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

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

Oceans: Iceland faces sanctions over whaling

Whale is on the menu in some Iceland restaurants. bberwyn photo.

Whale is on the menu in some Iceland restaurants. bberwyn photo.

U.S. officials say whaling trade violates international conservation treaty

By Summit Voice

FRISCO — Iceland may face trade sanctions after U.S. officials formally declared that the island nation’s whaling is undermining an international ban on commercial trade in whale products.

The declaration by U.S. Secretary of Interior Sally Jewell may have been spurred in part by Iceland’s December announcement that commercial whaling will continue for the next five years. As many as 154 endangered fin whales and 229 minke whales could be killed each year under Iceland’s self-allocated quotas which are set to run from 2014 to 2018.

Iceland killed 35 minke whales and 134 fin whales, massive animals second only to blue whales in size, during the 2013 whaling season. Whaling has deep cultural and economic roots in Iceland, and the fishing industry is by far the largest sector of the country’s economy, but wildlife and animal rights advocacy groups say it’s time for Iceland to rethink its whaling activities. Continue reading

Oceans: New study could help protect endangered whales from impacts of seismic airgun blasting

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Ocean conservation advocates say federal government must use new data on endangered North Atlantic right whales when it considers permits for fossil fuel exploration. Photo courtesy NOAA.

Conservation advocates call for expansion of protective zones and seasonal closures

By Summit Voice

FRISCO — Endangered North Atlantic right whales may be more at risk from oil exploration than previously thought.

New research from Cornell University suggests the rare marine mammals are present throughout the year at varying distances off the coast of Virginia, putting them at risk from the acoustic impacts generated by seismic airguns — used to probe the ocean floor for oil and gas deposits. Continue reading

Conservation groups challenge feds on naval training

Lawsuit highlights potential impacts to marine mammals from sonar and underwater explosives

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An orca and calf. Photo courtesy NOAA.

By Summit Voice

FRISCO — Conservation advocates say federal authorization of a five-year U.S. Navy plan for testing and training activities off Hawai‘i and Southern California doesn’t do nearly enough to protect marine mammals from the impacts of sonar noise and underwater explosions.

The plan acknowledges that the training could cause up 9.6 million instances of harm to whales and dolphins and other marine mammals. The use of active sonar and explosive are known to cause permanent injuries and deaths to marine mammals.

According to the lawsuit filed this week Hawai‘i federal court, the plan violates federal environmental laws. The National Marine Fisheries Service didn’t evaluate alternative plans that would have required the Navy to avoid biologically important areas, the conservation groups said in a press release. Continue reading

Study finds 5 distinct humpback whale populations

Findings of genetic study to help inform conservation strategies

A breaching humpback whale. PHOTO COURTESY OF WHIT WELLES.

A breaching humpback whale. Photo courtesy Whit Williams.

By Summit Voice

FRISCO — Humpback whales in the Pacific likely choose their migration routes, feeding grounds and breeding areas based on cultural preferences, marine researchers said last week, announcing that a comprehensive genetic study of the great cetaceans has identified five distinct populations.

The findings come as federal biologists 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. Continue reading

Will new NOAA rules protect marine mammals from sonar?

Adaptive management strategy requires annual reviews

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Mitigation zones, stranding response plan are part of new rules to protect marine mammals from sonar and other naval warfare training impacts. bberwyn photo.

By Summit Voice

FRISCO — Despite growing evidence that naval warfare training with sonar and explosives is taking a toll on marine mammals, federal biologists will permit the training to continue with only a few safeguards.

Under the rules, vessels will have to establish mitigation zones, and Navy observers are supposed to shut down sonar operations if marine mammals are seen in the mitigation zones.

The Navy will also cease using explosives when animals are in a certain distance, and implement a stranding response plan that includes a training shutdown provision in certain circumstances.

Additionally, the final rule includes an adaptive management component that requires that the Navy and NOAA Fisheries meet yearly to discuss new science, Navy research and development, and Navy monitoring results to dete Continue reading

Feds say eastern population of Steller sea lions is recovered

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Steller sea lions. Photo courtesy National Marine Mammal Laboratory.

Protective measures help restore marine mammals from Alaska to California

By Summit Voice

FRISCO — Federal biologists say the eastern distinct population of Steller sea lions has recovered to the point that they can be removed from the endangered species list — the first species to be de-listed by by NOAA Fisheries since the eastern North Pacific gray whale in 1994.

The eastern distinct population segment is found along the coast of southeast Alaska and British Columbia. The best available scientific information indicates numbers of eastern Steller sea lions have increased from an estimated 18,040 animals in 1979 to an estimated 70,174 in 2010. Eastern Steller sea lions will continue to be protected under provisions of the Marine Mammal Protection Act. Continue reading

Feds issue emergency rules to protect sperm whales

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Activists seek to halt drift gillnet fishing altogether

By Summit Voice

FRISCO — Federal officials this week enacted emergency regulations to try and protect Pacific Ocean sperm whale population from California’s drift gillnet fishery, which has been killing non-commercial fish and marine mammals at an alarming rate.

The practice of setting miles of floating nets may be one of the cheapest ways to fish for commercial species, but it’s also one of the most destructive to marine resources. Recent fishery observer data indicates that, for every two swordfish the fishery catches to sell, on average one blue shark, 15 ocean sunfish, and a long list of other fish are thrown overboard dead or injured.

The new regulations issues by the National Marine Fisheries Service will shut down California’s drift gillnet fishery if a single endangered sperm whale is caught dead or injured. Continue reading

Oceans: Study assesses sonar impacts to blue whales

Biologists find nuanced response to simulated noise pollution

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Some blue whales abandon feeding areas when exposed to sonar-like noise pollution, scientists found after tagging some of the cetaceans in the California Bight. Photo courtesy NOAA.

By Summit Voice

FRISCO — Biologists are a little closer to understanding how the use of sonar during naval training exercises affects blue whales, with a new study showing that some tagged whales feeding in deep water stopped eating and sped up or moved away from sonar-like noise

The study, funded by the U.S. Navy, showed that the response to noise pollution is nuanced, depending in part on the what the whales are doing at the time. To assess the impacts, the researchers tagged whales and simulated mid-frequency sonar sounds significantly less intense than the military uses.

“Whales clearly respond in some conditions by modifying diving behavior and temporarily avoiding areas where sounds were produced,” said lead author Jeremy Goldbogen of Cascadia Research. “But overall the responses are complex and depend on a number of interacting factors,” he said. Continue reading

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