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Posts Tagged ‘Whale Death’

Editor’s Note: In late December 2009, the sea lions at Pier 39 in San Francisco vacated their home on the floating piers. This article may shed some light on what’s happening on the SF coast and the reasons for their leaving.  Like many others, we wonder where they went and for what reasons.

PETER FIMRITE, San Francisco Chronicle, September 22, 2009

By Bierstadt AlbertA humpback whale that suddenly rose out of the water and splashed down near the Farallon Islands provided a research vessel full of scientists with a surprising bonanza of research data.

“Whale poop!” shouted several researchers in unison, as biologists scrambled to collect the floating reddish specimens Saturday as part of a comprehensive study of the ocean’s ecology off the Northern California coast.

The color of the whale excrement meant that the huge creature had been feeding mostly on a tiny shrimp-like crustacean called krill instead of fish and anchovies, its preferred food in recent decades. It is a change in diet that several bird species at the Farallon National Wildlife Refuge are unable to make, according to researchers in a joint ocean survey by the Cordell Bank National Marine Sanctuary, the Gulf of the Farallones National Marine Sanctuary and PRBO Conservation Science.

As a result, colonies of fish-eating cormorants, seagulls and murres failed to breed this year on the Farallon Islands. Over the past few months, dozens of dead birds and even sea lions have been found on local beaches.

Anchovies have disappeared, and scientists don’t know why. The researchers on the vessel believe that, in their absence, birds and mammals like humpback whales that eat krill are thriving while the ones that are eating only fish are in trouble, and the whale excrement served as evidence.

“We’ve had an extraordinary number of dead animals,” said Jan Roletto, the research coordinator for the Gulf of the Farallones National Marine Sanctuary. “It seems to be that the animals that suffered the most were the animals that forage on anchovies.”

Brandt’s cormorants, a black bird with white plumes that can dive as deep as 300 feet for its prey, did not produce any chicks this year on the Farallones or on Alcatraz. That’s compared with 15,000 chicks in 2007.

Breeding fails

For the anchovy-loving bird, it was the first complete breeding failure in 40 years during a year without El Niño conditions so far, according to scientists at PRBO, formerly known as the Point Reyes Bird Observatory.

Western gulls and common murres produced about one-seventh of the number of chicks they normally hatch. Researchers on the Farallones reported an increase in predation on the chicks that were produced, mainly because the parents were too far away looking for food.

Beachgoers probably noticed the death toll. Six to eight times the normal number of dead cormorants and sea lions were found on Bay Area beaches in May, June and July, according to researchers. The death toll in each case involves birds and marine mammals that prey on anchovies and other fish.

The deaths and breeding failures are all the more troubling because there appears to be plenty of krill, rockfish and other prey species to feed the seagoing birds and mammals.

Jaime Jahncke, the director of marine ecology for PRBO, said common murres had previous breeding failures in 1982-83 and in 1991-92, but both times the problems were linked to El Niño, a weather condition associated with warmer ocean temperatures and atmospheric conditions that cause heavy storms. Although forecasters say an El Niño is forming in the tropics, it has not yet hit California, Jahncke said.

No explanation

“I don’t know what it means, but it’s not good,” Jahncke said. “There are a lot of changes happening, and none of them have a clear explanation.”

Seagoing birds and mammals near the Farallon Islands depend on krill, anchovies and other prey that are attracted to conditions produced when cold, deep ocean currents bounce off the underwater outcropping called the Cordell Bank, forcing nutrients upward. The nutrients are most abundant during the transition from winter to spring.

Spring arrives an average of 20 days earlier than it did in 1970, Jahncke said. There has also been an increase in the strength of the upwellings over the past two decades, he said.

Apart from the lack of anchovies, that is probably a good thing.

The team of scientists on the boat spotted several blue whales before the humpback put on its show.

The abundance of blue whales, which feed almost exclusively on krill, and the evidence provided by the humpback made it clear that there is plenty of krill in the ocean.

“Whales primarily over the last decade have been feeding on fish,” said Lisa Etherington, the research coordinator for the Cordell Bank National Marine Sanctuary. “The last couple of years they’ve been feeding on krill. We don’t know why.”

Wild fluctuations

Jahncke said salmon smolt also feed on krill, a fact that may or may not help the beleaguered Central Coast chinook. The Cassin’s auklet, a small, chunky seabird that feeds on krill, had above-average nesting success this year.

But wild fluctuations are now almost normal, according to the researchers, who are concerned that the El Niño predicted for next year will cause a further decline in the numbers of birds.

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FRANK HARTZELL, Fort Bragg Advocate News, December 24, 2009

Image by Larry R. Wagner

The California State Lands Commission last week found its own regulations designed to protect marine mammals so inconsistent and confusing as to be unenforceable.

That was good news for Fugro Pelagos, owner of the 176-foot survey vessel Pacific Star that reported it fatally struck a female blue whale on Oct. 19.

“On behalf of all of us at Fugro Pelagos, we thank … the California State Lands Commission (SLC) for assessing the facts of the matter and deciding not to revoke our offshore geophysical survey permit. In making such a decision, they recognized that language of the current permit is unclear and could be subject to interpretation,” said Fugro Company President David Millar, in a statement issued after the meeting.

State Lands Commission staff had recommended that the company’s permit be yanked and that Fugro pay $13,000 for staff investigatory expenses.

Instead, the commission hashed out an agreement by which the company now agrees to follow the conditions of the permit — as the commission wrongly believed had been happening all along.

“It is now clear that the California State Lands Commission considers hydrographic surveying using only an echo sounder to be an activity covered by the offshore geophysical survey permit. Fugro Pelagos has agreed to comply with this interpretation on the basis that all other permit holders will receive written notification of the State’s position and that the State will work with Fugro Pelagos and other stakeholders in reviewing and modifying the current permit language so that there can be no future misunderstandings about what activities are and are not covered by the offshore geophysical survey permit,” Millar stated.

The whale bled to death in about half an hour, washing up just south of Fort Bragg.

The entire matter is a gigantic “I told you so” for Steve Sullivan, who has been criticizing these very regulations for being confusing and widely ignored.

Sullivan owns a Fugro rival surveying company. He has harped at state authorities for about five years, saying others should be made to do what his company does, including always having a marine mammal observer on deck and employing a spotter boat.

Sullivan had predicted catastrophe for marine mammals unless regulations became consistent. Prior to the Oct. 19 whale strike, Sullivan not only criticized Fugro, but also state and university agencies for ignoring the regulations designed to protect marine mammals.

At last Thursday’s meeting, the State Lands Commission set out to demand those agencies and Fugro all now follow consistent rules.

Sullivan’s pleas seemingly fell on deaf ears at the State Lands Commission and the Ocean Protection Council. In fact when Sullivan contended following the whale strike that Fugro was operating without a permit, state and federal officials had vociferously refuted Sullivan’s contention.

But technically, Sullivan was right. Fugro never finalized a marine mammal plan required by the permit because they felt it did not apply to any of the work they were doing. Yet, the company kept renewing the incomplete (and thus theoretically invalid) permit, all a demonstration of how meaningless and unintelligible the permit process was.

The marine mammal plan, had it been prepared, would be expected to contain measures that might or might not prevent whale strikes.

Fugro has consistently maintained that the whale killing would likely have happened even if there had been a NOAA-certified marine mammal observer on deck.

“During the hearing, it was noted that State scientists considered this tragic accident unavoidable, and not the result of Fugro Pelagos not following survey permit conditions,” Millar said.

“Nevertheless, we were deeply saddened by it. In the decades that the company has been in existence, no incident of this type has ever occurred and we acknowledge the loss that comes with the death of such a large and precious marine animal,” Millar said.

Fugro will carry a marine wildlife monitor in the future. Perhaps more importantly, State Lands has launched a process designed to standardize all permits and require more measures to protect marine mammals, as the permitting process originally intended.

At one point, state officials were working on a plan for better protections of marine mammals, but that effort collapsed due to the state budget crisis.

“I am very pleased that the State Lands Commission has finally required the multi-billion dollar international firm, Fugro, to abide by the same regulations to protect marine mammals that us small California survey companies have complied with for years,” Sullivan said in a statement after the meeting.

“At their meeting on Dec. 17, the State Lands Commission disclosed that Fugro and a new permit applicant, the California State University at Monterey Bay, have for years been conducting marine surveys without compliance with regulations to protect marine mammals,” Sullivan said.

A community effort stripped the whale of its flesh and buried the skeleton so it can be dug up later and displayed.

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FRANK HARTZELL, Mendocino Beacon, December 17, 2009

The Obama administration has launched a new “zoning” approach that puts all ocean activities under the umbrella of nine regional planning bodies.

Public comments are being accepted through Friday, Feb. 12.

The approach is more local and integrated than the current strategy, which puts separate functions under different federal agencies. But it remains to be seen how such a plan can satisfy a plethora of federal laws that now protect the Atlantic and Pacific oceans, the Gulf of Mexico and the Great Lakes.

The issue of whales killed by ships (like the blue whale kill in October off Fort Bragg) is cited in the new report as an example of how the regional planning approach could solve problems that single agencies cannot.

In the Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary off Boston, the Coast Guard, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and several other government agencies and stakeholders reconfigured the Boston Traffic Separation Scheme, after numerous fatal collisions between marine mammals and ships.

This kind of joint action is what the new Obama approach anticipates using nationwide.

The reconfigured shipping lanes reduced risk of collision by an estimated 81% for all baleen whales and 58% for endangered right whales, studies show.

NOAA is the lone federal agency dealing with the whale kill issue locally, working with two state agencies, which have regulations that are inconsistent. With the Fort Bragg incident highlighting weaknesses in the regulatory process, a regional board could propose solutions.

In another example of oversight conflict, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) planned and launched a policy for wave energy leasing completely without local governments’ knowledge. Other federal agencies also bombarded FERC with criticism and problems their federal fellow had failed to anticipate when FERC’s program came to light.

The Obama administration’s idea is to bring all the federal and local agencies to the table at the planning stage, not the reactive stage.

“The uses of our oceans, coasts and Great Lakes have expanded exponentially over time,” said Nancy Sutley, chair of the White House Council on Environmental Quality, who also heads the Ocean Policy Task Force. “At the same time they are facing environmental challenges, including pollution and habitat destruction, that make them increasingly vulnerable.

“Without an improved, more thoughtful approach, we risk an increase in user conflicts and the potential loss of critical economic, ecosystem, social, and cultural benefits for present and future generations,” said Sutley, in a press release.

Many scientific studies have called for ocean zoning, but this is the first effort to make the idea work.

California, Oregon and Washington would be included in a single planning area The participants in the planning process, such as Indian tribes, federal agencies, states and local entities, would be asked to sign a contract modeled on development agreements.

Development agreements are widely used by housing developers to bring all county and state permitting agencies to the table so they can get loans and prepare to launch a project.

Sutley said the administration will reconvene the National Ocean Council to work with the regional planning bodies.

While the new approach promises more locally responsive planning, the job of the National Ocean Council will be to ensure that planning is consistent from region to region. That is likely to create some conflicts with monied interests representing some uses, such as oil drilling, and leave other uses with less ability to advocate at the table.

The proposal comes from the Interagency Ocean Policy Task Force, established by President Obama on June 12. It is led by Sutley and consists of 24 senior-level officials from administration agencies, departments and offices.

The task force’s interim framework is available for a 60-day public review and comment period. After the close of the comment period, the task force will finalize its recommendations in both this report and the Sept. 10 interim report and provide a final report to the President in early 2010.

For more details on the Interagency Ocean Policy Task Force, including the interim framework, and to submit comments, visit www.whitehouse.gov/oceans.

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FRANK HARTZELL, Fort Bragg Advocate News, November 27, 2009

Image by Larry R. Wagner

California’s regulatory system, designed to protect whales from science vessels will get some rethinking, following controversy over the October 19, 2009 death of a blue whale off Fort Bragg, a state official said.

The incident has highlighted an inconsistent and controversial regulatory system for which change was blocked by funding cuts due to the state budget crisis.

When the survey vessel Pacific Star struck the whale, it did not have a federally-approved whale spotter on board as required by the terms of its permit that this newspaper obtained from the California State Lands Commission.

Ship owner Fugro Pelagos, Inc. says both they had a valid permit and that they didn’t need one for the mapping being done when the whale was killed.

“There was no official whale observer on board because the work that was being done at the time did not require it,” said said James Hailstones of Fugro Pelagos. However, it contradicts a previous statement where he said an observer was present, as is required on all commercial vessels.

“The permit to which you refer pertains specifically to geophysical surveys, defined by state regulations as operations that measure and record physical properties of subsurface geologic structures,” said Hailstones.

“These are usually associated with mineral exploration and underwater resource development, and require higher-powered equipment than those aboard the Pacific Star. Instead, the vessel was conducting hydrographic survey work that is designed to simply measure the water depth above sea floor’s surface,” Hailstones said.

The permit states that Fugro is required to have “at least one person on board during survey operations that is a National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) approved marine wildlife monitor,…” during geophysical work.

A review of the permit confirms that it does apply to geophysical work as described by Hailstones and raises questions as to the efficiency of the regulation system.

Fugro, the largest company in the business the permit was created for, has never found a situation where the permit was needed. As evidence of that, the State Lands Commission permit demands a marine wildlife contingency plan be filed, which specifies information about interactions with marine mammals and reptiles. That plan has been completed but not filed because it isn’t needed, according to the current rules.

“A draft plan exists and is ready for use when we perform a geophysical survey. However, a tailored plan was not filed because there is no requirement to do so for the work that was being conducted,” Hailstones said.

Controversy over the incident and the permit has been stirred by Steve Sullivan, whose family operates Sea Surveyor, Inc., which competes with the larger Fugro Pelagos for surveying contracts. He says the permit was intended to apply to all types of mapping and surveying work.

Sullivan has been predicting for several years that lax and inconsistent regulation would lead to whale kills, state records show.

In interviews and letters broadcast on local radio and the Internet, Sullivan claimed that Fugro didn’t have a permit when it struck the whale.

This was refuted by Sheila Semans, a staff member of the Ocean Protection Council through the California Coastal Conservancy.

“[Fugro] did have a valid geophysical permit. I am told by the company that they have had a geophysical permit since they were required. What Mr. Sullivan fails to point out is that the permit that was issued on October 22, 2009 was effective starting Oct. 1, 2009,” Semans said.

She went on to explain that the permit was issued retroactively because of a series of delays, that were not the fault of Fugro.

Hailstones said the company had a permit issued October 1st, which was not issued retroactively.

How the work Pacific Star was doing at the time of the whale strike may or may not fit into the intent of the permit is a topic in an investigation into the whale strike by NOAA.

Scientists generally believe that the kind of sonar the Pacific Star was using isn’t harmful to whales and some believe they can’t even hear it. However, all say more study is needed.

One study says whales, which can hear for long distances, are becoming confused due to the increasing noise level in the oceans caused by all human activity.

Publicity following the death of the blue whale may revive efforts killed by the state budget crisis to clarify and expand permits and the understanding of the effects of all types of sonar on whales.

“Because of the confusion and disagreement about what the geophysical permit should cover, State Lands has asked [ the Ocean Protection Council] to fund further investigation into any potential impacts from passive equipment’ such as the sonar use for seafloor mapping,” Semans said.

“We have not been able to fund any new projects since December 2008 so discussions have stopped. But I’d imagine this incident will resurrect those discussions once we can spend money again,” she said.

Sullivan argues that the permit was required when the strike happened but says there is a larger issue.

“That’s just paperwork, my main complaint for the past few years is they and others up and down the coast are not taking the precautions needed and required to protect marine mammals,” he said

Sullivan says the Department of Fish and Game itself, along with study vessels operated by universities, operate such surveys without following permits and without complying with regulations designed to protect marine mammals.

He says he first confronted the State Lands Commission, then found that body had no meaningful enforcement power. Recently, he appeared before the Ocean Protection Council in an effort to cut funding to the efforts until marine mammal concerns could be met, a meeting video shows.

Sullivan said that because of the way modern hydrography works, those involved are using only a narrow beam of sonar, which would be unlikely to detect whales.

“The captain is not looking out the window anymore. That’s why you need the special spotters. You don’t see a whale unless you are looking for them,” Sullivan said.

Hailstones said Fugro keeps an eye out for whales, along with other marine hazards.

“Personnel onboard the bridge of the Pacific Star are always on watch for dangers to navigation, other vessels, crab and lobster pot buoys and marine mammals and obviously try to avoid such incidents,” said Hailstones.

The 176-foot Pacific Star completed its mapping work for the state and is now back in drydock in Seattle, Hailstones said.

Sullivan thinks the size of the vessel may have been a contributing cause to the whale strike. He said the work only requires a 50-foot vessel and says use of such a large ship in whale migratory waters is irresponsible. He said a larger ship makes it much harder to see whales and more likely for a strike to be fatal.

“Being experts in our field, we utilize the correct vessel for the application,” Hailstones said.

“The Pacific Star is similar in size to others used in safely conducting offshore and coastal hydrographic surveys. Much larger vessels than the Pacific Star sail California waters every day and do so at far greater speeds than the 6.5 miles per hour the Pacific Star was doing at the time of the incident,” Hailstones said.

Hailstones said the whale apparently surfaced under the propellers in the rear section of the boat and was not struck by the bow.

Sullivan says the propellers of his survey vessels are protected by screens that would keep them from inflicting a fatal wound should there ever be a whale strike.

“The Pacific Star — like 99.9% of the world’s ships — does not have screens surrounding their screws,” said Hailstones.

“Not only would this be impractical to retrofit for the majority of vessels, but the possible negative consequences far outweigh the positives,” Hailstones said. “Screens would offer a large surface area for marine growth to flourish or even water borne garbage to accumulate, it wouldn’t be long before a vessel’s ability to make way would be severely hampered as a screw relies on the ability of large volumes of water to pass by unobstructed.”

Hailstones said the greatest nemesis for a vessel propeller is rope in the water.

“A screen would pose a great catch’ mechanism for rope and often, when rope gets caught in a vessel screw, the vessel is dead in the water, which poses a great risk to the human life onboard,” Hailstones said

One thing Hailstones and Sullivan agree on is that this incident is a first time in anyone’s memory that a survey vessel has reported striking and killing a whale.

“Our company and our sister companies utilize hundreds of vessels in thousands of miles of oceans and seas worldwide to conduct such operations, and are proud of our long-standing safety record. In the company’s 45-year history, Fugro (including Fugro Pelagos) has never been involved in such an unfortunate incident before,” Hailstones said.

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Marine Science Today, November 23, 2009

Image by Larry R. Wagner

The National Marine Fisheries Service, the agency charged with the stewardship of the U.S.’s living marine resources, may be sued for failure to implement the 1998 Blue whale Recovery Plan. Friends of the Earth, Pacific Environment and the Center of Biological Diversity have joined the notice of intent to sue submitted by the Environmental Defense Center last week.

Among other actions, the recovery plan mandates that the Fisheries Service identify and implement methods to eliminate or reduce blue whale mortalities from ship strikes. According to the groups, the agency has failed to carry out key provisions of the plan intended to both minimize and eliminate threats caused by ship strikes, pollution, and other harmful activities, as well as to improve the agency’s limited knowledge concerning blue whale populations and habitat needs.

Brian Segee, staff attorney with the Environmental Defense Center said:

“Recovery plans serve as the primary ‘road map’ of actions necessary to both protect and recover our nation’s most imperiled wildlife species .  The blue whale deaths in October again demonstrate that it is long past time for the Fisheries Service to carry out the Blue Whale Recovery Plan’s mandate to implement measures that will eliminate or minimize ship strikes.”

Driven to the brink of extinction by whaling in the mid-20th century, blue whale populations have begun to slowly increase in many areas, and the species is now sighted during the summer along many areas of the California coast.  While these increased sightings are cause for optimism, blue whale population numbers remain at a small fraction of their historic levels — today’s global population is estimated to be 10,000 animals, compared to a population of at least 350,000 before whaling.  In addition, the species is now confronted with a host of new and emerging threats, including not only ship strikes but climate change, ocean acidification, and noise pollution.

Blue whales are the largest animal to have ever lived on Earth.  The average adult blue whale is almost as long as a Boeing 737.  They live more than 50 years for certain and could live as long as 90-100 years.  They live in all oceans and migrate, travelling thousands of miles each year.  It is known that the Santa Barbara Channel hosts the largest seasonal population of blue whales.

The Potential Biological Removal (PBR) level for blue whales under the MMPA is 1.4.  The PBR is a number referring to the maximum number of animals, not including natural mortalities, that may be removed from a population annually while still allowing that population to reach or maintain its optimum sustainable size.  The deaths of at least five blue whales from ship strikes in Southern California in 2007, as well as two additional ship strike mortalities along the California coast in October 2009 appear to indicate that actions need to be taken.  Andrea Treece, an attorney with the Center for Biological Diversity said:

“Abundant blooms of krill have brought blue whales to our coast, which has given many people a wonderful opportunity to see this rare, mammoth creature.  Unfortunately, as more whales have gathered off busy ports, more have been hit and killed by ships.  The Fisheries Service’s refusal to address threats like ship strikes threatens to erase all the hard-won progress this species has made so far.”

Under the Endangered Species Act, potential litigants must file a 60-day notice of intent to sue before lawsuits can be filed alleging that the government has failed to carry out its nondiscretionary duties under the Act.  While the conservation organizations are committed to pursuing legal remedies if necessary, it is their hope that submission of the notice will prompt the Fisheries Service to begin implementing the Blue Whale Recovery Plan without court intervention.

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Endangered species’ communication critical to survival

ARIEL DAVID, Seattle Post Intelligence, December 8, 2008

Whale-460_980418cThe songs that whales and dolphins use to communicate, orient themselves and find mates are being drowned out by human-made noises in the world’s oceans, U.N. officials and environmental groups said Wednesday.

That sound pollution — everything from increasing commercial shipping and seismic surveys to a new generation of military sonar — is not only confounding the mammals, it also is further threatening the survival of these endangered animals.

Studies show that these cetaceans, which once communicated over thousands of miles to forage and mate, are losing touch with each other, the experts said at a U.N. wildlife conference in Rome.

“Call it a cocktail-party effect,” said Mark Simmonds, director of the Whale and Dolphin Conservation Society, a Britain-based NGO. “You have to speak louder and louder until no one can hear each other anymore.”

An indirect source of noise pollution may also be coming from climate change, which is altering the chemistry of the oceans and making sound travel farther through sea water, the experts said.

Representatives of more than 100 governments are gathered in Rome for a meeting of the U.N.-backed Convention on the Conservation of Migratory Species of Wild Animals.

The agenda of the conference, which ends Friday, includes ways to increase protection for endangered species, including measures to mitigate underwater noise.

Environmental groups also are increasingly finding cases of beached whales and dolphins that can be linked to sound pollution, Simmonds said.

Marine mammals are turning up on the world’s beaches with tissue damage similar to that found in divers suffering from decompression sickness. The condition, known as the bends, causes gas bubbles to form in the bloodstream upon surfacing too quickly.

Scientists say the use of military sonar or seismic testing may have scared the animals into diving and surfacing beyond their physical limits, Simmonds said.

Several species of cetaceans are already listed as endangered or critically endangered from other causes, including hunting, chemical pollution, collisions with boats and entanglements with fishing equipment. Though it is not yet known precisely how many animals are affected, sound pollution is increasingly being recognized as a serious factor, the experts said.

As an example, Simmonds offered two incidents this year that, though still under study, could be linked to noise pollution: the beaching of more than 100 melon-headed whales in Madagascar and that of two dozen common dolphins on the southern British coast.

The sound of a seismic test, used to locate hydrocarbons beneath the seabed, can spread 1,800 miles under water, said Veronica Frank, an official with the International Fund for Animal Welfare. A study by her group found that the blue whale, which used to communicate across entire oceans, has lost 90 percent of its range over the past 40 years.

Despite being the largest mammal ever to inhabit Earth, the endangered blue whale still holds mysteries for scientists.

“We don’t even know where their breeding grounds are,” Simmonds said. “But what’s most important is that they need to know where they are.”

Other research suggests that rising levels of carbon dioxide are increasing the acidity of the Earth’s oceans, making sound travel farther through sea water.

The study by the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute in the United States shows the changes may mean some sound frequencies are traveling 10% farther than a few centuries ago. That could increase to 70% by 2050 if greenhouse gases are not cut.

However, governments seem ready to take action, said Nick Nutall, a spokesman for the U.N. Environment Program, which administers the convention being discussed in Rome. The conference is discussing a resolution that would oblige countries to reduce sound pollution, he said.

Measures suggested include rerouting shipping and installing quieter engines as well as cutting speed and banning tests and sonar use in areas known to be inhabited by the animals.

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MendoCoastCurrent, October 27, 2009

Editor’s Note: Over the past few weeks there have been numerous Blue Whales showing up dead on the coast of California and a cause of the recent Blue Whale washing up on the Mendocino coast has been the topic of great discussion and mystery here. Actual cause of death has been identified by propeller of a NOAA research ship. Additionally, here’s a new theory based on noise pollution and new research: Blue whales are forced to make more noise to compete with man-made noise pollution like ship sounds and sonar. More specifically: Blue whales increase their ‘singing’ to cope with noise pollution. And: Man-made noise such as ships’ engines has caused hearing loss in whales.

LOUISE GRAY, Telegraph UK, September 23, 2009

Whale-460_980418cIt has also caused other behavioural changes, including forcing the creatures to strand on beaches because they are unable to navigate.

The endangered blue whale uses sonar to navigate, locate prey, avoid predators and communicate.

However in recent years the increasing use of hi-tech sonar by ships, the noise of propellers, seismic surveys, sea-floor drilling, and low-frequency radio transmissions have made oceans noisier.

New research has shown that the whales are having to ‘chatter’ more often and for longer periods to communicate the location of prey and to mate.

Zoologist Lucia Di Iorio, of the University of Zurich, analysed the song of blue whales recorded by microphones during seismic explorations in the St Lawrence estuary off Canada’s north east coast over an eleven day period in August 2004.

“We found that blue whales called consistently more on seismic exploration days than on non-exploration days as well as during periods within a seismic survey day when the sparker was operating,” she said.

“This increase was observed for the discrete, audible calls that are emitted during social encounters and feeding.”

The study, published in Biology Letters, provides the first evidence that blue whales change their calling behaviour when exposed to sounds from seismic surveys.

“This study suggests careful reconsideration of the potential behavioural impacts of even low source level seismic survey sounds on large whales. This is particularly relevant when the species is at high risk of extinction as is the blue whale,” added Dr Di Iorio.

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