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Oceans: Study finds that regional humpback whale populations should be classified as distinct subspecies

Northern and southern humpbacks rarely mingle

A humpback whale near Hawaii. Photo courtesy NOAA.

A humpback whale near Hawaii. Photo courtesy NOAA.

By Bob Berwyn

FRISCO — Humpback whales in the North Pacific, the North Atlantic and the Southern Ocean are much more genetically distinct than previously thought, and should be recognized as separate subspecies, according to biologists who carefully analyzed DNA from hundreds of whales around the world.

The findings could bolster conservation strategies for the whales, which were nearly hunted to extinction during the 20th century. While some humpback whale populations have made a strong recovery since the end of the whaling era, other isolated populations may need additional help to recover.

The findings could help federal biologists in the U.S. as they consider a proposal to designate North Pacific humpbacks as a single “distinct population segment” under the Endangered Species Act and illustrate the complexity studying and managing marine mammals on a global scale.

The bottom line, according to the paper published last week in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B last week,  is that humpback whales of the North Pacific, North Atlantic and Southern Hemisphere are on independent evolutionary trajectories. Continue reading

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Environment: European deep sea survey shows extent of marine litter problem

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This shows litter items on the seafloor of European waters. Clockwise from top left i) Plastic bag recorded by an OFOS at the HAUSGARTEN observatory (Arctic) at 2500 m; ii = Litter recovered within the net of a trawl in Blanes open slope at 1500 m during the PROMETO 5 cruise on board the R/V “García del Cid”; iii) Cargo net entangled in a cold-water coral colony at 950 m in Darwin Mound with the ROV “Lynx” (National Oceanography Centre, UK). iv) “Heineken” beer can in the upper Whittard canyon at 950 m water depth with the ROV Genesis. Image credit: Pham CK et al. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0095839

Researchers find human garbage from the Arctic to the Azores

By Bob Berwyn

FRISCOFor all our efforts to contain civilization’s refuse, a lot of it is still ending up in the world’s oceans. The giant swirling garbage patches of the surface have been well documented and a new study shows that you can also find bottles, plastic bags, fishing nets and other types of human litter in deep sea trenches and even along the remote mid-Atlantic Ridge.

In some areas, generally within 100 miles of shore, the scientists found litter at the rate of about 20 pieces per hectare (about 2.5 acres) and even at the lowest density sites in more remote areas, the survey found about two pieces of garbage per hectare, said Kerry Howell, associate professor at Plymouth University’s Marine Institute.

“This survey has shown that human litter is present in all marine habitats, from beaches to the most remote and deepest parts of the oceans,” Howell said. “Most of the deep sea remains unexplored by humans and these are our first visits to many of these sites, but we were shocked to find that our rubbish has got there before us.” Continue reading

Oceans: More love for West Coast orcas?

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Orcas along the coast of the Pacific Northwest may get more protected habitat. Photo courtesy NOAA.

Feds to consider expanded habitat protections for endangered resident population of killer whales

By Summit Voice

FRISCO — Federal biologists will take another look at an endangered population of killer whales off the West Coast to determine whether they need more critical habitat.

The southern resident population of the marine mammals, based in Puget Sound, range along the Pacific Coast. A critical habitat expansion would protect winter foraging range off the coasts of Washington, Oregon and California, according to the Center for Biological Diversity, which spurred the review with a formal petition.

“Despite nearly a decade of federal protection, the Puget Sound’s orca population remains perilously small, hovering around only 80 animals,” said Sarah Uhlemann, senior attorney at the Center for Biological Diversity. “This proposal is an important step toward recovery and will help the whales stave off extinction.” Continue reading

Scientist find source of mysterious Southern Ocean sound

New data could help minke whale conservation efforts

A group of Antarctic minke whales. Photo courtesy Ari S. Friedlaender, Oregon State University

A group of Antarctic minke whales, which have been identified as the source of a mysterious sound in the Southern Ocean. Photo courtesy Ari S. Friedlaender, Oregon State University.

Staff Report

FRISCO — If you’ve ever heard mysterious sounds that you can’t identify, you’re not alone. For decades, researchers have tried to trace the source of a unique rhythmic sound in the remote Southern Ocean that’s often been recorded, but never definitively pinpointed — until now.

This week, scientists with NOAA’s Northeast Fisheries Science Center said the sound is generated by the Antarctic Minke whale, the smallest of the “great whales” or rorquals, a group that includes the blue whale, Bryde’s whale, and humpback, fin, and sei whales. Rorqual whales are relatively streamlined in appearance, have pointed heads and, with the exception of humpback whales, small pointed fins. Continue reading

Oceans: Satellite data shows leatherback sea turtles ranging far and wide in search of jellyfish

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A leatherback sea turtle at sea. Photo courtesy NOAA.

New study to help inform conservation efforts along East Coast and Caribbean

By Summit Voice

FRISCO — Threatened leatherback sea turtles like to hang out off the northeastern U.S. coast in late summer and fall, when mature jellyfish are abundant in the area, scientists said last week, sharing the results of a long-term study based on satellite data of tagged sea turtles.

“Our study provides new insights about how male and immature turtles behave, how they use their habitats and how that differs from adult females,” said University of Massachusetts researcher Kara Dodge. “Resource managers for protected marine species have lacked this key understanding, especially in coastal regions of the U.S. and Caribbean where leatherbacks and intense human activity coincide.” Continue reading

Do farmed salmon threaten wild populations?

Salmon species.

Salmon species.

Millions of escaped domestic salmon could overwhelm genetic pool of wild fish

Staff Report

FRISCO — Farmed salmon represent a clear threat to wild populations based simply on the sheer numbers of domesticated fish that escape their pens. Millions  of farmed salmon escape captivity each year, potentially with huge consequences for the genetics of wild populations, according to a new study from the University of East Anglia.

The researchers concluded that, while farmed salmon are genetically different to their wild counterparts, they are just as fertile. With full reproductive potential to invade wild gene pools, farmed salmon should be sterilized, the study concluded. Continue reading

More whales moving north through Bering Strait

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Scientists see changes in the way marine mammals use the Bering Strait. Photo courtesy NASA.

Scientists say mitigation needed to protect marine life in the region

Staff Report

FRISCO — American and Russian scientists studying the Bering Strait say that global warming is changing the way marine mammals use the area. Species at home farther south are using the narrow passage to the Arctic Ocean much more often, the researchers said after monitoring the area for three years with underwater microphones.

The recordings show Arctic beluga and bowhead whales migrating seasonally through the region from the Arctic south to spend winter in the Bering Sea. They also detect large numbers of sub-Arctic humpback, fin and killer whales traveling north through the Bering Strait to feed in the biologically rich Chukchi Sea. Continue reading

Environment: Scientists warn about use of seismic airguns in never-ending quest for more fossil fuels

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Seismic airgun testing poses a risk to marine mammals.

Marine mammals at risk off the East Coast

By Summit Voice

FRISCO — The fossil fuel industry’s use of seismic airgun testing to search for as-yet untapped offshore oil deposits could prove damaging to ocean species — especially marine mammals that depend on acoustic information.

Unless federal agencies use the best available science to design effective avoidance and mitigation strategies, thousands of dolphins and whales could be affected, including critically endangered North Atlantic right whales, with a dwindling population of only 500 individuals. Continue reading

Study documents ‘heartbreak’ after Gulf oilspill

Former Breckenridge resident Andy Cook, who owned and operated Ma's Po Boy restaurant on Park Avenue, cleans a yellowfin tuna he caught in the rich fishing waters near the mouth of the Mississippi River, just off Venice, Louisiana.

Former Breckenridge resident Andy Cook cleans a yellowfin tuna he caught in the rich fishing waters at the mouth of the Mississippi River near Venice, Louisiana. bberwyn photo.

Exposure to PAHs disrupts basic cellular function of heart muscles

By Summit Voice

FRISCO — When BP’s failed Deepwater Horizon drill rig spewed millions of gallons of oil into the Gulf of Mexico, scientists immediately began documenting impacts to natural resources, finding dead corals on the seafloor, sick dolphins in Barataria Bay and remnant oil in the splash zone along Florida beaches.

Even low levels of oil pollution can damage the developing hearts of fish embryos and larvae, reducing the likelihood that those fish will survive. Scientists have known of this effect for some time, but the underlying mechanism has remained elusive.

But recent research by scientists with NOAA and Stanford University, shows how oil-derived chemicals disrupt the normal functioning of the heart muscle cells of fish. The findings, published in the Feb. 14 issue of Science, describe how toxic oil-based chemicals disrupt cardiac function in young bluefin and yellowfin tuna by blocking ion channels in their heart muscle cells. Continue reading

Biodiversity: Counting whales — from space

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New satellite technology could help biologists getter more accurate estimates of whale populations  NOAA photo.

New method could help with marine mammal conservation planning

By Summit Voice

FRISCO — After using satellite images to discover new emperor penguin colonies in Antarctica, scientists with the British Antarctic Survey said they’ve also been able to use similar technology to count whales.

Marine mammals are extremely difficult to count on a large scale and traditional methods, such as counting from platforms or land, can be costly and inefficient, so the new method could lead to breakthroughs in estimating populations of whales and other marine mammals. Continue reading

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