COVID Silver Linings: Ocean Noise

Reduced ship traffic is yet one more way wildlife–marine mammals, especially whales in this case–is benefitting from the global pandemic lockdown:

“We have a generation of humpbacks that have never known a quiet ocean,” said Fournet, whose work has shown that the whales alter their calling behaviour in response to a noisy ocean.

Late April usually marks the beginning of the cruise ship season in south-east Alaska, with the boats docking at Vancouver before heading north. This year the health crisis has halted them.

“What we know about whales in south-east Alaska is that when it gets noisy they call less, and when boats go by they call less,” said Fournet.

“I expect what we might see is an opportunity for whales to have more conversation and to have more complex conversation.”

Long may it last.

COVID Silver Linings: Is Iceland Getting Out Of The Whaling Business?

The pandemic is making whaling a difficult business, and that is squeezing Icelandic whalers hard:

Icelandic whaling company IP-Utgerd announced April 24 that it is stopping whaling completely, while the country’s largest whaling firm, Hvalur hf., says it won’t be hunting any whales for the second year in a row.

IP-Utgerd, which mainly targeted minke whales (Balaenoptera acutorostrata), cited financial difficulties after no-fishing zones were extended off the Icelandic coast, forcing its boats to go further and further offshore. Hvalur, which hunts threatened fin whales (Balaenoptera physalus) as well as minke whales, is ceasing operations because of stiff competition with Japan, among other reasons, according to Kristján Loftsson, the company’s CEO.

One company down. Another teetering.

Whale Disturbance Ahead

“FFS, leave me alone. How’d you like it if I barged in during your dinner hour?”
So humpback whales off Australia are being disturbed by swimmers:
Authorities in northern Western Australia are warning amateur boaties they are risking their lives by attempting to swim with humpback whales off the Ningaloo Coast.

The coastal town of Exmouth is in its second year of commercial humpback whale swimming trials, but the trials seem to have prompted some people to try to approach humpback whales in dinghies and on jet skis instead of with accredited operators.

That is not really news, or surprising to me. But what caught my eye is the attempt (increasingly common) by the commercial side to claim a clear line between safe, non-invasive, commercial whale-bothering and public whale-bothering. There is no question that commercial outfits on the whole are probably safer, more knowledgeable and less invasive (though their livelihood depends on getting everyone in close) than your average yahoo on a jetski. But the idea that whales are disturbed and disrupted by the public, and not by the commercial operations, is ludicrous.
It’s great that humanity is shifting its entertainment dollars away from captive display. But I am fearful that we are at the beginning of a profit-driven, mass human invasion of the wild. These humpbacks are there to breed, not to have to deal with snorkelers, just as spinner dolphins in Hawaii are inshore to rest (and need to be left alone).
It’s time to start setting some clear guidelines and codes of practice that are much more animal-friendly than those we have now. I’d start with no combustion engines, no large groups, no trace left. The core ethic would emphasize getting out into the wild for the sake of getting out into the wild, with no demands and expectations of what you might see or experience.

Whale Disentanglement Is Risky

This great photo sequence of a southern right whale being disentangled from fishing lines around its fluke shows just how hard and dangerous it is to work in close to such a large marine mammal. And if you note the bloody wounds just how damaging and debilitating fishing lines are when wrapped around a whale.

Good training and bravery required. We shouldn’t forget the risks these folks take. Or the terrible collateral impacts of dropping nets and fishing lines into all the oceans of the world.

The Cost Of Snow Crabs

“I know you think I am tasty. But how about letting me, and all the vulnerable right whales out there live in peace.”

North Atlantic right whales have been dying in unusual numbers this year (14 or more so far). For a population that is endangered and numbers around 500 individuals, this is a rate that is highly threatening to the future of the population.

I’ve already touched on this ongoing tragedy. But I am coming back to it because detail is important in understanding the impact of choices we make on the planet. And a dead North Atlantic right whale was just towed ashore. A necropsy will be performed, but there is not really any mystery. The poor animal was thoroughly trussed up by lines from a snow crab trap:

The animal was tightly wrapped in heavy ropes, and deep cuts were apparent in its body, mouth, fins and blubber.

Local people who saw the whale towed by the Canadian Coast Guard said a large snow crab net had to be cut off the carcass after it was brought ashore.

Not a nice way to go, and even worse the dead whale appears to be a female, so that is yet another breeder removed from a tenuous population. But the point I really want to make here is: snow crabs? Is it so important that we be able to eat snow crabs that this result can be tolerated? I don’t think so. I’ve never eaten one? Have you? If you have, I am sure it tasted good. But I am also sure that your life would not be altered in any meaningful way if you never had the option of putting a snow crab on your plate. Yet, an important, gentle and sublime species of whale is being threatened by this industry.

In any moral calculus, I can imagine some human needs that are so great that impacts on other species are justified and understandable. But it is simply not possible to suggest that our taste for snow crab (or any of the other fisheries that keep entangling whales) can justify the ongoing winnowing of a majestic whale population. Yes, fishermen need to earn a living and take care of their families. But we need to get a lot smarter about helping fishermen and others transition from industries that can’t be justified in light of their impacts on the natural world.

For this, and many other reasons, I don’t think most of the human population needs to eat any fish or crabs. Even in a world that does eat from the sea snow crabs can easily be taken off the menu. And if we aren’t more thoughtful and rigorous about what we eat and how it impacts the rest of the planet we will casually, and without thought, eat our way through much of the beauty and wonder that this planet offers us.

The Wonder Of Whales (And Nature)

A beautiful homage to the infinite complexity of Nature, and a reminder that it is hubris to act as if we understand the most subtle workings of the planet.

From the summary:

“When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the Universe.” – John Muir

When whales were at their historic populations, before their numbers were reduced, it seems that whales might have been responsible for removing tens of millions of tonnes of carbon from the atmosphere every year. Whales change the climate. The return of the great whales, if they are allowed to recover, could be seen as a benign form of geo-engineering. It could undo some of the damage we have done, both to the living systems of the sea, and to the atmosphere.

Everything we do has implications for the planet and its regulatory systems. Tread lightly, lightly…

(h/t Cetacean News Network)

Norwegian Whales (Cont.)

To follow the stunning drone footage of killer whales off Norway, let’s turn to the National Geographic photo blog Proof, which in September published some incredible photos of Norwegian killer whales feeding on herring. Not only are the photos, by Paul Nicklen, beautiful. But they also show yet another highly intelligent, cooperative killer whale hunting behavior:

The orcas are working together, performing a highly coordinated exercise in the herding of fish–huge schools of herring, larger than any other I have ever seen, compacted together into a tight ball. The immense ball of fish: a mere 5 feet under the ocean’s surface, buckles and sways, trying to escape, but the orcas swim around the ball making it tighter and tighter. In this sophisticated team effort every orca plays a role and every member of the pod gets their turn to feed. Young calves flank their mother’s side and mimic every move as they hone their herring-herding skills. We can hear the constant high-pitch sound of their echolocation calls all around us.

So effective, in fact, that some humpbacks show up to take advantage of the feast that is created.

Read all about it. And here’s a sample of the photos:

The US Navy vs. Nature

Just catching up on the bad news that the National Marine Fisheries Service has signed off on the Navy’s plan to inundate whale and dolphin habitat, otherwise known as the oceans, with harmful sonar:

While the Final Rule is not yet available to review (the website link provided by the agency doesn’t have the Final Rule), it appears from NMFS’ release that it has adopted the course laid out in its Proposed Rule.  There, it found that millions of instances of harm to the area’s whales and dolphins (including habitat abandonment, temporary hearing loss, and in some instances permanent hearing loss, injury to internal organs, and death) constitutes a “negligible impact” to the species harmed.

And once again, NMFS is finding that that the most severe impacts (temporary and permanent hearing loss and death) can be “minimized” by a Navy lookout regime that is wholly inadequate and ineffectual.

Such nonsense would be funny if it wasn’t so tragic. Scientific research developed over the last five years (the last time NMFS authorized Navy training and testing in the area) shows Navy training and testing activities are harming marine mammals far more than previously known. NRDC recently won a lawsuit against NMFS for ignoring that science when authorizing Navy training and testing in the Pacific Northwest.

This sort of testing and training is mostly a product of Cold War inertia and seems to me detached from strategic reality. Or at least serious strategic analysis. I know the phrase “national security” trumps just about all reasoned analysis. But what foreign threats justify such extensive damage to marine mammals? What increment of security is gained from live training versus simulations? Will we ever start to value other life and habitat on the planet?

Deep Sea Internet?

More clever technology that aims to address human issues and problems. But I wonder whether the researchers have considered the impact of adding more sound to the oceans:

Researchers have tested an “underwater wi-fi” network in a lake in an attempt to make a “deep-sea internet”.

The team, from the University of Buffalo, New York, said the technology could help detect tsunamis, offering more reliable warning systems.

They aim to create an agreed standard for underwater communications, to make interaction and data-sharing easier.

Unlike normal wi-fi, which uses radio waves, the submerged network technology utilises sound waves.

Radio waves are able to penetrate water, but with severely limited range and stability. Sound waves provide a better option – as demonstrated by many aquatic species such as whales and dolphins.

Yes, as demonstrated by whales and dolphins who might benefit from having their use of sound go untrammeled by more human-created sound. This is a classic example of how technology is only evaluated from a human cost-benefit perspective, as opposed to a more universal perspective.