Posts Tagged ‘marine mammals’

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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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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Acid oceans may alter marine mammal messaging

Sunday, December 27th, 2009

by Hilary L. Maybaum

I already knew that carbon dioxide affects the pH level of seawater, and that increased levels of dissolved CO2 could therefore cause the oceans to become more acidic by lowering seawater’s pH. While writing a book on climate change, I learned that ocean acidification is already happening in response to increased levels of atmospheric CO2; that is, the ocean can no longer buffer itself in response to global climate change with natural acid-base (chemical) reactions. Further, ocean acidification can, in turn, dissolve the tests (shells or exoskeletons) of crustaceans, corals, and other critters that depend on calcium carbonate for their bodily protection.

What’s news to me—and bad news at that—is how ocean acidification can also affect the transmission of underwater sound. According to recent articles in Science Daily and in Scientific American, scientists at my alma mater, SOEST at the University of Hawaii, and a scientist at my dream institute, California’s MBARI, found that ocean acidification lowers the ability of seawater to absorb low-frequency sound. In other words, increased CO2 levels make the ocean more transparent to sounds with frequencies up to about 5,000 Hz.

Dolphins, killer whales, humpback whales, blue whales, and scores of other marine mammals rely on the clear transmission of underwater sound to communicate with each other in the wild. They already deal with continuous low-frequency noise from waves and whitecaps. They also contend with constant low-frequency noise from anthropogenic (manmade) sources such as daily ocean traffic—ships, barges, and the like— as well as tourist and recreational activities. [I’m not even going to get into the cacaphony of naval testing of low-frequency sonar and explosives in this post.] I and others have found behavioral effects associated with increased noise levels and changes in existing underwater sounds. My colleagues have referred to some of these effects as whales “running away with their fins covering their earholes.” Of course, my esteemed colleagues exaggerate, but you get the idea.

Think of a beautiful house high on a hill, overlooking a long stretch of sandy, white beach. When you go to sleep, you are lulled by the gentle sounds of ocean waves hitting the shore. Now imagine that someone decides to put a superhighway between your house and the coast. You can no longer hear the ocean waves because of the traffic noise. That’s the kind of acoustical interference we are talking about. What happens when marine mammals can’t get their messages across because the cruise ships are louder, the jet skis are deafening, and breaking waves are giving them headaches? Will they run away, adapt, or die?

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Plastic is like poison to marine life

Thursday, December 24th, 2009

by Hilary L. Maybaum

I have seen sperm whales from the air in Hawaii, and they are awesome to behold. Odd-looking, with their huge rectangular heads and wrinkled bodies, but awesome nonetheless. It breaks my heart to learn now that ingesting plastic was the cause of death for seven sperm whales in Italy.

Plastic bags floating in the ocean can resemble marine organisms, such as jellyfish and squid. We’ve known for some time that this is a problem for sea turtles—especially leatherbacks, as jellies are their favorite food item (see this Science Daily article and this page from the National Academies Press). Sperm whale diets, on the other hand, consist mainly of squid, which are eaten whole. Nothing like a nice plastic bag resembling a large cephalopod to tempt one’s pelagic appetite, eh?

Young sperm whale

Young sperm whale - public domain photo from U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration

So, good readers, here is my Christmas-Eve plea to you: Stop using plastic bags. BYO non-plastic bags when you shop, or request paper. Let’s do our nektonic friends a favor and refrain from killing them with plastic. They may be out of sight, but let’s not keep them out of mind.

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i.e., oceanography

Sunday, December 20th, 2009

This is the first post of my new blog, which I decided to call wet. I realize that wet may have some lascivious connotations. However, let me assure my readers that there shall be no such lasciviousness here. This blog is exclusively dedicated to a subject near and dear to my heart: biological oceanography.

Disappointed? Well, don’t be. I promise to keep things interesting, though I will stay on topic. That said, my first bloject (blog project) is to refresh my knowledge of marine mammalogy. I’ve been away from this field for so long, I don’t even know what’s new under the sea. I’ve seen some old news repackaged as new (such as the rehashing of “humpback whales change their tune every year”), but I wonder, what is truly newsworthy?

I invite you to join me on my wet and wild re-entry into the marine world.

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