Archive for the ‘marine mammals’ Category

Save the Whale Poop

Tuesday, April 27th, 2010

by Hilary Maybaum

Once upon a 1980s time, I came across some fecal matter while searching for whales in the Pacific Ocean. It was a milky brown color with a greenish hue and quite flocculent. A humpback mother and calf had just left the vicinity of our boat. The calf had been breaching, and scientific consensus was that this was his or her poo.

Exciting stuff! In the decade or so that my colleagues had been studying the Hawaiian humpbacks, no one we knew had ever collected whale feces. Why was that, I wondered, and more pressingly, what can we learn from studying it? We already knew that adult whales don’t eat in their Hawaiian breeding grounds, except perhaps, opportunistically, but what about the calves? There are plenty of nursing whales in Hawaii, which must mean that the opportunity to collect calf poo exists, right?
Not to be caught off guard the next time we came across potential whale poop, I returned to our research headquarters that night and built a couple of whale pooper scoopers—one for each boat. Makeshift equipment, typical for a graduate student: long wooden spoons duct-taped to a couple of wide-mouthed plastic jars (caps stashed in the cooler along with a dash of formalin solution). From that day forward, all boat staff and volunteers were notified to be on the lookout for whale poop, and instructions on collecting said substance became part of our bi-weekly fa fa.

In the remaining years of my whale studies, we never did collect any whale poop. And it’s too bad, because now, it seems, whale poop is big news. Climate scientists now think that whale poop may play a major role in mitigating climate change by recycling iron in the ocean.

Remember a few years back, when seeding the ocean with iron seemed like a good idea to reduce the effects of global warming? It all started in 1988, around the same time I stopped trying to collect whale poop, when the late John Martin, former director of the Moss Landing Marine Laboratory, made a strange comment at an informal seminar at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution. Martin said: “Give me half a tanker of iron, and I’ll give you an ice age.” What he meant, in his inimitable biogeochemical way, was that sprinkling iron dust in certain areas of the ocean’s surface could trigger massive algal blooms which, in turn, could potentially absorb enough heat-trapping carbon dioxide to cool the Earth’s atmosphere. That’s because algae, like land plants, take in carbon dioxide for use in photosynthesis, converting it into sugar and releasing oxygen as a by-product.

Mind you, whether artificial ocean iron fertilization would actually work is still a matter of debate. However, if enough whales keep pooping, we may not have to worry about it. Researchers at an organization called the Australian Antarctic Division, based in Tasmania, have found “huge amounts of iron in whale poo.” It’s a simple equation, really: the more whale poo, the more iron in the surface ocean, the more algal productivity, and the less carbon dioxide. Voila! A natural process with fewer side effects than artificial fertilization.

In retrospect, then, it’s probably a good thing that we never collected whale poop all those years ago. Who knows, we might have inadvertently sped up the effects of global warming.

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Humpbacks and herring

Friday, February 12th, 2010

One of the nicest things about keeping this particular blog is that I occasionally come across the names of folks that I worked with in the past. I already mentioned my sighting of Adam Frankel in this post. Today I caught cybersight of Jan Straley, a biologist at the University of Alaska Southeast, and another fellow whale researcher from the good old days.

Jan has been in Sitka since at least the 1980s, when I first met her, studying the humpbacks and other marine mammals that travel through Southeast Alaska. I remember her as an expert on the population structure and overwintering behavior of humpbacks in that region. It’s nice to know that she is still continuing in that vein. According to this recent Washington Post article, Jan thinks that the recovery of humpback whales, a species once hunted to near extinction, is impeding the recovery of the herring population in Prince William Sound.

The herring took a major hit as a result of the Exxon Valdez spill in 1989. Their numbers have not yet returned to pre-spill abundance, and researchers want to know why. Humpbacks are only one of the suspects in this modern-day ocean mystery. I for one am glad to know that reliable researchers are teasing out the data. Important work, this. And I do enjoy vicariously catching up with the old whale folks of yore.

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Navy touts its own horn for sonar testing and marine mammal takes

Wednesday, February 3rd, 2010

Last month, the Navy received reauthorization for three of its marine mammal “incidental take” permits under the Marine Mammal Protection Act (MMPA) and Endangered Species Act (ESA). Basically, these are permits to harass marine mammals for specific purposes allowable under the MMPA and ESA. Before you get your britches in a knot, you need to realize that ALL marine mammal researchers are required to obtain such authorizations when attempting to closely approach their subjects. I worked under one, my friends worked under them, and—for the most part—execution and enforcement of the terms of such permits are strictly adhered to.

According to yesterday’s press release from the Navy, their reauthorizations of the so-called "Big Three" represent ocean sites where "roughly 80 percent of active sonar training … takes place on established training ranges and operating areas." Now, here’s the part where you can get knotted. The Navy refers to this action (the reauthorization of their incidental take permits) as "an environmental accomplishment."

Hmm. The last time I checked, an environmental accomplishment was a positive action taken on behalf of our abiotic and biotic surroundings. Seeing the government’s approval of sonar testing as a positive action on behalf of the environment is quite the stretch, oh Naval colleagues. Not that there’s anything wrong with that. The Navy gets a lot of bad press when it comes to its testing of low- and mid-frequency sonar and its effects on marine mammals. So we can’t really blame them for spinning this dubious news in a positive light. Let’s just hope that they keep up the accurate reporting of marine mammal injuries and other “takes” during their testing exercises.

whale tail

Stock photo by Jon Sullivan

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NOAA pushes Navy to stop sonar testing at marine mammal hot spots

Saturday, January 30th, 2010

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) has acknowledged the link between certain types of sonar and negative impacts on marine mammals, including death. In an letter to the Council on Environmental Quality last week, NOAA Administrator Jane Lubchenco proposed that marine mammal "hot spots"—areas where marine mammals are in high abundance—become off limits to mid-frequency active sonar testing. (Lubchenco is, by the way, the first woman AND the first marine ecologist to lead NOAA. Huzzah!)

According to this LA Times blog post, NOAA is also calling for a process to estimate the "comprehensive sound budget for the oceans." This is a huge step in developing a plan to protect marine species that rely on underwater communication. It’s critical, too, in light of the new findings that link ocean acidification with the decreased transmission of underwater sound (see this recent post.)

The letter from Lubchenco to the CEQ is available here (PDF).

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R.I.P. Caribbean monk seal

Thursday, January 7th, 2010

by Hilary L. Maybaum

Did you know? I sure didn’t. But in 2008, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association confirmed what many in the National Marine Fisheries Service already suspected: the Caribbean monk seal (Monachus tropicalis) was extinct. Last seen in 1952, this seal once inhabited the entire Caribbean Sea, from the U.S. Gulf Coast to the northern shores of South America.

historic range map of Caribbean monk seal

Historic range (in red) of the Caribbean monk seal. Created by Peter Maas for The Extinction Website.

Christopher Columbus first discovered the Caribbean monk seal, just two years after discovering America. By the late 1800s, however, the species was already considered rare. According to The Extinction Website,

It [the Caribbean monk seal] appears in the account of Columbus’ second voyage to America. Columbus promptly ordered his crew to kill eight of the animals, which he called "sea-wolves", for food, paving the way for exploitation of the species by European immigrants who came in his wake. Since then, the once abundant seals have been hunted for their oil and slaughtered by fishermen, who regarded the animals as competitors.

It saddens me to think how little has changed. Many local fishers in the Hawaiian Islands consider the Hawaiian monk seal—a close relative of the Caribbean monk seal— as competition, too. The endangered Monachus schauinslandi is an opportunistic feeder, eating a wide variety of fish and shellfish. It’s doubtful that the 100 or so remaining speciesindividuals in Hawaii would have a large impact on the seafood stocks around the Hawaiian Islands. However, their opportunism gets the monk seals into trouble. They are known to "steal" catch and bait from fishers. Year after year, agencies such as the Hawaii Department of Land and Natural Resources attempt to manage public relations on behalf of the seals. And year after year the fishers get angry. Some of them try to get even.

Hawaiian monk seals

Hawaiian monk seal mother and pup. Public domain image from U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Digital Library System (

I’ve seen a Hawaiian monk seal mother and pup hauled out on the North Shore of Oahu, and it melts the heart. Let’s hope that our government agencies continue to be empowered to preserve the few remaining specimens for the sake of our future and theirs.

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Dolphins are not persons, no matter how smart

Tuesday, January 5th, 2010

Only philosophically could the word person be applied to a non-human, sentient being, which is why the U.K.’s Times Online article, Scientists say dolphins should be treated as "non-human persons", isn’t exactly a crock of anthropomorphic dreck, but it’s close. It’s clear that the author is trying to deal with the ethical treatment of dolphins by humans. However, he might as well have published his article on Greenpeace’s Web site, for it reeks of activism and not necessarily good science.

It’s long been known that the ratio of brain size to body mass is most closely matched to humans by dolphins. And though the concept of intelligence in dolphins has been hotly debated for at least the last 50 years, training even one Tursiops truncatus for a few months will relieve any doubt of their advanced cognitive capability.

dolphin in a pool

To be captive or not to be captive? That is the question.

Yes, dolphins are smart, empathetic, curious, and adaptable to new situations. Yes, they can recognize and respond to human language. Yes, they call each other by name in the wild, have better memories than many people (including me), and can make up their own games.

Quirky, yes. Intelligent, definitely. But persons? Bah!

I don’t know much about the researchers who are showcasing their neurological and behavioral findings, except to say I have gained respect for Lori Marino, a zoologist at Emory University, merely for her comment on the Times article:

The work I’ve done on dolphin brains shows that, when relative brain size is taken into account, some dolphin species are second only to modern humans and have larger brains than chimpanzees. However, I do not think we can “declare” that dolphins are the second smartest animals on the planet on the basis of just this information. I do not want to make categorical or hierarchical statements about matters that are clearly too complex to warrant a simple interpretation. The point of our upcoming session and arguments is this. Given what we now know about dolphin brains and intelligence we need to rethink our “accepted” cultural standards of treatment – from slaughter to capture to confinement in amusement parks. The scientific evidence is clear that the suffering imposed by these activities on dolphins is on a par with what humans would suffer under the same circumstances. That is the message of the article.

And a good message it would be, were it successfully executed. After all, some dolphins are known to become depressed in captivity, showing aberrant behavior akin to what a human might experience under similar conditions. One dolphin I know who was held captive in a Hawaiian hotel pool for years came to be abnormally attached to a ragged old baseball cap and kept it as his constant companion.

It’s unfortunate that Dr. Moreno did not have more of a say over how the article’s message was conveyed. By putting dolphins in a human context and saying they should have the same rights, the author invoked sneering criticism instead of thoughtful persuasibility. Is this the best use of science journalism?

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Cows of the sea

Wednesday, December 30th, 2009

by Hilary L. Maybaum

I just can’t get excited about manatees. For one thing, they don’t do much except munch sea grass and reproduce.

Manatee photo

Because of their place in the food chain, some people refer to manatees as "cows of the sea." To me, they are more like amoebae, slow-moving and blobby.

There are no great displays of aggression or emotion, no jaw-dropping feeding methods, just… a bunch of sea potatoes hanging around the subtropics. Not that there’s anything wrong with that. Yes, they’re cute, in an ugly sort of way. I know, I know, they’re endangered and for that reason alone I should be interested. Oddly, I’m not.

I do, however, perk up at any mention of military/marine-mammal conflict. So when Peter Kobel (@TheEcoist) pointed out this recent L.A. Times article on a pending manatee habitat ruling, I sat up and took notice.

The U.S. Navy is balking at the proposed expansion of manatee "critical habitat" in Florida and southern Georgia. The proposal stems from an organized group of environmental advocates who state a compelling case for expansion. The Navy’s position is that more habitat for the manatees will mean less habitat for submarines and other forms of military defense.

The Navy claims to "coexist with various endangered species" and to "do all kinds of things" to help protect them. To a large extent, this is true. I have worked as an environmental consultant on many Navy contracts, and can personally vouch for their stewardship. The Navy does conduct marine-mammal surveys when needed; for example, on Environmental Impact Assessments and the like. However, I also know that the Navy, in general, prefers the conclusions of such assessments to match their a priori assumptions.

Now it is up to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to make a ruling. What should they decide? If it were me, I’d say that each side needs to give a little bit. Yes, folks, I’m advocating the C-word: compromise. Given that the manatee population numbers less than 4,000, and their habitat designation has not been reviewed since the 1970s, it seems they are due some additional area. For decades, manatees have sacrificed their lives and health for Floridians’ well being. Those gentle personalities put them in harm’s way far too often; is it not time for some payback? On the other hand, we are (lest we forget) a nation at war, and we need to maintain a strong defense system, at least for now.

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