Belugas Are Dying off in Alaska and Oil and Gas Operations Are to Blame, Says Lawsuit


Two environmental groups made a formal announcement that they will file a lawsuit to protect endangered beluga whales whose numbers have plummeted recently, as the AP reported.

The suit aims to void permits allowed by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) that opened up oil and gas exploration in Cook Inlet in southern Alaska. The suit alleges that NOAA violated the Endangered Species Act by issuing the permits without protecting Cook Island belugas. The law requires the formal 60-day notice before the agency can be sued, according to The Associated Press.

The Center for Biological Diversity and Cook Inletkeeper teamed up to send notice that they will sue NOAA.

NOAA’s National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) released a disturbing new population estimate last week that showed whale numbers are far lower than previous estimates and their numbers are dropping rapidly, as Reuters reported.

The NMFS report estimated that only 279 beluga whales remain in Cook Inlet, a steep decline from the nearly 1,300 that lived there in 1979. The population decline has accelerated to an annual rate of 2.3 percent over the last decade, which is four times faster than previous estimates, according to NMFS, as Reuters reported.

Cook Inlet runs almost 200 miles from Anchorage to the Gulf of Alaska. It supplies energy for the south-central part of the state. The industrial activities there threaten beluga whales, which swim there and feast on salmon and other fish, according to The Independent.

The plaintiffs are demanding a new assessment of oil and gas exploration since the Trump administration used higher, inaccurate beluga whale numbers when it gave a permit to Hillcorp Alaska. The permit allows the petroleum company to “take” beluga whales as part of its operations. “Take” is a nebulous term that allows the company to harass and harm whales. The environmental groups want a guarantee that Cook Inlet belugas can recover from any of Hillcorp Alaska’s operations, according to The Associated Press.

“Since we pressed for listing the Cook Inlet Beluga whale as endangered in 2008, the drive for corporate profits and complacent government bureaucrats have conspired to stifle progress for this dwindling stock,” said Bob Shavelson, advocacy director for Cook Inletkeeper, in a statement. “Hilcorp should do the right thing and abandon its plans for new drilling in Cook Inlet.”

Last summer, the Trump administration loosened environmental regulations that allowed for new mining, oil and gas drilling where protected species live, according to The Independent.

“The tragic decline of these lovely little whales spotlights the risk of allowing oil exploration in their habitat,” said Julie Teel Simmonds, an attorney at the Center for Biological Diversity, in a statement. “If we’re going to save these belugas, the Trump administration must cancel permission for the oil industry to use seismic blasting and pile driving in Cook Inlet. These animals are hanging on by a thread, and we can’t let them be hurt even more.”

The groups said that seismic blasting used in exploration and deep-sea mining causes blasts heard miles away. The blasts can register up to 250 decibels. For reference, standing next to a jackhammer is 100 decibels. Those underwater blasts can cause hearing loss in marine mammals, severely disrupt communication between pods, disturb feeding and breeding grounds, and reduce their ability to catch fish, according to the environmental groups, as The Associated Press reported.

The deadly ‘ghost gear’ which haunts seas and coastlines

Minke whaleImage copyrightSMASS ORKNEY
Image captionA pregnant minke whale was found tangled in a fishing net in Orkney in October last year

More than half a million tonnes of fishing gear is estimated to be lost or abandoned every year in the world’s seas and oceans. Some of it entangles and kills wildlife at sea and on shore.

Conservationists call it “ghost gear”.

It includes fishing nets, long lines, fish traps and lobster pots left drifting at sea usually after being accidentally lost from fishing grounds or boats, or discarded in an emergency such as in a storm.

“Fishing gear is designed to trap marine organisms, and it can continue to do so long after the gear is lost or discarded in the ocean,” says Joel Baziuk of the Global Ghost Gear Initiative (GGGI).

“When lost fishing gear keeps catching fish after its intended lifespan, it is called ghost fishing.”

Dead whaleImage copyrightKAREN MUNRO
Image captionThe whale’s body came ashore near Scrabster

He said ghost gear was the most harmful form of debris to marine life because of the risk of entanglement or entrapment.

GGGI estimates at least 640,000 tonnes of fishing gear are lost or abandoned every year.

The hotspots include the Gulf of Carpentaria in Australia and Hawaii in the Pacific.

Joel says: “Ghost gear is a problem anywhere fishing takes place, and that includes Scotland.”

Seal pup in netImage copyrightDAVID YARDLEY
Image captionThis five-week-old grey seal pup was successfully rescued after getting entangled in a plastic net
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The risks this marine pollution poses to wildlife include entanglement, when animals get wrapped up in rope and other gear.

In Scotland, the Scottish Marine Animal Strandings Scheme (Smass), which investigates marine animal deaths, recorded 12 entanglement cases in 2019.

They included a pregnant whale found dead and tangled in a fishing net in Orkney in October. The net was jammed in the animal’s baleen, the filter-feeder system inside its mouth.

In May, a humpback whale entangled in fishing gear washed up dead close to Scrabster, near Thurso on the north Caithness coast.

The previous month, another humpback whale was found to have been entangled in rope for “weeks, if not months” before it drowned off the East Lothian coast near Tyningham.

What are the other risks?

Rope found in whale's stomachImage copyrightSMASS
Image captionA 100kg “litter ball” was found in the stomach of whale that washed up in Harris

Entanglement is not the only threat posed to whales.

A sperm whale that died after stranding on the Isle of Harris in November had a 100kg “litter ball” in its stomach.

Fishing nets, rope, packing straps, bags and plastic cups were among the items discovered in a compacted mass during an investigation by Smass.

Seals have also been caught up in nets and ropes, though there have been successful rescues of these animals, including the saving of a five-week-old grey seal pup entangled in a plastic net on Lewis.

A hotline run by British Divers Marine Life Rescue (BDMLR) has received 47 reports of entangled seals this year in Britain. Some of the animals were lucky and were rescued, or managed to free themselves.

Stag with fishing gear in antlersImage copyrightSNH
Image captionA stag on the Isle of Rum with fishing gear caught in its antlers

Other ghost gear victims include animals that forage on shorelines.

In 2017, stags on the Isle of Rum were found with fishing gear caught in their antlers. Two of the animals died after becoming snarled up together in discarded fishing rope, while another stag was photographed with an orange buoy and rope balled up in its antlers.

Even tiny fragments of ghost gear is a risk, say conservationists.

Noel Hawkins, of the Scottish Wildlife Trust’s Living Seas project, says: “Some of the small stuff can be as devastating to wildlife as many seabirds swallow it thinking it is fish eggs or food.

“They choke on it and even use it as nest material, which endangers chicks.”

What is being done?

BDMLR volunteers rescuing a young minke whaleImage copyrightBDMLR
Image captionBDMLR volunteers rescuing a young minke whale

Scotland is playing its part in a global effort to tackle ghost gear.

In a GGGI project, divers from the Ghost Fishing UK initiative have carried out underwater clean-ups in Orkney.

BDMLR, meanwhile, is part of the Scottish Entanglement Alliance (Sea), a coalition of conservation groups, rescue teams and fishermen.

The coalition is seeking to find best practices to avoid entanglements and the most effective responses to any incidents.

This year the alliance trained 20 people working in the fishing industry throughout Scotland in how to help disentangle animals.

And there have been success stories. In October, BDMLR helped to free a humpback from fishing ropes in Orkney.

New technology, such as prawn creels that can be lowered into the sea and returned to the surface without the need of ropes is also being trialled.

What else is happening in Scotland?

Summer Isles rubbishImage copyrightSWT
Image captionWhile tonnes of marine litter is cleared from Scotland’s shores, conservationists warn much more remains floating out to sea

The Scottish Fishermen’s Federation says the fishing industry across Europe is “actively engaged” with the issue of discarded gear.

“Very little” fishing equipment is lost at sea by the Scottish fleet, according to the federation’s chief executive Elspeth Macdonald.

She says: “Trawl nets are expensive, which means that skippers try to get as much use as possible out of them, and put them ashore to be mended when required.

“The bulk of the ghost gear found in the Scottish sector is monofilament netting used by French and Spanish gill netters and longliners on the west coast.”

There is also an effort to clean up ghost gear that washes up on Scotland’s shores.

Summer Isles rubbishImage copyrightSWT
Image captionRubbish collected from beaches in the Summer Isles being loaded on to a boat for disposal
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In the north west Highlands, Scottish Wildlife Trust’s Living Seas project has been setting up beach clean stations in remote locations.

The stations are large pallet boxes with litter pickers and bags attached and members of the public walking along the beaches are encourage to use the stations to gather up any litter they find.

The project’s Noel Hawkins says: “One of these just north of Ullapool at Dun Canna beach has taken in over tonne of rubbish alone.”

In July, tonnes of rubbish was removed from the Summer Isles in the north west Highlands in another of the project’s clean-ups.

Fishing ropes and nets were among the other items gathered in a clean-up

But Noel says: “It is worth remembering that some estimates think only 3 to 5% of rubbish actually comes ashore though.

“There is still a lot more out there.”

All images are subject to copyright.

More on this story

  • Pregnant whale found tangled in ‘ghost gear’ in Orkney
    8 October 2019
  • Whale washes up near Scrabster entangled in fishing gear
    30 May 2019
  • Dead whale was tangled in rope in East Lothian for ‘months’
    25 April 2019
  • Stags on Rum found tangled in discarded fishing gear
    23 May 2018

Demand for whale meat is down. So why did Japan just resume commercial whaling?

Japanese commercial ships hunting whales for the first time in more than three decades caught at least two minke whales Monday and hoped to “hand over our country’s rich whaling culture to the next generation.”

The nation’s Fisheries Agency said it has set “extremely conservative” quotas designed to allow continuous whale hunting for the next 100 years with no harmful impact on the whale population.

Renewing the practice is a win for traditionalists that also extricates the government from its costly and contentious “research” whaling program. It’s just not clear who will actually eat the stuff.

“My heart is overflowing with happiness,” said Yoshifumi Kai, head of the Japan Small-Type Whaling Association. ““This is a small industry, but I am proud of hunting whales. People have hunted whales for more than 400 years in my hometown.”

The Australian Marine Conservation society took a different tack. Darren Kindleysides, the group’s CEO, called whaling “outdated and cruel” and noted that demand for whale meat has dwindled.

  ought that by leaving the IWC it could wash its hands of its duties under international law, then it was wrong,” he said, adding that “Today is a historic moment for all the wrong reasons.”

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The limits allow for harvesting of 227 minke, Bryde’s and sei whales over the next six months in Japanese waters. Release of the quota had been planned for late June but apparently was withheld until completion of the Group of 20 summit held in Osaka over the weekend.

Whales caught in coastal waters are expected to be brought back for fresh local consumption at any of six local whaling hubs. Whale meat caught further off the coast will be frozen and distributed for wider consumption.

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The hunt began one day after Japan formally withdrew from the International Whaling Commission. While a member, Japan had drawn criticism for whaling it conducted under the guise of research.

Under Japan’s new guidelines, whaling in the Antarctic Ocean is banned and research whaling will halt. The Fisheries Agency said the whale haul is actually expected to decline under the new rules.

Other whaling nations have seen catches fall well below quotas. Iceland, with a quota of 378, caught only 17 whales in the 2017-2018 season. Norway hunted 432, about one-third of its quota.

Under its research hunts, Japan at its peak caught as many as 1,200 whales. It drastically cut back on its catch in recent years after international protests escalated and whale meat consumption slumped at home. The research whaling program lost money for years – $15 million in the last year alone.

The annual domestic consumption of whale meat, about 200,000 tons in the 1960s, has fallen to around 5,000 tons in recent years, according to government data.

In the northern city of Kushiro, whaling ship captain Takashi Takeuchi told Kyodo news service he “felt uneasy” about the outlook for commercial whaling in Japan. He noted that Japanese have long since eaten whale meat consumption on a regular basis.

Hideki Abe, 22, works aboard a whaling ship, said the youth of Japan will be key to whaling’s future.

“I hope the younger generations will get accustomed to eating whale meat,” he said.

Contributing: The Associated Press

Save our whales: Stop octopus trap fishing in False Bay, Cape Town

Whales Source: Google Images

We request an immediate moratorium on all octopus trapping in the False Bay area until such time as stakeholders and concerned citizens are consulted and can agree on a safe operating standard/procedure for the use of traps used in the octopus trapping fishing industry and that the Department uses this period of Moratorium to gather much needed information on stock levels and the impact of octopus trap fishing on the environment.

For many years now permits for trapping of octopus in the False Bay area have been issued to a local fishing company and during this period there have been numerous entanglements and deaths and it is now time to put an end to the suffering and deaths.

The Department of Agriculture, Fisheries & Forestry (which has recently been incorporated into Environmental Affairs) were negligent in issuing a permit to the permit holder, relying solely upon data submitted by the permit holder to determine whether the stock was a viable source to fish. As per their 2016 Status report they listed the stock status as “unknown” – nearly 20 years since the start of octopus trapping – after such a long period surely they should know what the stock levels are and what impact this fishing is having on the stock and what effect it is having on other species such as otters and sharks who also feed on octopus.

These traps, with long ropes tied to buoys that float on the surface, are a danger not only to whales and dolphins but they also pose a huge risk to boats and ships.  False Bay is the home to the South African Navy and in the past they traps allegedly had sonar reflectors and lights on them – this is no longer the case.  There is no visible warning on any of the traps in the bay and poses a big risk to the military and recreational boat user.

The traps in the Simon’s Bay area are in areas used by the Naval ships and submarines.  Should a submarine catch one of these ropes in its propellers it could mean catastrophic loss of life of those on board.  Small boats and yachts are often out in rough weather or at night and they pose a serious threat to these vessels as well.

The two most recent whale entanglements on the 8th and the 10th of June 2019 caused the unnecessary and avoidable death of a Bryde’s Whale.

The whale is from the ‘inshore’ stock of Bryde’s whales. This is a small resident population that does not migrate. We do not have a good estimate of the whole population nor a thorough understanding of population structure (but there is some). Available information suggests the population is very small. A survey in 1983 estimated 583 +- 184 in the population (Best et al. 1984). More recent work based on photos of individuals suggests this is about right (not published yet – G Penry data). Using the best available knowledge at the time – the 2016 South Africa Red List assessment confirms there are almost certainly fewer than 1000 and ‘up-listed’ the population to VULNERABLE. Recent genetic work by Gwen Penry at NMU strongly suggests that this is potentially a subspecies in its own right (Penry et al. 2018).
Information to hand is that 12 of these animals have been caught (of which 8 died) in trap fisheries along the SA coast over the years, although it is not clear if they were all octopus or if some were crayfish traps.
The Bryde’s whale population is small, localised, officially vulnerable and clearly prone to being caught in trap fisheries. We strongly encourage further research into the topic of impacts on the population and a clearer definition of the status of the fishery.

We implore the Honourable Minister to place an immediate moratorium on all trapping in the False Bay area until such time as stakeholders and concerned citizens are consulted in order to come up safe operating procedures that will include compulsory 24 hour monitoring at sea of these traps as well as sufficient visible signalling on the bouys to avoid any further endangerment of both marine and human life.  This Moratorium will also allow the Department time in which it can assess the current stock levels and update much needed information that they need in order to be able to apply their minds when considering the issuing of permits.

Act now and save our seas.

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Japan’s commercial whaling to restart July 1 after 3-decade hiatus

In this June 1, 2019 photo, a whaling vessel departs from Abashiri port in Japan’s northernmost main island of Hokkaido, to take part in the last round of what Japan calls “research” whaling off the Pacific coast ahead of the country’s withdrawal from the International Whaling Commission at the end of June for commercial hunting. (Kyodo)

SAPPORO (Kyodo) — Japan will restart commercial whaling on July 1 in Kushiro, Hokkaido, following a three-decade hiatus after the government announced its withdrawal from the International Whaling Commission in December, a local fishery source said Friday.

A fleet of five vessels belonging to six whaling operators from Abashiri in Hokkaido Prefecture, Ishimaki in Miyagi Prefecture, Minamiboso in Chiba Prefecture and Taiji in Wakayama Prefecture, who have been conducting the last round of Japan’s so-called scientific whaling around Abashiri port since June 1, will embark on the mission.

Whaling operators are making final arrangements with relevant bodies to hold a ceremony the day they set sail from Kushiro, where they will commence their activities for around a week.

Each vessel will then separately fish for Berardius whales off Minamiboso and other areas until around the end of August. They are expected to regather in Kushiro in September before embarking to hunt minke whales until October.

Japan halted commercial whaling in 1988 in line with a moratorium adopted in 1982 by the IWC. But it has hunted whales for what it claims are research purposes ever since, a practice criticized internationally as a cover for commercial whaling.

Japan will hunt whales in nearby waters and within its exclusive economic zone but not in the Antarctic Ocean, where the country has carried out “scientific whaling.”

Around 200,000 tons of whale meat was consumed in Japan each year in the 1960s, but the figure has fallen to around 5,000 tons in recent years, according to government data.

No ‘Free Willy’ moment: captive whales, dolphins exempted under Canada ban

WATCH: The Vancouver Aquarium started planning for a future without whales and dolphins in early 2018.

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Canada’s ban on captive whales and dolphins will not affect those already in captivity, meaning nearly 60 animals will likely live out their natural lives at Marineland and the Vancouver Aquarium.

The so-called ‘Free Willy’ bill passed in the Senate Monday will make it illegal to possess whales or dolphins — collectively known as cetaceans — for anything other than research or rehabilitation purposes. Offenders can be fined up to $200,000 under the Criminal Code of Canada, although whales and dolphins currently held in captivity are exempt. The bill also outlaws breeding cetaceans in captivity.

READ MORE: Whale and dolphin captivity banned by law in Canada

The bill’s grandfather clause will allow Marineland in Niagara Falls, Ont., to keep its nearly five dozen cetaceans until they all die. Among those cetaceans are five young beluga whales that could live up to 50 years — the expected lifespan of a beluga in the wild.

WATCH: Feds introduce measures to save endangered orcas

Marineland owns the vast majority of living whales and dolphins in Canada, according to the whale-tracking site Cetabase. The park has an estimated 51 beluga whales, five bottlenose dolphins and a 40-year-old killer whale at its facility in Niagara Falls, according to Cetabase data and media reports. The park has not confirmed those exact numbers.

Marineland says it remains confident that it complies with all aspects of the new bill, which is awaiting royal assent. The park claims the exemption for its whales “acknowledged Marineland’s role as a custodian for the cetacean populations that call Marineland home, and specifically acknowledged that Marineland Canada’s actions are not inherently animal cruelty.”

The bill passed by the Senate does not explicitly mention Marineland or animal cruelty.

WATCH: Crown drops animal cruelty charges against Marineland in 2017

“Marineland Canada continues to be a facility where children can learn about and be inspired by cetaceans without invading their natural habitats or disturbing cetacean populations that live in the ocean,” the park said in a statement on Monday. Marineland says it started evolving its operations “some time ago,” and it’s confident that evolution will keep it compliant with all aspects of the new bill.

Marineland did not provide Global News with the exact number of whales and dolphins in its care, nor did it say whether it will release any into the wild.

“Marineland will continue to provide world-class care to all marine mammals that call Marineland home,” the park said in a statement to Global News.

“With our current mammal population, we will be able to operate decades into the future uninterrupted.”

READ MORE: Ships must keep 400 metres away as part of new rules to protect killer whales on B.C. coast

Many aquariums around the world have faced intense criticism for housing cetaceans since 2013, when the documentary film Blackfish depicted the allegedly poor treatment of killer whales in captivity at SeaWorld in Florida. SeaWorld has described the film as inaccurate, misleading and exploitative.

Activists have been pushing for aquariums to divest themselves of their whales and dolphins ever since the film’s release.

The federal Green Party and its leader, MP Elizabeth May, applauded the ban as a ‘Free Willy’ law on Monday.

“These intelligent, social mammals will now get to live where they belong — in the ocean,” the party wrote on Twitter.

May sponsored the bill in the House of Commons, while Sen. Murray Sinclair sponsored it in the Senate.

The bill also leaves room for the Vancouver Aquarium to hold onto its only cetacean, a Pacific white-sided dolphin named Helen.

The Vancouver Aquarium started phasing out its whale and dolphin displays last year following public pressure over the deaths of two belugas. It sent another pair of its belugas to Spain in May, one month before the bill was passed. Those belugas had been living at Marineland Canada.

WATCH: Vancouver Aquarium says ‘toxin’ killed belugas in 2017

“The decision to move them was made in their best interest, not because of politics,” the Vancouver Aquarium said in a statement at the time.

Activists celebrated the law on Monday under the hashtag #EmptytheTanks.

The bill will come into effect once it receives royal assent.

Ottawa passes legislation that bans whale and dolphin captivity in Canada

Keeping whales and dolphins in captivity will no longer be allowed across Canada under legislation that passed Monday, drawing celebrations from activists and politicians who called it a significant development for animal rights.

The federal bill, which now only requires royal assent to become law, will phase out the practice of holding cetaceans — such as whales, dolphins and porpoises — in captivity, but grandfathers in those that are already being kept at two facilities in the country.

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“Today’s a really good day for animals in Canada,” said Green Party Leader Elizabeth May, who sponsored the private member’s bill that began its journey in the Senate in 2015 before moving on to the House of Commons.

“Many scientists testified to why it was critical that we stop keeping cetaceans in captivity. We understand why because they are obviously not akin to other animals, for instance, livestock. Cetaceans require the ocean, they require the space, they require acoustic communication over long distances.”

Gord Johns, the NDP critic for fisheries and oceans said the bill’s passage marked “a celebration for cetaeans, for animals rights, the planet and our oceans.”

The legislation, which had its third and final reading Monday, received support from the Liberals, NDP and Bloc Quebecois, with some Conservatives opposed.

It bans the capture of wild cetaceans, but does allow for the rehabilitation and rescue of the aquatic mammals. The bill also changes the Criminal Code, creating new animal cruelty offences related to the captivity of cetaceans. Breeding is also banned.

Imports and exports of cetaceans will also be banned under the bill, with exceptions only for scientific research or “if it is in the best interest” of the animal, with discretion left up to the minister, thereby clamping down on the marine mammal trade.

“This is a watershed moment for whales and dolphins, and powerful recognition that our country no longer accepts imprisoning smart, sensitive animals in tiny tanks for entertainment,” said Camille Labchuk, executive director of advocacy group Animal Justice.

Animal rights group PETA said it was “popping the champagne corks today as Canada makes history.”

“We look forward to a day when confining sensitive, complex marine mammals to tiny tanks is outlawed in every country around the world,” Tracy Reiman, the group’s executive vice-president, said in a statement.

Marineland in Niagara Falls, Ont., and the Vancouver Aquarium in British Columbia are the only two facilities in Canada that currently keep captive cetaceans.

The Vancouver Aquarium announced last year that it would no longer house cetaceans and has one dolphin left at its facility. That came after Vancouver’s board of parks and recreation passed a bylaw amendment in 2017 banning cetaceans being brought to or kept in city parks after two beluga whales held at the aquarium died.

Marineland, meanwhile, has told the government it has more than 50 belugas at its facility.

It recently received approval to export two belugas, both owned by the Vancouver Aquarium, to a park in Spain. It also applied to move five more belugas to facilities in the United States, but hasn’t received those approvals yet, a Fisheries spokeswoman said late last week.

The facility told the government it had problems with the way the whale and dolphin captivity bill was written, noting that it would be in violation of the Criminal Code when the law comes into effect since some of its belugas are pregnant and set to give birth this summer.

On Monday, it said it will comply with “all animal welfare legislation in Canada.”

“Marineland began an evolution in our operation some time ago, and as that evolution continues we are confident that our operations remain compliant with all aspects of (the bill),” it said in a statement.

The head of Humane Canada, an animal welfare group, said the legislation was needed.

“If the bill didn’t do something to end captive breeding, we could have ended up with a beluga farm in Marineland,” said Barbara Cartwright.

Phil Demers, a former whale trainer at Marineland who testified at hearings on the bill, said he was “elated” at it passing.

“Marineland could never be again, if it wanted to start today,” said Demers, a longtime critic of Marieland who is engaged in a legal battle with the facility.

Marineland, for its part, has long said it treats its animals well.

“Marineland Canada continues to be a facility where children can learn about and be inspired by cetaceans without invading their natural habitats or disturbing cetacean populations that live in the ocean,” it said Monday. “We’re proud of our work, and our contribution to research, education, and conservation.”

2 more dead gray whales are found in Alaska, bringing the year’s toll to 75 along the US West Coast

By Jay Croft, CNN
water next to the ocean: POINT REYES STATION, CALIFORNIA - MAY 23: A dead Gray Whale sits on the beach at Limantour Beach on May 23, 2019 in Point Reyes Station, California. A thirteenth Gray Whale washed up dead on a San Francisco Bay Area beach as scientists try to figure what is killing the whales. Dozens of Gray Whales have been found dead along the Pacific Coast between California and Washington since the beginning of the year. (Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)© Justin Sullivan/Getty Images North America/Getty Images POINT REYES STATION, CALIFORNIA – MAY 23: A dead Gray Whale sits on the beach at Limantour Beach on May 23, 2019 in Point Reyes Station, California. A thirteenth Gray Whale washed up dead on a San Francisco Bay Area beach as scientists try to figure what is killing the whales. Dozens of Gray Whales have been found dead along the Pacific Coast between California and Washington since the beginning of the year. (Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)Two more gray whales were found dead this week in Alaska amid the mysterious surge of deaths within the species this year along the US West Coast, CNN affiliate KTUU reports.

That makes seven in Alaska and at least 75 total, in what the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration calls an “unusual mortality event,” the station reports.

One of the two found near Kodiak Island in the Gulf of Alaska showed signs of killer whale “predation,” KTUU reports.

Two more were discovered this week off Washington state.

Last month, ocean scientists said they were worried about the death rate, the highest in almost two decades. Some of the mammals were underweight, which may mean they could not find enough food in the water, a possible result of climate change, NOAA spokesman Michael Milstein said.

In all of last year, 45 gray whales were found onshore, NOAA said.

Gray whales do most of their eating during summers in the Arctic and migrate to spend half the year in Mexico.

They can reach 90,000 pounds. The species was endangered until 1994.

Hearing set on NOAA plan for Makah whale hunts

Makah tribal members process a gray whale after it was harpooned and towed ashore in Neah Bay in this file photo from May 1999. (Peninsula Daily News)Makah tribal members process a gray whale after it was harpooned and towed ashore in Neah Bay in this file photo from May 1999. (Peninsula Daily News)

NEAH BAY — The Makah Tribe would hunt from one to three Eastern North Pacific gray whales annually over 10 years under a federal proposal announced Thursday that could go into effect in 2020, federal and tribal officials said.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) recommendation threatens to renew divisions between anti-whaling and animal-rights advocates and the coastal tribe, whose last sanctioned whale hunt was in 1999.

“We never ceased continuing to move forward with our efforts,” Tribal County member Patrick DePoe said Thursday. “We’ve been on pause for quite some time. It’s a good feeling to see things starting to happen.”

NOAA has recommended that the federal Marine Mammal Protection Act (MMPA) moratorium that prohibits killing whales and other marine mammals should be waived to allow Makah tribal whaling.

The proposal will be reviewed and commented on at a hearing in front of Administrative Law Judge George A. Jordan at a 9:30 a.m. Aug. 12 at the Henry M. Jackson Building in Seattle.

NOAA’s report and outline of the hearing process will be published today in the Federal Register.

“To waive the MMPA to actually kill whales, that’s a new one,” said Joyce resident Margaret Owens, who with her husband, Chuck, founded Peninsula Citizens for the Protection of Whales.

“We don’t consider the killing of any gray whales acceptable, and we are particularly sensitive about our resident group of 30. We are back into saving whales, which we never did stop.”

Jordan will make a recommendation to Chris Oliver, assistant administrator of NOAA’s National Marine Fisheries Service.

If Oliver approves the waiver, the Makah would apply for a five-year renewable whaling permit with NOAA Fisheries to allow the hunt to proceed, NOAA spokesman Michael Milstein said Thursday.

After 10 years, the waiver would expire.

“We’d have to essentially re-examine everything and assess how things proceeded and see if we would propose a new waiver,” Milstein said.

The tribe, recognized as an aboriginal subsistence whaling group by the International Whaling Commission, would not need permission from the IWC if the waiver is approved, DePoe said.

In May 2007, the International Whaling Commission granted the Makah a harvest quota of up to 20 whales over five years, with no more than five in one year.

The agency’s proposal was announced almost 20 years to day when, on May 17, 1999, Makah whalers hunted and killed an Eastern North Pacific gray whale for the first time in more than 70 years, an event closely chronicled by national media.

The tribe asserted its right to whale under the 1855 Treaty of Neah Bay, under which the Makah ceded thousands of acres of land to the U.S. government.

The tribe applied for the waiver in 2005 to hunt 20 gray whales every five years.

Under NOAA’s recommendation, Makah whalers could hunt up to three Eastern North Pacific gray whales in its usual and accustomed whaling areas on even- numbered years and one on odd-numbered years.

NOAA estimates the population of Eastern North Pacific gray whales is 27,000.

The Eastern Northern Pacific whales would be harpooned, then dispatched with .50-caliber rifles, as the gray whale was in 1999.

Milstein said Makah whalers would hunt in a way that the approximately 192 whales in the Pacific Coast Feeding Group (PCFG) gray whales — including 30 “resident” whales that feed close to Clallam County’s shores and the 200 whales in the endangered Western North Pacific (WNP) gray whale population — would not be harmed.

The WNP population inhabits waters off Russia and visits waters in the the tribe’s usual and accustomed areas.

“Even-year hunts would occur during the migration season (Dec. 1 of an odd-numbered year through May 31 of the subsequent even-numbered year) to reduce risk to PCFG whales,” according to NOAA’s report.

“Odd-year hunts would occur during the feeding season (July 1 through Oct. 30 of odd-numbered years) to reduce risk to WNP whales,” according to the report.

The risk of striking WNP whales during even-numbered years is one in 170 years, Milstein said.

At that time of year, they are off the Russian coast, Milstein said.

If a Western North Pacific whale were struck at any point, hunting would cease, then would resume after further measures were examined to eliminate the risk to that population, Milstein said.

The risk to PCFG whales, a subset of the Eastern North Pacific whales, would be minimized by setting a limit of 16 whales struck with a harpoon over the course of the 10-year waiver period, Milstein said.

PCFG whales have been photo-identified between June 1-Nov. 30 during two or more years between Northern California and Northern Vancouver Island.

If the PCFG population falls below 192, all whale hunting would cease until that number increases to above 192, Milstein said.

The number of strikes, or whales that can be harpooned, would be limited.

Three Eastern North Pacific gray whales could be harpooned during even-year hunts and two could be struck during odd-year hunts.

Sixteen PCFG whales could be struck over 10 years.

DePoe said the tribe revised its waiver application to protect Pacific Coast Feeding Group and Western North Pacific whales.

“We are doing what we need to do to be responsible stewards of our environment,” DePoe said.

DePoe was a high school student in May 1999 when he stood on the beach at Neah Bay and helped haul in the 30-foot gray whale that was killed off Cape Alava.

“That feeling you had, that overwhelming sense of pride in who you are, that cultural, spiritual component that you feel at the moment, it was amazing,” DePoe recalled.

Whaling is ingrained in Makah culture, he said.

“With the anniversary itself and the length of time it has taken to get to this point, this is emotional, it’s very emotional,” he said.

But Owens said in an email that the plan “allows Makah hunters to specifically target our local whales in the coastal near-shore every other summer.”

She said that under NOAA’s proposal, Makah tribal whalers “have full permission” to kill a resident whale.

“There will be much heartbreak and community distress as whales are harpooned, shot and dragged up on the beach year after year.”

Ancient whales walked on four legs and moved like giant otters — seriously

This illustration shows an artistic reconstruction of two individuals of Peregocetus, one standing along the rocky shore of nowadays Peru and the other preying upon sparid fish. The presence of a tail fluke remains hypothetical.

(CNN)The whales we know today look nothing like they did millions of years ago.

Instead, cetaceans, the group including today’s whales and dolphins, evolved 50 million years ago from small four-legged animals with hooves.
Rather than being one of the largest creatures on Earth, as they are now, they came from creatures that were the size of an average dog.
Paleontologists have discovered skeletons of these early creatures in India and Pakistan, but this new find, as discussed in Thursday’s edition of the journal Current Biology, was found in the Pisco Basin on the southern coast of Peru.
The 2011 find by Mario Urbina and his international team contained several surprises.
“As this is the first four-legged whale skeleton for South America and the whole Pacific Ocean, the discovery in itself was a major surprise,” study co-author Olivier Lambert wrote in an email. Lambert works at the Royal Belgian Institute of Natural Sciences. “We were also surprised with the geological age of the find (42.6 million years ago) and with the preservation state [of] so many bones from most parts of the skeleton, even including a patella (kneecap), some small ankle bones, and the last phalanges with marks of tiny hooves.”
This is the oldest known whale found in this part of the world, and it is the most complete skeleton anyone has ever found outside India and Pakistan. This particular creature would have been up to 4 meters long, or 11 feet, tail included.
The team that found it named it Peregocetus pacificus. It means “the traveling whale that reached the Pacific.”
Scientists had known that the whales’ body shape had changed over the years, making the creatures better adapted to life in the water; however, they didn’t know how the creature had moved from South Asia to South America. Early whale ancestors were not fully aerodynamic like whales are today.
“Four-legged whales, the ancestors of nowadays whales and dolphins, have been previously found in three main regions: the geologically oldest come from India/Pakistan, somewhat younger taxa [the plural of taxonomy] were described from North and West Africa, and even younger ones from the east side of North America,” Lambert said. “Based on the available evidence, and on the fact that the postcranial skeleton is poorly known in species from both Africa and North America, several questions remained debated: When did quadrupedal whales reach the New World? Which path did they take? And what [were their] locomotion abilities during that long travel?”
This 2011 discovery confirmed that the animals were probably good swimmers and good at getting around on land.
Unfortunately, scientists did not find the last part of the tail section of this creature, but the first vertebra connecting this section of the bones was similar to what modern-day beavers and otters have.
This figure shows the bones of Peregocetus, including the mandible with teeth, scapula, vertebrae, sternum elements, pelvis, and fore- and hind limbs.

The ancient whales also had long toes that were most likely webbed, meaning they moved a lot like today’s otters. That’s probably how they crossed the Atlantic Ocean, researchers said. Today, a giant otter-type creature would have to swim a long way to migrate, but at that time in the Earth’s history, the distance between Africa and South America was two times shorter and the currents were strong.
From South America, they probably migrated to North America, as well. They probably didn’t become fully marine animals until about 12 million years after this creature roamed the Earth, scientists think.
There are many intermediary stages of this “spectacular evolutionary history” that have been found over the years, “but we still miss elements, so we should keep searching in other parts of the world, especially in the Southern Hemisphere, for skeletons of these strange four-legged whales, to make the whole scenario better understood,” Lambert said.
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Scientists will continue to dig in this area in Peru. They hope to find bones that may be even older so that they can fill in more pieces of this puzzle about how the whale evolved over time.
“A skull would be great, as well as the tip of the tail,” Lambert said.