Cetacean Society International
Whales Alive! - Vol. XIII No. 2 - April 2004
Dr. Robbins Barstow, CSI's Director Emeritus, was given a Special Award in late March by Wethersfield Community Television. Robbins and his wife, Meg, were guests at the station WCTV's 20th Anniversary Celebration and Fundraiser. Robbins was honored for his nearly 190 consecutive Monday Night Prime Time shows, which began in 1994, for the quality of his work, for his dedication to improving the earth, and for his demonstration of how community television's resources can magnify the advocacy of citizens.
Robbins has been known around the world as the soul of CSI since its inception as the Connecticut Cetacean Society, and as the one man who can get anyone to smile for his camera. Many have also seen his videos, especially the Barstow Travel Adventure series. But now, to paraphrase a Joseph Campbell quote, Robbins has blissfully turned his "retirement" into a grant-supported effort to create many new videos, in a series that will continue to educate and entertain the public for years to come. Some of the personalized subjects include whale watching, whaling, whaling shanties, the IWC and Law of the Sea Treaty, and 30 years of travels to exotic locations while saving and enjoying whales.
Don't forget Earth Day, 2004. Join CSI and the New York Whale and Dolphin Action League in the 24th annual celebratory exhibition at the State University of New York, Westchester Community College, Wednesday, April 21, 2004, from 11:00 AM to 3:00 PM!
Learning from Whales: Education, Inspiration, and Action is the theme of the American Cetacean Society's conference scheduled for 12-14 November, aboard the famous Queen Mary in Long Beach, California. Some of the focus will be on science-based policy, cognition, and strandings, with profiles of local species and expert panel discussions. Field trips will include whale watches and tours of rescue centers and museums. The ACS conferences are for everyone, celebrated for their mix of informal fun and serious issues. The unique location, on board the elegant British vessel, should be enough to entice you to this welcomed event. Details at http://www.acsonline.org/.
Want a job or volunteer position working with or for marine mammals? Get on the MARMAM email list. Details at http://is.dal.ca/~whitelab/marmam.htm. Note that CSI has no openings!
A beluga whale was seen near Gloucester, Massachusetts, in early
March. This juvenile male, nicknamed Poco in Canada, had been seen in the
Bay of Fundy, New Brunswick from September to December, 2003, and was
probably the beluga seen near Deer Island in mid-February. Beginning in 1998
the Whale Stewardship Project of Halifax, Nova Scotia has been studying one
narwhal and nine belugas, including Poco, defined as "solitary"
(because they were rarely, if ever, observed in the company of their own
species), and "sociable" (because they frequently initiated close
contact with humans). At least two other young belugas traveled alone far
south of their "normal" range in the last decades. After a period
of high-visibility contacts with humans in New York and Connecticut both
were killed by humans. Sociable dolphins and whales have been reported all
over the world. Too often they are injured or killed, intentionally or
accidentally, by humans they seem to seek contact with. Poco may be back in
Massachusetts, and we can only hope he will be allowed to survive. For more
information on the phenomenon of solo, sociable wild dolphins see
The rescue attempt for Kingfisher, an entangled young right whale, was chronicled daily from mid-March in all the media, to millions of people who followed the drama of the whale's life-threatening wounds from cutting lines, the enormous thrashing flukes, and the tiny black boat trying to free the whale. Kingfisher had become entangled after late January off Florida, when he had been photographed clean of gear. The expert rescuers followed him slowly north, putting their normal lives on hold, often held back by weather. All are caring and dedicated experts, well seasoned to the extremely dangerous and difficult work. They once again risked their lives for an entangled whale, because of their personal commitment to the suffering animal, but also as scientists, well aware that every right whale in the North Atlantic today must survive human impacts or the species will slide to extinction. On 3 April a fishing boat near Cape May, New Jersey accidentally cut the 50 foot line between Kingfisher and the buoy-mounted tag, without ever seeing the whale! To follow as rescuers relocate and try to help Kingfisher see http://www.coastalstudies.org/.
It's unbelievable to CSI that, in spite of the obvious need, the dramatic sacrifice made by entanglement rescuers, and the media blitz to an interested public, memberships and donations do not even trickle in to supporting facilities like the Center for Coastal Studies on Cape Cod. Do people just change mental channels?
Southern Right Whales and fishing gear conflicts will be an increasing problem along Australia's east and west coasts. The whales are recovering from whaling, and the coasts they migrate by are being developed rapidly. More inshore whales and more fishing gear equal more entanglements. But the population isn't at the crisis point, and initial recommendations being made to form a national entanglement committee, with a precautionary approach to risk assessment, may not be heeded. If more whales destroy enough gear, and themselves, the well-proven gear and techniques pioneered in the US will be in demand, but first must come a national policy to support the effort.
Fishing nets kill many marine mammals in Europe. The European Union agreed on new rules in late March to reduce the number of dolphins and porpoises killed from fishing net entanglements, often in driftnets stretching up to 21 km (13 miles) long. Tuna drift nets had been banned previously, but by 2006 fishermen catching herring, cod and hake in the Baltic, North Sea, English Channel and off southern Ireland must install acoustic "pingers", which emit sounds shown to alert if not scare small cetaceans away, while not reducing the catch. Seals, unfortunately, appreciate pingers as dinner bells. Motives for fishermen accepting the cost are a common respect for the dolphins as well as lost time, catch and gear whenever dolphins are caught. The salmon driftnet ban in the Baltic Sea was delayed until 2008 by powerful fishers lobbies. Spain and Italy, major violators, simply voted against everything. The Green party may vote against the whole ban if any more watering down occurs. New EU members Latvia, Lithuania, Poland and Estonia have expressed concern about the cost, although subsidies may be available from the EU, and some Baltic nations want to delay the ban to protect their fishermen. Drift nets in the Baltic Sea would also begin a phase-out under the agreement. Boats under 12 meters will be exempt, because small fishing operations might be unable to survive the required 2,500 euros for the basic pinger setup. EU funds will be made available.
A 2003 study by American and Scottish biologists found that over 300,000 whales, dolphins and porpoises per year die unintentionally in nets worldwide. Perhaps 6,000 harbor porpoises were caught annually in Danish waters alone, before a government pinger program was begun in 2000. Harp seals, however, learn that pingers mean easy food, and equipped nets actually attract seals. While they steal fish, they do not usually become entrapped.
At least 104 bottlenose dolphins have died since early March along the Gulf of Mexico coast from Florida to Texas, victims of Karenia brevis, a toxin produced by Red Tide algae. Many of the dolphins had full stomachs, and researchers believe that they may have eaten infected fish that had absorbed the toxic particles into their blood from water passing through the gills. No Red Tide bloom has been found yet in the Gulf of Mexico during this event, but water tests did find Pseudo-nitzschia, algae that produce domoic acid, a biotoxin commonly known as the cause of amnesic shellfish poisoning in humans. That biotoxin has not been implicated in this event. About 100 dolphins died on Florida's shores in 1999, suspected victims of red tide. A wide spread epidemic from New Jersey to Florida brought at least 700 dolphins ashore dead or dying, victims of a virus.
What goes bump in the night? A 340 foot long catamaran ferry that strikes a humpback whale as the ferry whisks passengers between Hawaiian islands at about 40 knots. Hawaii Superferry plans to begin daily service on such vessels between Oahu, Maui, Kauai and the Big Island beginning in 2006, through waters awash with one of the densest breeding populations of humpback whales in the world. Similar bumps have been felt in other whale dense waters, along with a sliced sailboat or two.
Isn't there any way to have fun anymore? It seems that even responsible ecotourism may not be harmless, as recent research shows animals stressed from too many friendly human faces and shutter clicks, documented by changes in heart rate, hormones, reproductive success, social behavior and a long list of subtle changes. Is it possible that the long term exposure to even knowledgeable, respectful humans may endanger the survival of wildlife? If so, what should we do?
The United Nations called 2002 the Year of Ecotourism, conservatively generating over a billion dollars a year from over ten million people from over 90 countries. The economic benefits usually outweigh the environmental ones anyway, as suggested from the timely International Whale Watching Workshop in Cape Town, South Africa in March. South Africa in particular stresses the regional industry's contribution to poverty eradication and job creation. Africa's coasts have many cetaceans, and in time people will find a way to apply ecotourism everywhere, specifically to boost economic growth. The market for the ecotourist willing to pay the premium for extreme and exotic experiences is exploding, with a matching demand for exceptional services. It's all about the money, when it's supposed to be about nature.
CSI has supported several studies of whale and dolphin watching impacts. Rochelle Constantine's work in New Zealand, for example, showed bottlenose dolphins resting 0.5 percent of time three or more boats were close, compared with 68 percent of the time in the presence of a single research boat. She also found that most of the "encounters" were with a small subset of the population, while the rest avoided close boats. Perhaps worse, she found that dolphin watches from different ports inadvertently hit on the same dolphins as the dolphins moved along the coast, essentially never giving the dolphins a break. Indications can be subtle; what does it mean if the dolphins in Scotland's Moray Firth surfaced together more often in the presence of boats?
Ecotourism statistics are approximate, from generally unaudited and unaccredited operators that don't have to prove they are environmentally friendly. The solution lies with the tourists, and that speaks to the solution: the educated ecotourist is the best regulator of the business, by choosing not to use irresponsible operators. An aware ecotourist is someone looking for suggestions that they are causing changes, willing to back off respectfully, and ready to make the operator back off as well, even if it means the loss of that great picture. I'll never forget the calf humpback playing with dolphins that I just knew would all surface together in a few seconds. Even as I thought about getting my zodiac closer for The Picture his mother made it clear, subtly, that I should not. Chastened, I have instead a picture of the very distant calf surfacing upside down, pectoral fins splayed out, with four dolphins airborne around him. It's much better in my mind's eye, and I don't mind.
Puget Sound's southern resident killer whales are endangered, although the US lists them only as "Depleted". The 2002 NMFS ruling, that southern residents did not warrant Endangered Species Act protection because they were not a "significant population segment", remains very controversial, but it does save a lot of money that local polluters would have to spend to clean up the problem under the ESA. To many people the NMFS ruling wrote off the population, and ignored the genetic distinctions between the fish-eating southern residents and the marine mammal-eating transient orcas NMFS assumed would "fill the gap" if the residents were wiped out.
The "Depleted" ruling resulted in a court order, requiring NMFS to reconsider the decision. While NMFS reconsiders, Canada's Department of Fisheries and Oceans had listed the population as Endangered, and the Washington state Department of Fish and Wildlife also has recommended that Puget Sound's orcas be added to the state list of endangered species "because the marine mammals are at critically low levels and are vulnerable to several continuing threats." That may be decided in April by the state's Fish and Wildlife Commission.
The orcas' decline is an example of complex ecosystem responses to human pressures. For the orcas it began with a decline in salmon, which caused the orcas to forage on more toxin-laden bottom fish, resulting in higher PCB and other toxin loads, plus stress from whale watching boats and other vessels. A recent status report had indicated that the population of regional "southern resident" orcas has declined 18 percent since 1995. As one example, the famous L pod in the past decade has seen significantly higher mortality rates and lower birth rates. Regionally stranded orcas have the distinction of being the most toxin-laden vertebrates on earth. Toxins lower immune responses, among other effects, increasing vulnerability to infectious agents that might affect reproductive success and disease in individuals, or perhaps spread to many animals. Perhaps the most significant of these disease indicators are marine Brucella spp., cetacean poxvirus, cetacean morbilliviruses, and herpes viruses. At least one recent study argues for standardizing necropsy and disease tests to always look for such evidence.
Similar problem may be worldwide, but not yet noticed because human economies and populations haven't suffered enough from environmental degradation, and the costs to fix the problems can be out of reach. But around Puget Sound the orcas are important enough to focus attention on the problem. They are totem-famous, survivors of an ignorant captive industry debacle in the 60's, focus of enormous regional tourism income, and revered symbols of an evolutionary peak. Because of the enormous effort now focused on saving them, whatever is learned may be applicable to less accessible populations facing threats from human activities. Can we learn the lesson from their example, perhaps enough to stop degradation from happening elsewhere?
But meanwhile we might love them to death. Everyone knows that stress
suppresses the immune system, allowing an individual to be more vulnerable
to disease. But does whale watching contribute to the disease rate among
these orcas? Do whale watch boats that are too many, too close, or too noisy
cause stress? It's proven impossible to quantify at what point the
whales actually suffer from all the attention. With a lot of "it's
not us" finger pointing ancedotes abound, but enforcement doesn't.
The last citation issued on the U.S. side of the border was in 1996 (because
a float plane taxied up to a pod of orcas), and only 10 citations have been
issued in Canada since 1995. For more information see
358 prominent scientists in March opposed the Bush administration's new policy of expanding imports of endangered species. Their letter concluded: "It is our shared view that opening the door to commercial imports of endangered species without fully defining these parameters will put the hundreds of species potentially affected by this rule at serious risk. We do not believe such risks are acceptable for species already on the brink of extinction." Thirty-one organizations, including CSI, signed on to a March letter by Defenders of Wildlife to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, arguing that "the Proposed Rule . . . would encourage foreign endangered species to be killed or captured in the name of `in situ conservation', and would pose serious and unnecessary risks to the survival of these species. Exposing endangered species to such risks is contrary to both conservation science and controlling law."
NAFTA's Commission for Environmental Cooperation (CEC) in late March announced protections for humpback whales, leatherback turtles and pink-footed shearwaters, in a new tri-national effort to protect species of common conservation concern in North America. Implementation of the CEC's North American Conservation Action Plans for the three pilot species will take up to five years, along with a complementary process to establish a North American Marine Protected Areas Network. Other species will follow, as the CEC responds to the reality that migratory species depend upon coordinated conservation policies for their survival. http://www.cec.org/news/details/index.cfm?varlan=english&ID=2600.
You're a consumer; you can help stop whaling. Wal-Mart and the UK's Tesco appear to support Japanese whaling, with powerful shareholder interests in the Japanese Seiyu and C Two-Network supermarket chains. Both sell whale meat in Japan. Some meat comes from whales Japan hunts in the Antarctic Sanctuary, while fresh "toothed whale" meat can be from dolphins, porpoises, and small whales killed in Japan's coastal waters. One of the oddest elements of this defiant market is that, in spite of consumer concerns for healthy foods, these cetacean meat and blubber products may include methylmercury or PCBs that exceed government recommended limits. The Environmental Investigation Agency, Greenpeace, and the Humane Society of the United States are asking for your help to pressure both companies to declare that canned and fresh whale meat products should be pulled from the shelves.
Please sign these online petitions today: WAL-MART: http://www.thepetitionsite.com/takeaction/991643794, and TESCO: http://www.petitionthem.com/. For more information see http://www.eia-international.org/. For a more direct approach, try: Wal-Mart Stores, Inc., Attn: Customer Service, 702 S.W. 8th Street, Bentonville, AR 72716, 479-273-4000.
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