land will do little to help rural communities in Oregon, but it’ll be another nail in the coffin for the Spotted Owl,” said Greenwald. “Instead of trying to prop up a declining timber industry, we should be doing more to restore forests to save our climate and avoid the extinction crisis. There’s so much work to do in the woods, and much of it is a lot better for the environment than logging.”

Thanks to the Center for Biological Diversity for providing this news.

Trump guts Migratory Bird Treaty Act in ‘parting gift to the oil and gas industr

Feds release plan to better prevent right whale deaths by entanglement

Doug FraserCape Cod Times

The National Ocean and Atmospheric Administration released a much-anticipated plan on Wednesday that it says will reduce North Atlantic right whale mortalities from entanglement in fishing gear by 60%.

The right whale is the most endangered great whale on the planet, with around 360 individuals remaining, including less than 100 breeding-age females.

The new plan achieves the 60% mortality reduction through new seasonally closed areas, increases in the number of pots connected to a buoy line and requirements to add more weak links that allow a whale to break vertical lines and hopefully shed lines and pots.

NOAA’s plan also proposes a more rigorous gear-marking system it hopes will make it possible to identify the fishery management area for fishing line found on entangled whales. That would allow for more precise targeting of problem areas.

New closures include an area south of Nantucket where right whales are congregating year-round but had been subject only to voluntary speed reductions.

NOAA will be holding public hearings on the draft environmental impact statement for the new whale plan, and public comments will be taken until March 1, with an eye toward having new regulations in place for the beginning of the new fishing year on May 1.

A new plan released Wednesday by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration calls for a 60% reduction in North Atlantic right whale deaths. The plan comes as the right whale population continues to decline in number.

The North Atlantic population size has been lower, with an estimated 270 individuals in 1990. The population rebounded to 481 by 2011.

Since then, however, the species has been in decline. Recently, as right whales have migrated into new territory in Canada in search of food, the number of dead right whales caught in fishing gear or hit by vessels has shot up. Particularly hard hit were females, leading some researchers to worry that the species could reach functional extinction — too few females to rebuild the species — within a decade or two.

Scientists have determined that less than one right whale per year, on average, can die of human-induced causes. But that number has been exceeded every year, particularly since 2017 when 17 right whales died, including 12 in Canada and five in the U.S.

NOAA reported that there were only 22 calves born from 2017 to November 2020, with 31 mortalities over that same period. An additional 13 right whales are considered to have life-threatening injuries. Ship strikes were once the leading cause of right whale death, but that has changed, with entanglements causing 85% of mortalities between 2010 and 2015.

The NOAA plan resembles one that was passed by an advisory group, the Atlantic Large Whale Take Reduction Team, over a year ago that also sought a 60% reduction in mortalities, including a 50% cut in the number of vertical lines in Maine and a 30% cut in Massachusetts, the two leading states in landings and effort for the lobster fishery. Maine subsequently withdrew from that multi-state agreement, and NOAA then took over the plan.

Environmental groups, scientists and animal rights activists worried that NOAA was going too slow as right whales continued to die and inch closer to extinction. Many also saw the measure as just an intermediate step bridging to the development of affordable and effective technology that would remove much of the vertical lines that ensnare whales by having gear buoys resting on the bottom until summoned by a signal from the fishing boat on the surface.

“After such an unprecedented delay, this new rule will help stem the surge of right whale deaths we’ve seen over the last several years,” said Erica Fuller, senior attorney at the Conservation Law Foundation. “Ropeless fishing is the only solution that protects whales and fishermen, and the rule expands that practice. However, NOAA must end its reliance on weak rope as a solution and get emergency protections on the water immediately while this rule is finalized.”

Sharon Young, the field director for marine wildlife protection for the Humane Society of the United States, worried that the fishing industry and others might think this was the solution.

“It’s a step in the right direction, however, there will still be a lot of risk-prone lines in the water that will entangle whales, and what we need to work towards is line-free fishing,” Young said.  “By no means does this fix the problem of fatal entanglements in a declining species.”

Endangered ferrets get experimental COVID-19 vaccine

By Stephanie Pappas – Live Science Contributor a day ago

Here, black-footed ferrets are being bred in captivity in northern Colorado.Here, black-footed ferrets are being bred in captivity in northern Colorado.(Image: © Kathryn Scott Osler/The Denver Post via Getty Images)

While humans are still awaiting a jab with a coronavirus vaccine, endangered black-footed ferrets in Colorado have already gotten their shots. 

One hundred and twenty of the ferrets (Mustela nigripes) — once thought completely extinct — have been vaccinated with an experimental veterinary COVID-19 vaccine, according to the Associated Press

Ferrets are highly susceptible to dying from SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19. Minks, a close cousin of ferrets, have already been found to contract coronavirus in fur farms and, alarmingly, in the wild. This is dangerous because any time the virus transmits between humans and animals, it has more opportunities to develop mutations. RECOMMENDED VIDEOS FOR YOU…CLOSE of 02:09Volume 0% PLAY SOUND

Related: Fast-spreading UK coronavirus variant: All your questions answered

“For highly contagious respiratory viruses, it’s really important to be mindful of the animal reservoir,” Corey Casper, a vaccinologist and chief executive of the Infectious Disease Research Institute in Seattle, told Colorado Public Radio (CPR). “If the virus returns to the animal host and mutates, or changes, in such a way that it could be reintroduced to humans, then the humans would no longer have that immunity. That makes me very concerned.”

Black-footed ferrets are native to grasslands on the northern Great Plains. They were once believed to be extinct, but a few individuals were rediscovered in Wyoming in 1981, according to the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service. Thanks to a captive breeding and release program, an estimated 370 black-footed ferrets exist in the wild. 

Due to these low numbers and ferrets’ susceptibility to coronaviruses, conservationists feared the SARS-CoV-2 pandemic would threaten this fragile recovery. Scientists at the National Black-footed Ferret Conservation Center near Fort Collins, Colorado, began injecting their captive breeding population with an experimental vaccine in late summer. The vaccine is different from the ones thus far approved in humans. It uses a purified segment of the vaccine — the spike protein — and an adjuvant chemical that promotes immune response rather than the mRNA platform used by the human coronavirus vaccines.

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The center has now completed the inoculations, leaving 60 ferrets unvaccinated in case something goes wrong with the vaccine, according to CPR. 

So far, the vaccinated ferrets appear healthy, and tests show SARS-CoV-2 antibodies in their blood. However, it’s not yet clear whether the vaccine actually protects against the disease, because those efficacy trials have not yet been completed in the ferrets. Efficacy trials are the equivalent of the Phase 3 trials in humans that recently enabled Pfizer and Moderna’s vaccines to receive emergency use authorization (EUA) from the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). 

“We can do these sorts of things experimentally in animals that we can’t do in humans,” Rocke told CPR. 

Incredible condor soared for 100 miles without flapping its wings

Scientists are learning more about how big birds take advantage of air currents.

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Amanda KooserJuly 14, 2020 11:09 a.m. PT

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Turns out that Andean condors don’t have to flap their wings much.Facundo Vital

Look, ma, no wing flaps.

An Andean condor, one of the largest flying birds on the planet, soared through the air for 100 miles (172 kilometers) and didn’t bother with flapping its wings. This epic example of flight comes to us from a team led by researchers at Swansea University in the UK.

The scientists took a deep look at the connection between environmental conditions and the amount of effort large birds put into their flights. To do this, they attached data recorders to Andean condors that allowed them to log every single flap of the wings as well as the birds’ flight paths. 


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The study, published on Monday in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, found that Andean condors only flap their wings for about 1% of their flight time. Most of that happened during takeoffs and when flying near the ground.

The condors’ soaring stamina is impressive, but these heavy birds must pick their battles when it comes to expending energy on wing flaps. 


“Our results revealed the amount the birds flapped didn’t change substantially with the weather,” said study co-author Hannah Williams of the Max Planck Institute for Animal Behaviour. “This suggests that decisions about when and where to land are crucial, as not only do condors need to be able to take off again, but unnecessary landings will add significantly to their overall flight costs.”

The study draws a connection between today’s condors and some extinct giants that were “more like a dragon.” “Overall, this can help explain how extinct birds with twice the wingspan of condors could have flown,” the paper suggests.

There could be some life lessons for humans in here, too. You don’t always have to break a sweat. Sometimes the easiest route is the best one.

A New Population of Blue Whales Was Discovered Hiding in the Indian Ocean

The whales in the group seem to sing a unique song.

Researchers said that the blue whale song that crackled through the team’s underwater recordings was unlike any they had heard.
Researchers said that the blue whale song that crackled through the team’s underwater recordings was unlike any they had heard.Credit…Robert Baldwin/Environment Society of Oman
Katherine J. Wu

By Katherine J. Wu

  • Dec. 23, 2020

Weighing up to 380,000 pounds and stretching some 100 feet long, the blue whale — the largest creature to have ever lived on Earth — might at first seem difficult for human eyes and ears to miss.

But a previously unknown population of the leviathans has long been lurking in the Indian Ocean, leaving scientists none the wiser, new research suggests.

The covert cadre of whales, described in a paper published last week in the journal Endangered Species Research, has its own signature anthem: a slow, bellowing ballad that’s distinct from any other whale song ever described. It joins only a dozen or so other blue whale songs that have been documented, each the calling card of a unique population.

“It’s like hearing different songs within a genre — Stevie Ray Vaughan versus B. B. King,” said Salvatore Cerchio, a marine mammal biologist at the African Aquatic Conservation Fund in Massachusetts and the study’s lead author. “It’s all blues, but you know the different styles.”

The find is “a great reminder that our oceans are still this very unexplored place,” said Asha de Vos, a marine biologist who has studied blue whales in the Indian Ocean but was not involved in the new study.

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Dr. Cerchio and his colleagues first tuned into the whales’ newfound song while in scientific pursuit of a pod of Omura’s whales off the coast of Madagascar several years ago. After hearing the rumblings of blue whales via a recorder planted on the coastal shelf, the researchers decided to drop their instruments into deeper water in the hopes of eavesdropping further.CLIMATE FWD:: Our latest insights about climate change, with answers to your questions and tips on how to help.Sign Up

“If you put a hydrophone somewhere no one has put a hydrophone before, you’re going to discover something,” Dr. Cerchio said.

A unique blue whale song

The song of the northwest Indian Ocean blue whale population, sped up 20 times to be more audible to human ears.Listen

A number of blue whale populations, each with its own characteristic croon, have long been known to visit this pocket of the Indian Ocean, Dr. Cerchio said. But one of the songs that crackled through the team’s Madagascar recordings was unlike any the researchers had heard.

By 2018, the team had picked up on several more instances of the new whales’ now-recognizable refrain. Partnerships with other researchers soon revealed that the distinctive calls had been detected at another recording outpost off the coast of Oman, in the Arabian Sea, where the sounds seem particularly prevalent. Another windfall came later that year when Dr. Cerchio learned that colleagues in Australia had heard the whales crooning the same song in the central Indian Ocean, near the Chagos Archipelago.

Data amassed from the three sites, each separated from the others by hundreds or thousands of miles, painted a rough portrait of a pod of whales moseying about in the Indian Ocean’s northwest and perhaps beyond.

Using acoustic data to pin down a new population is, by nature, indirect, like dusting for fingerprints at the scene of a crime. But Alex Carbaugh-Rutland, who studies blue whales at Texas A&M University and was not involved in the study, said the results “were very sound, no pun intended.”

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Not much is known about blue whale songs, although most researchers think that they help males woo their mates, as is the case with closely related species.
Not much is known about blue whale songs, although most researchers think that they help males woo their mates, as is the case with closely related species.Credit…Robert Baldwin/Environment Society of Oman

The researchers ruled out the possibility that the songs could be attributed to other species of whales. And side-by-side comparisons of the new blue whale tune with others showed convincingly that the northwestern Indian Ocean variety was distinct, Mr. Carbaugh-Rutland said. “I think it’s really compelling evidence,” he said, drawing a comparison to linguistic dialects.

Genetic samples would help clinch the case, he added. But blue whales, which spend most of their time far from shore, are difficult to study. Whaling in the 19th and 20th centuries also culled hundreds of thousands from their ranks; an estimated 10,000 to 25,000 blue whales are thought to remain.

Not much is known about blue whale songs, although most researchers think that they help males woo their mates, as is the case with closely-related species. That can make any modifications to a cetacean melody fairly high stakes, Dr. de Vos said: “If two populations can’t talk to each other, over time, they’re going to grow apart.”

Eventually, populations with different takes on a tune might splinter into subspecies, with their own behaviors and quirks. There’s not yet evidence to show that has happened with these blue whales, nor much information on what might have driven them apart from their southerly kin. But even if the whales in this new group don’t yet formally occupy a new branch on the tree of life, they are worth getting to know.

“What things like this show us is that there are different populations, with different adaptations, with potentially different needs,” Dr. de Vos said. To conserve the world’s blue whales, she said, “there’s not one single protection measure that’s going to work.”

Two North Atlantic right whale newborns have been spotted off the US coast

By Alaa Elassar, CNN

Updated 2:27 AM ET, Sun December 13, 2020Pictured here is 16 year-old Millipede and her newborn baby. Images taken under NOAA Research Permit 20556-01.Pictured here is 16 year-old Millipede and her newborn baby. Images taken under NOAA Research Permit 20556-01.

(CNN)The year is ending on a positive note for North Atlantic right whales, a critically endangered species, with the spotting of two newborn calves.The right whale is one of the rarest marine mammals in the world, according the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), and there are fewer than 400 of them left in the world, Jessica Powell, a marine mammal biologist for NOAA Fisheries, told CNN.One of the babies, spotted on December 4 off the coast of Cumberland Island, Georgia, was born to Chiminea, who is believed to be 13 years old and is a first time mom. The second calf, found off Vilano Beach in Florida three days later, was born to 16-year-old Millipede.The right whale’s calving season begins in mid-November and runs through mid-April.Content by TUMS®These Firefighters Know HeatWhen hungry heroes get heartburn, TUMS® is here to save the day.”With a population at such low levels, every individual counts, and it is great to see these two new calves at essentially the beginning of the calving season,” Jamison Smith, the executive director of the Blue World Research Institute (BWRI) who captured photos of the babies using drones, told CNN.”It gives us hope that there will be more over the next few months. This species needs all the help they can get so that we might be able to show our grandkids a right whale in the future rather than just tell stories about them.”Millipede and her newborn baby. Images taken under NOAA Research Permit 20556-01.Millipede and her newborn baby. Images taken under NOAA Research Permit 20556-01.The leading cause for whales’ deaths and injuries involve human interaction, including vessel strikes and entanglement in fishing gear, Powell said. It is illegal for anyone, including boats, drones, surfers, and swimmers, to approach whales within 500 yards without a research permit.close dialog

The day’s biggest stories in 10 minutes or less.Sign up and get access to videos and weekly student quizzes.Sign Me UpNo ThanksBy subscribing you agree to ourprivacy policy.“It’s a species that is struggling and it’s essentially all hands on deck to try and save these whales,” Powell said. “We advise folks anywhere in the southeast to be really cautious when on the water during the calving season, to look out for calves, slow down around them, and give them space. Whatever we can do to give these whales a fighting chance.”This species of whale has also been experiencing an unusual mortality event (UME) over the past three years, according to NOAA. Since 2017, at least 32 dead and 13 seriously injured whales have been documented by the organization.In November, biologists mourned the loss of a North Atlantic right whale calf who was discovered dead on the shore of a barrier island off North Carolina. Preliminary reports indicated that the animal died during birth or shortly after, according to Powell, but scientists are waiting for pathology results to confirm the cause of death.