Whales and dolphins lead ‘human-like lives’ thanks to big brains, says study

The cultural brain hypothesis of human development could also explain cetaceans forming friendships and even gossiping

Life is not so different beneath the ocean waves. Bottlenose dolphins use simple tools, orcas call each other by name, and sperm whales talk in local dialects. Many cetaceans live in tight-knit groups and spend a good deal of time at play.

That much scientists know. But in a new study, researchers compiled a list of the rich behaviours spotted in 90 different species of dolphins, whales and porpoises, and found that the bigger the species brain, the more complex indeed, the more human-like their lives are likely to be.

This suggests that the cultural brain hypothesis the theory that suggests our intelligence developed as a way of coping with large and complex social groups may apply to whales and dolphins, as well as humans.

Writing in the journal, Nature Ecology and Evolution, the researchers claim that complex social and cultural characteristics, such as hunting together, developing regional dialects and learning from observation, are linked to the expansion of the animals brains a process known as encephalisation.

The researchers gathered records of dolphins playing with humpback whales, helping fishermen with their catches, and even producing signature whistles for dolphins that are absent suggesting the animals may even gossip.

Another common behaviour was adult animals raising unrelated young. There is the saying that it takes a village to raise a child [and that] seems to be true for both whales and humans, said Michael Muthukrishna, an economic psychologist and co-author on the study at the London School of Economics.

Dolphins
Dolphins off the coast of South Africa. Photograph: Rainer Schimpf/Barcroft Media

Like humans, the cetaceans, a group made up of dolphins, whales and porpoises, are thought to do most of their learning socially rather than individually, which could explain why some species learn more complex behaviours than others. Those predominantly found alone or in small groups had the smallest brains, the researchers led by Susanne Shultz at the University of Manchester wrote.

Luke Rendell, a biologist at the University of St Andrews who was not involved in the study, but has done work on sperm whales and their distinctive dialects, warned against anthropomorphising and making animals appear to be like humans.

There is a risk of sounding like there is a single train line, with humans at the final station and other animals on their way of getting there. The truth is that every animal responds to their own evolutionary pressures, he said.

There is definitely a danger in comparing other animals to humans, especially with the data available. But what we can say for sure, is that this cultural-brain hypothesis we tested is present in primates and in cetaceans, Muthukrishna said.

There was still much more to learn, though, he added. Studies with underwater mammals are difficult and vastly underfunded, so there is so much we dont know about these fascinating animals, he said.

The fascination, however, should not only be interesting for people studying animals. We dont have to look at other planets to look for aliens, because we know that underwater there are these amazing species with so many parallels to us in their complex behaviours, said Muthukrishna.

Studying evolutionarily distinct animals such as cetaceans could act as a control group for studying intelligence in general, and so help the understanding of our own intellect.

It is interesting to think that whale and human brains are different in their structure but have brought us to the same patterns in behaviour, Rendell said. The extent of how this is close to humans can educate us about evolutionary forces in general.

However, Muthukrishna points out that intelligence is always driven by the environment an animal finds itself in. Each environment presents a different set of challenges for an animal. When you are above water, you learn how to tackle fire, for example, he said. As smart as whales are, they will never learn to light a spark.

Source: http://www.theguardian.com/us

Star of anti-dolphin killing film The Cove held by Japanese immigration

Ric OBarry seen in documentary about slaughter in a Japanese village says government is waging a war on dolphins

The star of Oscar-winning documentary The Cove, about the killing of dolphins in a village in Japan, has been detained by immigration authorities at Tokyos Narita international airport.

Ric OBarry an American known for training the dolphins used in the TV series Flipper said immigration officials told him he could not enter Japan on a tourist visa because he was not a tourist, according to his lawyer, Takashi Takano.

Takano said officials accused OBarry of having close ties with the anti-whaling group Sea Shepherd, which OBarry denies. Immigration officials said it was their policy not to comment on individual cases.

Takano said he was appealing against the detention, and that the Japanese government would decide on whether to allow OBarry into the country or deport him. It was not clear when a decision would be made.

The Cove, which won the 2009 Academy Award for best documentary, shows the slaughter of dolphins herded into a cove in the fishing village of Taiji and bludgeoned to death.

The Japanese government is cracking down on those who oppose their war on dolphins, OBarry said in a statement sent to the Associated Press through his son, Lincoln OBarry.

Officials in Taiji, a small fishing village in central Japan, and fishermen have defended the hunt as a tradition, saying that eating dolphin meat is no different to eating beef or chicken.

Most Japanese have never eaten dolphin meat. Many say they are horrified by the dolphin killing and there is a campaign against the Taiji hunt. Animal welfare activists say the hunt is driven mostly by the lucrative sale of dolphins to aquariums, with the income from the sale of meat simply an added extra.

OBarry has been stopped and questioned by Japanese immigration before. He has also been taken into custody by local police on the suspicion of not having proper travel documents before being released. But this is the first time he has been detained in this way. He has the support of high-profile celebrities, including Sting, the US ambassador to Japan, Caroline Kennedy, and the former Guns N Roses drummer, Matt Sorum.

Source: http://www.theguardian.com/us

Don’t call it a wholphin: first sighting of rare whale-dolphin hybrid

Scientists have identified a creature that they believe to be a hybrid of a melon-headed whale and a rough-toothed dolphin

Scientists are touting the first sighting of a hybrid between a melon-headed whale and a rough-toothed dolphin in the ocean off Hawaii. But dont call it a wholphin, they say.

The melon-headed whale is one of the various species thats called a whale but is technically a dolphin.

Calling it something like a wholphin doesnt make any sense, said one of the studys authors, Robin Baird, a Hawaii research biologist with Washington state-based Cascadia Research Collective. I think calling it a wholphin just confuses the situation more than it already is.

In a study published last week, scientists say the animal spotted off the island of Kauai in August 2017 appears to be the first record of a hybrid involving either species. Its also only the third confirmed instance of a wild-born hybrid between species in the Delphinidae family.

The label wholphin has stuck for a hybrid born in 1985 at Hawaiis Sea Life Park of a false killer whale and an Atlantic bottle-nose dolphin. The hybrid named Kekaimalu still lives at the marine mammal park, where she helps teach children about genetics. News of the hybrid spotted in the wild during navy-funded research to study the effects of sonar, proves the genetic diversity of the ocean, said Sea Life park curator Jeff Pawloski. To know she has cousins out there in the ocean is an amazing thing to know.

While some news organisations have described the melon-headed whale and rough-toothed dolphin hybrid as a new species, in order for that to happen other things need to occur, including more widespread hybridisation, Baird said.

That isnt the case, although there are examples where hybridisation has resulted in a new species, he said. Theres no evidence to suggest its leading toward anything like species formation.

The male hybrid presents an opportunity to look for others. Hybrids generally occur when there is a decline in the population in one of the parental species, so scientists will be looking out for such a decline.

A likely scenario for how the hybrid came to be is a melon-headed whale getting separated from its group and ending up traveling with rough-toothed dolphins.
Scientists do not know how old it is, but believe it is close to adult age.

Source: http://www.theguardian.com/us

Seven right whales found dead in ‘devastating’ blow to endangered animal

Carcasses found off Canada in recent weeks in what may be biggest single die-off of one of worlds most endangered whale species, expert says

Seven North Atlantic right whales have been found floating lifelessly in the Gulf of St Lawrence, off Canada, in recent weeks, in what is being described as a catastrophic blow to one of the worlds most endangered whales.

The first whale carcass was reported in early June. Within a month, another six reports came in, leaving marine biologists in the region reeling.

Its devastating, said Tonya Wimmer of the Marine Animal Response Society, a charitable organisation dedicated to marine mammal conservation in the region. This is, I think, the largest die-off theyve ever had for this particularly species, at once.

The global population of North Atlantic right whales which live along the eastern seaboard of Canada and the US and can reach up to 16 metres in length is thought to be around 525, meaning that more than 1% of the population has died in the past month. So it is catastrophic in terms of potential impact to this population.

This
This is, I think, the largest die-off theyve ever had for this particularly species, at once, says an expert. Photograph: Marine Animal Response Society

At least two of the whales were female, with one of them known to be entering its reproductive years. Youre talking anywhere from five to 10 babies in their lifetime. And now they wont happen. Its heartbreaking, said Wimmer.

With no obvious causes for the deaths, a team including federal scientists, pathologists and veterinarians have been racing against time to figure out what is happening. Last week they carried out necropsies on three of the whales, hoping to find clues before the carcasses decompose.

While their findings are still preliminary, they found signs of severe blunt trauma and bruising on two of the whales, suggesting collision with a vessel, while the third had been tangled in fishing gear for weeks.

The findings still dont explain why the deaths have seemingly occurred within such a short time frame, said Wimmer, though regardless, there are some aspects of the last stages of their life that were impacted by human activities in that area. As scientists move into the laboratory to carry out further analyses, some have speculated that the deaths may have been caused by toxic algae or something the whales ate.

A
A team including federal scientists, pathologists and veterinarians have been racing against time to figure out the cause of the deaths. Photograph: Marine Animal Response Society

The North Atlantic right whale has struggled since being nearly hunted to extinction by whalers in the late 18th century. In recent years, researchers have noticed the whales moving into the Gulf of St Lawrence in large numbers, leading to increased interactions with humans.

Earlier this week, reports came in of a right whale in the area that was tangled in fishing gear. Some six hours after it was first spotted, scientists were able to cut the whale free of a fishing line in its mouth.

The entanglement, along with the unprecedented number of deaths, may suggest that fishing gear needs to be set out differently or that vessels need to start moving more slowly through the region, said Wimmer. Right now theres still a lot of questions, she added. Theres probably more questions than there are answers.

Source: http://www.theguardian.com/us

‘Not ashamed’: dolphin hunters of Taiji break silence over film The Cove

Members of the tiny Japanese community, which was vilified in the 2009 documentary, speak to the Guardian about fishing and their unique way of life

Taiji is still in darkness when a dozen men gather at the quayside and warm themselves over a brazier. While the rest of the town sleeps, they sip from cans of hot coffee, smoke cigarettes and talk in hushed tones.

As soon as the sun edges above the peninsula, they take to their boats, steering out to sea in formation in search of their prey: the dolphin.

It has been eight years since the Oscar-winning film The Cove propelled this community in an isolated corner of Japans Pacific coast to the centre of a bitter debate over the pursuit of dolphins for human consumption and entertainment.

The films graphic footage of dolphins being slaughtered with knives, turning the surrounding sea a crimson red, shocked audiences around the world.

Unaccustomed to international attention and wrong-footed by their social media-savvy opponents, the towns 3,200 residents simply went to ground. Requests for interviews with town officials went unanswered; the fishermen took a vow of silence.

But after years of keeping their counsel, Taijis fishermen have finally spoken out, agreeing to talk to the Guardian about their work, their whaling heritage, and their determination to continue hunting dolphins.

Weve mostly stayed silent since The Cove, and thats why our point of view was never put across in the media, says Yoshifumi Kai, a senior official with Taijis fisheries cooperative.

Taijis
Taijis dolphin hunters head out to sea Photograph: Justin McCurry for the Guardian

Kai attributes that reticence down to what he claims are attempts by activists from Sea Shepherd and other conservation groups to manufacture confrontations, which they film and post online, and challenges claims that the practice of slaughtering dolphins beneath tarpaulin sheets is proof that he and his fellow fishermen have something to hide.

Activists say we are concealing something because we know that what we are doing is immoral, but thats nonsense, he says. You never see cattle or other animals being slaughtered in public. Its not something you do out in the open.

The earliest recorded coastal whale hunts in Taiji can be traced back to the early 1600s. Scrolls on display in the towns whale museum depict dozens of boats decorated with symbols taken from Buddhism and Japans indigenous religion, Shinto, in pursuit of a whale big enough to sustain the entire community for months.

Foreign activists ask us why we kill these cute animals, but we see them as a vital source of food, even now, says Taijis mayor, Kazutaka Sangen. When I was a boy, a third of the town would turn out to greet a whale being brought back to shore, because they were desperate to eat its meat. We are grateful to the whales we want Westerners to understand that.

Taiji Japan map

By killing dolphins and other small whales, fishermen are continuing a tradition that enabled their ancestors to survive before the days of mass transport and the availability of other sources of nutrition, adds Sangen.

We couldnt grow rice or vegetables here, and we had no natural water supply. We needed to kill whales to eat, and hundreds of people died doing so. This was a very difficult place to survive, and we will always be grateful to our ancestors for their sacrifice. Its because of them that we are all here today.

For Sangen, everything in Taiji from services for elderly residents to education and tourist infrastructure depends on the income it makes from the sale of dolphins to zoos and aquariums. Several times during the interview he refers to kujira no megumi literally, the blessing of the whale. Whaling enables this town to function, he says.

Using remote-controlled helicopters and hidden underwater cameras, The Cove provided graphic footage of Taijis infamous drive hunts, whose critics include the former US ambassador to Japan, Caroline Kennedy.

Typically, fishermen pursue pods of dolphins across open seas, banging metal poles against their boats to confuse their hypersensitive sonar, before herding them into a narrow inlet. There, they are either slaughtered for their meat or selected and sold for large sums to aquariums and marine parks.

While dolphin meat for human consumption generates only modest profits, Taijis fishermen can reportedly sell a live specimen to brokers for about 8,000 US dollars. A fully trained dolphin can then fetch more than 40,000 US dollars if sold overseas, and about half that in Japan.

Minke
Minke whale sashimi served at a restaurant in Taiji Photograph: Justin McCurry

The 20 or so Taiji fishermen who take to the sea between September and April to hunt bottlenose dolphins, pilot whales and other small cetaceans have been emboldened by the release of Okujirasama (A Whale of a Tale) a documentary by the New York-based filmmaker Megumi Sasaki that counters what she describes as The Coves one-sided treatment of a complex issue.

While making her film, Sasaki concluded that the debate over Taiji is an irreconcilable clash of cultures between the global, and Western-led, animal rights movement and local traditions steeped in religion and ancestor worship.

Whaling is the glue that holds this town together

If dolphins are so important to the local community, then why kill them thats what many Westerners cant understand, Sasaki says. But we think of animals as a resource, not that they are special creatures that can do things humans cant do. Its a totally different way of thinking. Whaling is the glue that holds this town together its inseparable from local identity and pride.

Kai dismisses claims that that he and other fishermen employ a singularly cruel method to kill the dolphins. The way we work has changed with the times, he says. In response to criticism, fishermen now dispatch the animals by inserting a knife into their neck, severing their brain stem a method he claims is the most humane possible, but which some experts have said does not result in a painless or immediate death.

On a recent morning, the seafront in Taiji is free from confrontation, although activists have tweeted their regular early-morning photos of the banger boats heading out to sea.

The fishermen appear to have reached an uneasy truce with overseas campaigners, first from Sea Shepherd, and now from the Dolphin Project, a group formed by the dolphin trainer-turned activist Ric OBarry.

Warning
Warning signs near the cove in Taiji. Photograph: Justin McCurry for the Guardian

But there is still little interaction between the two sides. They dont want to listen, only to provoke us, Mitsunori Kobata, president of Taijis dolphin-hunting association, says over a dinner of minke whale sashimi and steamed rice flavoured with thin strips of whale blubber.

Theyre here to do whatever they can to obstruct our business, so we dont see any point in engaging with them. Theyre never going to change their minds, whatever we say.

Pointing to slices of sauted meat, from the belly of a short-finned pilot whale, that he has brought from home, Kobata adds: In the days when there was no refrigeration, people preserved meat like this in salt. Of course, there are lots of other sources of protein around these days, but people of my generation and older still have the right to eat whale if we want to.

Both men hope Sasakis documentary will restore some equilibrium to a debate that has cast a shadow over Taiji for almost a decade.

They point out that they kill just under 2,000 small cetaceans a year, a tenth of Japans annual quota, adding that none of the species is endangered or covered by the 1986 global moratorium on commercial whaling.

Were not ashamed of hunting dolphins and would never consider stopping, Kai says. Its the most important part of our local tradition.

Just look around you if we didnt make a living from the sea, there would be nothing left. People keep telling us to stop whaling and find another way of earning a living. But what on earth would we do instead?

Source: http://www.theguardian.com/us

Japan kills more than 300 whales in annual Antarctic hunt

Whaling fleet returns to port after slaughtering hundreds of minke whales, in defiance of moratorium on hunting and global criticism

A Japanese whaling fleet returned to port on Friday after an annual Antarctic hunt that killed more than 300 of the mammals, as Tokyo pursues the programme in defiance of global criticism.

The fleet set sail for the Southern Ocean in November, with plans to slaughter 333 minke whales, flouting a worldwide moratorium and opposition led by Australia and New Zealand.

The fleet consisted of five ships, three of which arrived on Friday morning at Shimonoseki port in western Japan, the countrys Fisheries Agency said.

More than 200 people, including crew members and their families, gathered in the rain for a 30-minute ceremony in front of the Nisshin Maru, the fleets main ship, according to an official of the Shimonoseki city government.

In a press release, the agency described the mission as research for the purpose of studying the ecological system in the Antarctic Sea.

But environmentalists and the International Court of Justice (IJC) call that a fiction and say the real purpose is simply to hunt whales for their meat.

Anticipating the fleets return, animal protection charity Humane Society International called for an end to Japanese whaling. Each year that Japan persists with its discredited scientific whaling is another year where these wonderful animals are needlessly sacrificed, said Kitty Block, the groups executive vice-president.

It is an obscene cruelty in the name of science that must end.

Japan also caught 333 minke whales in the previous season ending in 2016 after a one-year hiatus prompted by an IJC ruling, which said the hunt was a commercial venture masquerading as science and ordered Tokyo to end it.

Under the International Whaling Commission (IWC), to which Japan is a signatory, there has been a moratorium on hunting whales since 1986.

Tokyo exploits a loophole allowing whales to be killed for scientific research and claims it is trying to prove the population is large enough to sustain a return to commercial hunting.

But it also makes no secret of the fact that whale meat ends up on dinner tables and is served in school lunches.

Japan has hunted whales for centuries, and their meat was a key source of protein in the immediate post-second world war years, when the country was desperately poor. But consumption has dramatically declined in recent decades, with significant proportions of the population saying they never or rarely eat whale meat.

In response to the ICJ ruling, Japans 2014-15 mission carried out only non-lethal research such as taking skin samples and doing headcounts.

Past missions have been hampered by a confrontational campaign on the high seas by environmentalists Sea Shepherd. A fisheries agency official said that the whalers this time faced no obstructive behaviour threatening safety of the fleet and crew members by the group.

He attributed that partially to Japan dispatching patrol ships to protect the fleet.

Source: http://www.theguardian.com/us

Star of dolphin-hunting film The Cove to be deported from Japan

Ric OBarry is accused of trying to enter the country using tourist visa to join campaign against slaughter of dolphins in Taiji

A leading US animal rights activist is to be deported from Japan after being accused of trying to enter on a tourist visa to support a campaign against the slaughter of dolphins.

Ric OBarry, who starred in The Cove, the 2009 Oscar-winning documentary about the annual dolphin cull in the town of Taiji, has been detained at Narita airport near Tokyo since Monday.

His son, Lincoln OBarry, said immigration authorities had turned down his fathers request to visit Japan using a tourist visa. They reportedly accused him of lying during questioning and of having links to the marine conservation group Sea Shepherd, whose members have a constant presence in Taiji.

The 76-year-old, who trained dolphins for the 1960s TV series Flipper before devoting himself to conservation, reportedly denied the charges, saying he was going to observe dolphins as a tourist.

Taiji, on Japans Pacific coast, gained international notoriety as a result of The Cove, which followed OBarry and other activists as they attempted to document the killing of dolphins by local fishermen. The film, directed by Louie Psihoyos, won the Academy Award for best documentary.

The method used to kill the animals has been widely condemned by environmentalists. The US ambassador to Japan, Caroline Kennedy, has also voiced deep concern about the drive-hunt method.

Fishermen pursue pods of dolphins and bang metal poles together beneath the water to confuse their hypersensitive sonar. The dolphins are then driven into a large cove sealed off by nets, and taken to a secluded inlet to be killed with knives and spears.

Last year, aquariums in Japan voted to stop buying live dolphins from Taiji after they were threatened with expulsion from the worlds leading zoo organisation. Taijis mayor, Kazutaka Sangen, later said the town would set up a new body that would continue to sell dolphins to aquariums.

OBarry, who heads the Dolphin Project campaign group, is a regular visitor to Taiji, where fishermen catch hundreds of dolphins during the six-month season, which starts in September. The most attractive specimens, usually bottlenoses, are sold to aquariums and sea parks, while others are killed and their meat sold in local restaurants and supermarkets.

In an email to his son seen by the Associated Press, OBarry said: Im incarcerated, on trumped-up charges. In a world where so much that is wild and free has already been lost to us, we must leave these beautiful dolphins free to swim as they will and must.

Fishermen

Fishermen drive bottlenose dolphins into a net during the annual hunt off Taiji, Japan. Photograph: AP

Media reports said OBarry was resisting deportation and had been transferred to another detention facility near Narita airport. His lawyer Takashi Takano visited him on Friday and said OBarry was being held alone but was in good spirits.

The Japanese government was expected to issue a formal warrant and physically deport him, Takano added.

The deportation order marks a hardening of attitudes among Japanese authorities towards environmental activists in Taiji. Police have increased their presence in the town in case of clashes between Sea Shepherd members and locals, who claim they are being unfairly vilified for maintaining a coastal whaling and dolphin-hunting tradition stretching back centuries.

OBarry was arrested near the town last September for allegedly failing to carry his passport, but was released the following day.

Takano said immigration officials refused to believe OBarrys claim that he was not planning to participate in any campaigns. They cited his presence last August at Japan Dolphins Day in Tokyo, despite having told them he would not attend the event.

Immigration officials said they were unable to comment on individual cases.

Source: http://www.theguardian.com/us

They didn’t flip: Ukraine claims dolphin army captured by Russia went on hunger strike

Russia captured the dolphins in 2014 and says the trained mammals refused interact with coaches or eat

Ukraine is home to some of the more adventurous military blue-sky thinking, mostly hangovers from the Soviet era. As well as a 160-metre high, 500-metre long radar that was supposed to be able to warn of nuclear attack, it also has a secret programme that trains sea mammals to carry out military tasks. Ukraine has a dolphin army at the Crimean military dolphin centre, trained and ready for deployment.

Or at least it did, but after the Russian annexation of Crimea in 2014, the dolphins were captured. Ukraine demanded their return, but Russian forces refused. Some believed the Russians were planning to retrain the dolphins as Russian soldiers, with a source telling Russian agency RIA Novosti that engineers were developing new aquarium technologies for new programmes to more efficiently use dolphins underwater.

Four years later and it seems little has come of these supposed Russian plans and most of the dolphins have died. But this week Boris Babin, the Ukrainian governments representative in Crimea, claimed that they did so defending their country. He said that the dolphins died patriotically, refusing to follow orders or eat food provided by the Russian invaders and that the hunger strike led to their eventual death.

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Combat dolphins and navy sea lions: meet the military sea mammals video report

He told the Ukranian Obozrevatel newspaper that the dolphins were more honourable than some human soldiers: The trained animals refused not only to interact with the new Russian coaches, but refused food and died some time later. Many Ukrainian soldiers took their oath and loyalty much less seriously than these dolphins.

Others have since denied the claims and blamed Ukraine for their poor treatment of the dolphins. On the Russian-owned radio station Sputnik, Ukrainian politician Vladimir Oleinik claimed that politicians in Kiev are always looking to blame the hand of Moscow when sober-minded people can see this is just propaganda and rumours, and that the dolphins were not especially looked after under any regime.

Russian Duma deputy Dmitry Belik has since claimed, rather less excitingly, that all the combat dolphins that served in the naval forces of Ukraine were sold to commercial entities or died of natural causes before 2014. He said there is no question of any Ukrainian patriotism because Ukraine had already demilitarised the dolphins, and for some time they had only engaged in commercial activities.

Dolphins have been observed displaying similar loyal characteristics to dogs, swimming up enthusiastically to people that they have met before. Occasionally captive dolphins have been known to refuse food when a tank companion dies and there have also been claims that dolphins have stopped themselves breathing after being separated from humans they had formed a bond with. So perhaps the Ukrainian claims arent as far-fetched as they sound.

There is plenty of disinformation floating around, and it is difficult to independently verify what really went on at a secret dolphin training facility in Crimea. We do know that in 2016, Russians put out a public tender to purchase five dolphins and eventually bought them from Moscows Utrish Dolphinarium although they never explained why. Perhaps they thought they could persuade their existing pod of Ukrainian dolphins to switch sides.

Source: http://www.theguardian.com/us

Seven right whales found dead in ‘devastating’ blow to endangered animal

Carcasses found off Canada in recent weeks in what may be biggest single die-off of one of worlds most endangered whale species, expert says

Seven North Atlantic right whales have been found floating lifelessly in the Gulf of St Lawrence, off Canada, in recent weeks, in what is being described as a catastrophic blow to one of the worlds most endangered whales.

The first whale carcass was reported in early June. Within a month, another six reports came in, leaving marine biologists in the region reeling.

Its devastating, said Tonya Wimmer of the Marine Animal Response Society, a charitable organisation dedicated to marine mammal conservation in the region. This is, I think, the largest die-off theyve ever had for this particularly species, at once.

The global population of North Atlantic right whales which live along the eastern seaboard of Canada and the US and can reach up to 16 metres in length is thought to be around 525, meaning that more than 1% of the population has died in the past month. So it is catastrophic in terms of potential impact to this population.

This
This is, I think, the largest die-off theyve ever had for this particularly species, at once, says an expert. Photograph: Marine Animal Response Society

At least two of the whales were female, with one of them known to be entering its reproductive years. Youre talking anywhere from five to 10 babies in their lifetime. And now they wont happen. Its heartbreaking, said Wimmer.

With no obvious causes for the deaths, a team including federal scientists, pathologists and veterinarians have been racing against time to figure out what is happening. Last week they carried out necropsies on three of the whales, hoping to find clues before the carcasses decompose.

While their findings are still preliminary, they found signs of severe blunt trauma and bruising on two of the whales, suggesting collision with a vessel, while the third had been tangled in fishing gear for weeks.

The findings still dont explain why the deaths have seemingly occurred within such a short time frame, said Wimmer, though regardless, there are some aspects of the last stages of their life that were impacted by human activities in that area. As scientists move into the laboratory to carry out further analyses, some have speculated that the deaths may have been caused by toxic algae or something the whales ate.

A
A team including federal scientists, pathologists and veterinarians have been racing against time to figure out the cause of the deaths. Photograph: Marine Animal Response Society

The North Atlantic right whale has struggled since being nearly hunted to extinction by whalers in the late 18th century. In recent years, researchers have noticed the whales moving into the Gulf of St Lawrence in large numbers, leading to increased interactions with humans.

Earlier this week, reports came in of a right whale in the area that was tangled in fishing gear. Some six hours after it was first spotted, scientists were able to cut the whale free of a fishing line in its mouth.

The entanglement, along with the unprecedented number of deaths, may suggest that fishing gear needs to be set out differently or that vessels need to start moving more slowly through the region, said Wimmer. Right now theres still a lot of questions, she added. Theres probably more questions than there are answers.

Source: http://www.theguardian.com/us

North Atlantic right whales may face extinction after no new births recorded

Declining fertility and rising mortality, exacerbated by fishing industry, prompts experts to warn whales could be extinct by 2040

The dwindling North Atlantic right whale population is on track to finish its breeding season without any new births, prompting experts to warn again that without human intervention, the species will face extinction.

Scientists observing the whale community off the US east coast have not recorded a single mother-calf pair this winter. Last year saw a record number of deaths in the population. Threats to the whales include entanglement in lobster fishing ropes and an increasing struggle to find food in abnormally warm waters.

The combination of rising mortality and declining fertility is now seen as potentially catastrophic. There are estimated to be as few as 430 North Atlantic right whales left in the world, including just 100 potential mothers.

At the rate we are killing them off, this 100 females will be gone in 20 years, said Mark Baumgartner, a marine ecologist at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in Massachusetts. Without action, he warned, North Atlantic right whales will be functionally extinct by 2040.

Quick guide

Why are whales still endangered?

Population recovery will take decades

Commercial whaling on a large scale took place for three centuries until banned in 1986. Most whale populations had been reduced to such low levels that it will take decades for many of them to recover. Additional problems of entanglement, pollution, climate change and ship strikes are also curtailing their recovery.

Other threatened species include: the vaquita, a rare species of porpoise found in the gulf of California and rated the most endangered cetacean in the world it is thought that only 30 or so remain in the wild; the blue whale, pictured, the largest animal ever known to have existed between 10,000 and 25,000 remain; and the sei whale, the third-largest whale, with a population of around 80,000.

Photograph: Franco Banfi/WaterFrame RM

A 10-year-old female was found dead off the Virginia coast in January, entangled in fishing gear, in the first recorded death of 2018. That followed a record 18 premature deaths in 2017, Baumgartner said.

Woods Hole and other groups, including the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, have been tracing right whale numbers in earnest since the mid-1980s.

Federal research suggests 82% of premature deaths are caused by entanglement in fishing line. The prime culprit is the New England lobster industry. Crab fishing in Canadian waters is another cause of such deaths.

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A lobster fisherman in Maine. Right whales can become entangled in the ropes used for fishing. Photograph: Daniel Grill/Tetra Images/Getty Images/Tetra images RF

Baumgartner said that until about seven years ago, the population of North Atlantic right whales was healthy. But then lobster fishermen began greatly increasing the strength of ropes used to attach lobster pots to marker buoys.

Whales becoming entangled are now far less able to break free, Baumgartner said. Some are killed outright, others cannot swim properly, causing them to starve or to lose so much blubber that females become infertile.

Lobster and crab fishing and whales are able to comfortably co-exist, Baumgartner said. We are trying to propose solutions, its urgent.

Baumgartner said the US government should intervene to regulate fishing gear. He also said the industry should explore technology enabling fishermen to track and gather lobster pots without using roped buoys.

The whales migrate seasonally between New England and Florida, calving off Florida and Georgia from November to February. They primarily feed on phytoplankton. Scientists believe rapid warming of the Gulf of Maine, linked to climate change, is drastically depleting that food source.

Past measures to prevent ship collisions and to safeguard feeding areas have helped. Several environmental groups have sued the federal government, demanding greater protection for right whales.

Source: http://www.theguardian.com/us

‘Not ashamed’: dolphin hunters of Taiji break silence over film The Cove

Members of the tiny Japanese community, which was vilified in the 2009 documentary, speak to the Guardian about fishing and their unique way of life

Taiji is still in darkness when a dozen men gather at the quayside and warm themselves over a brazier. While the rest of the town sleeps, they sip from cans of hot coffee, smoke cigarettes and talk in hushed tones.

As soon as the sun edges above the peninsula, they take to their boats, steering out to sea in formation in search of their prey: the dolphin.

It has been eight years since the Oscar-winning film The Cove propelled this community in an isolated corner of Japans Pacific coast to the centre of a bitter debate over the pursuit of dolphins for human consumption and entertainment.

The films graphic footage of dolphins being slaughtered with knives, turning the surrounding sea a crimson red, shocked audiences around the world.

Unaccustomed to international attention and wrong-footed by their social media-savvy opponents, the towns 3,200 residents simply went to ground. Requests for interviews with town officials went unanswered; the fishermen took a vow of silence.

But after years of keeping their counsel, Taijis fishermen have finally spoken out, agreeing to talk to the Guardian about their work, their whaling heritage, and their determination to continue hunting dolphins.

Weve mostly stayed silent since The Cove, and thats why our point of view was never put across in the media, says Yoshifumi Kai, a senior official with Taijis fisheries cooperative.

Taijis
Taijis dolphin hunters head out to sea Photograph: Justin McCurry for the Guardian

Kai attributes that reticence down to what he claims are attempts by activists from Sea Shepherd and other conservation groups to manufacture confrontations, which they film and post online, and challenges claims that the practice of slaughtering dolphins beneath tarpaulin sheets is proof that he and his fellow fishermen have something to hide.

Activists say we are concealing something because we know that what we are doing is immoral, but thats nonsense, he says. You never see cattle or other animals being slaughtered in public. Its not something you do out in the open.

The earliest recorded coastal whale hunts in Taiji can be traced back to the early 1600s. Scrolls on display in the towns whale museum depict dozens of boats decorated with symbols taken from Buddhism and Japans indigenous religion, Shinto, in pursuit of a whale big enough to sustain the entire community for months.

Foreign activists ask us why we kill these cute animals, but we see them as a vital source of food, even now, says Taijis mayor, Kazutaka Sangen. When I was a boy, a third of the town would turn out to greet a whale being brought back to shore, because they were desperate to eat its meat. We are grateful to the whales we want Westerners to understand that.

Taiji Japan map

By killing dolphins and other small whales, fishermen are continuing a tradition that enabled their ancestors to survive before the days of mass transport and the availability of other sources of nutrition, adds Sangen.

We couldnt grow rice or vegetables here, and we had no natural water supply. We needed to kill whales to eat, and hundreds of people died doing so. This was a very difficult place to survive, and we will always be grateful to our ancestors for their sacrifice. Its because of them that we are all here today.

For Sangen, everything in Taiji from services for elderly residents to education and tourist infrastructure depends on the income it makes from the sale of dolphins to zoos and aquariums. Several times during the interview he refers to kujira no megumi literally, the blessing of the whale. Whaling enables this town to function, he says.

Using remote-controlled helicopters and hidden underwater cameras, The Cove provided graphic footage of Taijis infamous drive hunts, whose critics include the former US ambassador to Japan, Caroline Kennedy.

Typically, fishermen pursue pods of dolphins across open seas, banging metal poles against their boats to confuse their hypersensitive sonar, before herding them into a narrow inlet. There, they are either slaughtered for their meat or selected and sold for large sums to aquariums and marine parks.

While dolphin meat for human consumption generates only modest profits, Taijis fishermen can reportedly sell a live specimen to brokers for about 8,000 US dollars. A fully trained dolphin can then fetch more than 40,000 US dollars if sold overseas, and about half that in Japan.

Minke
Minke whale sashimi served at a restaurant in Taiji Photograph: Justin McCurry

The 20 or so Taiji fishermen who take to the sea between September and April to hunt bottlenose dolphins, pilot whales and other small cetaceans have been emboldened by the release of Okujirasama (A Whale of a Tale) a documentary by the New York-based filmmaker Megumi Sasaki that counters what she describes as The Coves one-sided treatment of a complex issue.

While making her film, Sasaki concluded that the debate over Taiji is an irreconcilable clash of cultures between the global, and Western-led, animal rights movement and local traditions steeped in religion and ancestor worship.

Whaling is the glue that holds this town together

If dolphins are so important to the local community, then why kill them thats what many Westerners cant understand, Sasaki says. But we think of animals as a resource, not that they are special creatures that can do things humans cant do. Its a totally different way of thinking. Whaling is the glue that holds this town together its inseparable from local identity and pride.

Kai dismisses claims that that he and other fishermen employ a singularly cruel method to kill the dolphins. The way we work has changed with the times, he says. In response to criticism, fishermen now dispatch the animals by inserting a knife into their neck, severing their brain stem a method he claims is the most humane possible, but which some experts have said does not result in a painless or immediate death.

On a recent morning, the seafront in Taiji is free from confrontation, although activists have tweeted their regular early-morning photos of the banger boats heading out to sea.

The fishermen appear to have reached an uneasy truce with overseas campaigners, first from Sea Shepherd, and now from the Dolphin Project, a group formed by the dolphin trainer-turned activist Ric OBarry.

Warning
Warning signs near the cove in Taiji. Photograph: Justin McCurry for the Guardian

But there is still little interaction between the two sides. They dont want to listen, only to provoke us, Mitsunori Kobata, president of Taijis dolphin-hunting association, says over a dinner of minke whale sashimi and steamed rice flavoured with thin strips of whale blubber.

Theyre here to do whatever they can to obstruct our business, so we dont see any point in engaging with them. Theyre never going to change their minds, whatever we say.

Pointing to slices of sauted meat, from the belly of a short-finned pilot whale, that he has brought from home, Kobata adds: In the days when there was no refrigeration, people preserved meat like this in salt. Of course, there are lots of other sources of protein around these days, but people of my generation and older still have the right to eat whale if we want to.

Both men hope Sasakis documentary will restore some equilibrium to a debate that has cast a shadow over Taiji for almost a decade.

They point out that they kill just under 2,000 small cetaceans a year, a tenth of Japans annual quota, adding that none of the species is endangered or covered by the 1986 global moratorium on commercial whaling.

Were not ashamed of hunting dolphins and would never consider stopping, Kai says. Its the most important part of our local tradition.

Just look around you if we didnt make a living from the sea, there would be nothing left. People keep telling us to stop whaling and find another way of earning a living. But what on earth would we do instead?

Source: http://www.theguardian.com/us

Conjoined baby turtle saved by Italian marine biologists

Survivor from twin endangered loggerheads is separated by scientists and freed in Mediterranean Sea

Marine biologists in southern Italy have separated conjoined twin loggerhead turtles and released the surviving newborn into the Mediterranean Sea.

The release occurred this week along the beaches of Campania where the endangered loggerheads nest every year.

Fulvio Maffucci, marine biologist at Anton Dohrn Zoological Station, said on Wednesday there had been seven known births of conjoined twin loggerheads in the Mediterranean. He said the fact that one survived was extraordinary.

The smaller twin was dead and significantly underdeveloped compared with the larger twin.

Maffucci said: After the removal of the dead brother from his chest, he crawled from the nest and hes been released in the wild without any help.

In addition to the twins, one of the hatchlings this year also included a rare albino loggerhead.

Source: http://www.theguardian.com/us

Star of anti-dolphin killing film The Cove held by Japanese immigration

Ric OBarry seen in documentary about slaughter in a Japanese village says government is waging a war on dolphins

The star of Oscar-winning documentary The Cove, about the killing of dolphins in a village in Japan, has been detained by immigration authorities at Tokyos Narita international airport.

Ric OBarry an American known for training the dolphins used in the TV series Flipper said immigration officials told him he could not enter Japan on a tourist visa because he was not a tourist, according to his lawyer, Takashi Takano.

Takano said officials accused OBarry of having close ties with the anti-whaling group Sea Shepherd, which OBarry denies. Immigration officials said it was their policy not to comment on individual cases.

Takano said he was appealing against the detention, and that the Japanese government would decide on whether to allow OBarry into the country or deport him. It was not clear when a decision would be made.

The Cove, which won the 2009 Academy Award for best documentary, shows the slaughter of dolphins herded into a cove in the fishing village of Taiji and bludgeoned to death.

The Japanese government is cracking down on those who oppose their war on dolphins, OBarry said in a statement sent to the Associated Press through his son, Lincoln OBarry.

Officials in Taiji, a small fishing village in central Japan, and fishermen have defended the hunt as a tradition, saying that eating dolphin meat is no different to eating beef or chicken.

Most Japanese have never eaten dolphin meat. Many say they are horrified by the dolphin killing and there is a campaign against the Taiji hunt. Animal welfare activists say the hunt is driven mostly by the lucrative sale of dolphins to aquariums, with the income from the sale of meat simply an added extra.

OBarry has been stopped and questioned by Japanese immigration before. He has also been taken into custody by local police on the suspicion of not having proper travel documents before being released. But this is the first time he has been detained in this way. He has the support of high-profile celebrities, including Sting, the US ambassador to Japan, Caroline Kennedy, and the former Guns N Roses drummer, Matt Sorum.

Source: http://www.theguardian.com/us

Baby whales ‘whisper’ to mothers to avoid predators, study finds

Scientists reveal unique, intimate form of communication between humpback mothers and calves as well as silent method to initiate suckling

Newborn humpback whales and their mothers whisper to each other to escape potential predators, scientists reported Wednesday, revealing the existence of a previously unknown survival technique.

They dont want any unwanted listeners, researcher Simone Videsen, lead author of a study published in Functional Ecology, said.

Potential predators such as killer whales could listen to their conversations and use that as a cue to locate the calf and predate on it.

Whales are known for their loud calls, congregating fellow members of the pod. Male humpback whales also emit reverberating sounds to attract females during the mating season.

But this is the first time scientists have observed a unique, intimate form of communication between humpback mothers and calves.

Researchers from Denmark and Australia tracked each of eight calves and two mothers for 24 hours in Exmouth Gulf, Western Australia, a breeding ground for Antarctic humpback whales seeking warmer waters to mate and give birth.

Using tags attached to the animals, the team of scientists recorded their faint squeaks and grunts.

These signals between mother and calf are more quiet than those of normal adult humpback whales, Videsen said, noting they were 40 decibels lower than the singing of males in the area.

While a males cry can resound over an area covering several kilometres, the pairs in the study could only hear each others calls within a distance of less than 100 metres (330 feet), she added.

The low sounds were detected when the pairs were swimming, suggesting the discreet tone helps the mammals stay together in the murky breeding waters, infested with killer whales preying on stray calves.

The faint sounds are also a way to keep mate-seeking males from interfering in the humpbacks nurturing, a crucial time in the newborns life as it braces for an arduous 8,000km (5,000 mile) journey back home to the Antarctic, the researchers speculated.

And the migration is no less challenging for the mother.

There is no food for them in the breeding grounds so the mothers feast while they are there, Videsen said.

The researchers also believe that mother and calf in their effort to go undetected may have developed a silent method to initiate suckling.

Instead of signalling hunger vocally and risk getting spotted, the calves rub against their mothers, according to the studys findings.

Humpback whales can be found both in the Arctic and Antarctic. Each pod spends the summer at the poles and travels to tropical areas in their respective hemispheres during the winter to breed.

The scientific investigation also shed light on the growing problem of ocean noise pollution that can severely disrupt marine life.

Because mother and calf communicate in whispers, shipping noise could easily mask these quiet calls, Videsen said, potentially provoking the pair to lose each other.

Source: http://www.theguardian.com/us

Taiji legal battle: court backs activist over baby dolphin kept in aquarium

Victory for animal rights after Japanese court awards Australian activist 110,000 yen after museum refused her entry to check on captive bottlenose

Animal rights activists have claimed a significant victory in its battle to end Japans dolphin slaughter after a court ruled that an aquarium in Taiji where hundreds of dolphins are killed every year acted illegally when it refused entry to an Australian campaigner.

The court in Wakayama, western Japan, on Friday awarded 110,000 yen (690) to Sarah Lucas, head of Australia for Dolphins, who had attempted to enter the Taiji whale museum in 2014 but was turned away and shown a cardboard sign saying anti-whalers were not welcome.

Lucas had intended to check on the welfare of a baby albino bottlenose that had been kept at the museum since being separated from its pod and captured earlier in the year. The museum reportedly paid $500,0000 (354,000) for the animal.

Lucas said the rare dolphin, called Angel, was being kept in a tiny crowded tank full of chlorine, and was being bullied by other dolphins.

The legal battle to save Angel is much bigger than a rescue mission to save one albino dolphin calf, Lucas said after the verdict.

This win proves the Taiji whale museum, the institution at the heart of the dolphin hunting trade, behaved illegally. It also shows the Taiji dolphin hunts are not above the law, which means the Japanese legal system can be used to end the cruel dolphin hunts for good.

Tetsuo Kirihata, deputy chief of the Taiji museum, said he was satisfied with the verdict because the initial demand for damages had been for about 3m yen.

We feel much of our case was taken into account by the court, he told Associated Press. Kirihata said the dolphin was eating well and getting along with other dolphins, with regular blood tests showing it was healthy. What to some might look like bullying was, in fact, part of regular activity in nature, he added.

The museum is owned by the town government in Taiji, the setting for the Oscar-winning 2009 documentary The Cove, which showed fishermen driving pods of dolphins into shallow water before killing them with knives.

Photo
Photo taken in 2014 by environmentalist group Sea Shepherd Conservation Society shows bottlenose dolphins trapped in the cove during the selection process by fishermen in the Japanese town of Taiji. Photograph: Sea Shepherd Conservation Societ/AFP/Getty Images

The use of the drive method has attracted widespread criticism, including from the US ambassador to Japan, Caroline Kennedy.

International pressure on Taiji to distance itself from the global trade in dolphins intensified last year when aquariums in Japan voted to stop buying live specimens from the town to avoid expulsion from the worlds leading zoo organisation.

The move came after the Guardian revealed that the World Association of Zoos and Aquariums (Waza) had been targeted in a court action launched by Australia for Dolphins. The group accused Waza of being complicit in the hunts by failing to take decisive action against Japanese aquariums.

The museum in Taiji, however, quit the Japanese branch of the world association in protest, with local fishermen vowing to continue the hunts.

During the most recent season, which ended last month, Taijis fishermen killed 652 dolphins and took 111 into captivity, according to figures supplied by the Sea Shepherd marine conservation group.

Source: http://www.theguardian.com/us

Evolution row ends as scientists declare sponges to be sister of all other animals

Question of whether sponges or comb jellies were first to branch off the evolutionary tree from the common ancestor of all animals may be answered

A longstanding row in animal evolution has come to a head, with a team of scientists claiming they have ended the debate over which type of creature is the sister of all other animals.

Researchers have been torn for years over whether sponges or marine invertebrates known as comb jellies were the first type of creature to branch off the evolutionary tree from the common ancestor of all animals.

Now researchers say the debate is over: the sponges have won.

We need to try to understand the sponges much better if we want to understand the nature of animals and our own deepest ancestry, said Davide Pisani, co-author of the research and professor of phylogenomics at the University of Bristol.

The finding, say experts, is no trivial matter, as it could have drastic implications for what the last common ancestor of all animals looked like.

Sponges are simple humble, in a sense creatures that live at the bottom of the sea; they are filter-feeders, they dont do much, said Pisani. The comb jelly is a very different creature. They are extremely pretty and rather complicated, he added, pointing out that comb jellies look a bit like jellyfish and can propel themselves through water, create patterns of light and have both a simple nervous system and a gut including a mouth and anus.

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A Mnemiopsis leidyi, a species of comb jelly known as a sea walnut. Photograph: AP

If the comb jellies are the sister of all of us, then we either are in a situation where the last common ancestor of all the animals was quite complex, [having] a nervous system, a gut and muscles and then the sponges [lost these features] or all these things we see in the comb jellies evolved multiple times in animals, he said, adding that the scenario also posed other puzzles such as what the ancestral creature would have preyed on.

If the sponges are the sister group of everything else then we can assume a much simpler scenario, said Pisani. Then the assumption is we evolved from a filter-feeder organism.

With different models of evolutionary relationships applied to the same genetic data throwing up either a triumph for the sponge side of the debate or the comb jellies, the researchers of latest study turned to statistics to resolve the issue.

With this type of approach you can evaluate the extent to which alternative models are capable of describing a dataset, so you can say this model is good for this specific dataset and this model is not good, said Pisani.

The results, published in the journal Current Biology, were clear, he said. Models that provide a much better description of the data invariably find the sponges at the root of the tree, for all of the datasets that have been published up to now.

That, he adds, ties in well with the fact that the closest living relatives of all animals are filter-feeding aquatic organisms called choanoflagellates.

But the findings he said, should offer us all food for thought. I think part of why people love this debate so much is the comb jellies are beautiful and the sponges are somewhat ugly. The sponge is the underdog in a sense, he said. So it is quite nice to know that we have really humble beginnings, rather than this glamorous start.

While Pisani believes proponents of the comb jellies might continue the debate, he says the wrangle is drawing to a close. From my perspective, yes, this is the last word, he said.

Antonis Rokas, professor of biological sciences and biomedical informatics at Vanderbilt University, and who has previously published studies supporting the idea that comb jellies are the oldest sister group to all other animals, welcomed the research. [It] is a great step in the right direction toward resolving the debate, he said, adding that the analyses comparing the accuracy of models are insightful.

But, he said, the new approach brings with it its own difficulties, leading him to believe the jury is still out. With this study, the authors have significantly tipped the balance toward the sponges-sister hypothesis, he said. But I will eagerly await to see what are the effects of adding additional genomes from both sponge and ctenophore lineages, as well as models that do not reduce the information provided from the data, before considering the debate solved.

Source: http://www.theguardian.com/us

North Atlantic right whales could become extinct, US officials say

Noaa scientist says you do have to use the extinction word while study suggests whales leave protected areas to feed

US federal officials say it is time to consider the possibility that North Atlantic right whales could become extinct, unless new steps are taken to protect them.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (Noaa) has said there are only about 450 North Atlantic right whales left and 17 have died in 2017.

The situation is so dire that US and Canadian regulators need to consider the possibility that the population will not recover without action soon, said John Bullard, north-east regional administrator for Noaa Fisheries.

The high year of mortality is coinciding with a year of poor reproduction. There are only about 100 breeding female North Atlantic right whales left.

You do have to use the extinction word because thats where the trend lines say they are, Bullard said. Thats something we cant let happen.

Bullard and other Noaa officials made the comments during a meeting this week of the regulatory New England Fishery Management Council. Mark Murray-Brown, an Endangered Species Act consultant for Noaa, said right whales have been declining in abundance since 2010, with females hit harder than males.

The US and Canada must work to reduce the human-caused deaths of the whales, Murray-Brown said. Vessel-strikes and entanglement in fishing gear are two frequently cited causes of the whales deaths.

The current status of the right whales is a critical situation and using our available resources to recover right whales is of high importance and high urgency, he said.

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A North Atlantic right whale dives, near a New England Aquarium research boat. Photograph: Alamy Stock Photo

The animals give birth in temperate southern waters and then head to New England and Canada every spring and summer to feed. All of this years deaths were off New England and Canada.

Some recent scientific studies have shed some light on why whale deaths have increased. One, published in the journal Nature Scientific Reports, stated that the whales move around much more than previously thought. Some scientists have posited that whales might be venturing outside of protected areas in search of food, putting themselves in harms way.

In another study, published last month in the journal Endangered Species Research, scientists examined right whale feces and found whales that suffer long entanglements in fishing gear produce hormone levels that indicate high stress. The stress negatively impacts their ability to reproduce even when they survive entanglement, scientists said.

My colleagues are trying to find solutions so we can find out how they can continue to fish but not entangle whales, said a study co-author, Elizabeth Burgess, an associate scientist with the Anderson Cabot Center for Ocean Life at the New England Aquarium in Boston.

A five-year Noaa review of right whales released in October said the animals should remain on the endangered list. It also included recommendations to protect the species including developing a long-term plan for monitoring the population trends and habitat use and studying the impact of commercial fishing on right whales.

Source: http://www.theguardian.com/us

Japan kills more than 300 whales in annual Antarctic hunt

Whaling fleet returns to port after slaughtering hundreds of minke whales, in defiance of moratorium on hunting and global criticism

A Japanese whaling fleet returned to port on Friday after an annual Antarctic hunt that killed more than 300 of the mammals, as Tokyo pursues the programme in defiance of global criticism.

The fleet set sail for the Southern Ocean in November, with plans to slaughter 333 minke whales, flouting a worldwide moratorium and opposition led by Australia and New Zealand.

The fleet consisted of five ships, three of which arrived on Friday morning at Shimonoseki port in western Japan, the countrys Fisheries Agency said.

More than 200 people, including crew members and their families, gathered in the rain for a 30-minute ceremony in front of the Nisshin Maru, the fleets main ship, according to an official of the Shimonoseki city government.

In a press release, the agency described the mission as research for the purpose of studying the ecological system in the Antarctic Sea.

But environmentalists and the International Court of Justice (IJC) call that a fiction and say the real purpose is simply to hunt whales for their meat.

Anticipating the fleets return, animal protection charity Humane Society International called for an end to Japanese whaling. Each year that Japan persists with its discredited scientific whaling is another year where these wonderful animals are needlessly sacrificed, said Kitty Block, the groups executive vice-president.

It is an obscene cruelty in the name of science that must end.

Japan also caught 333 minke whales in the previous season ending in 2016 after a one-year hiatus prompted by an IJC ruling, which said the hunt was a commercial venture masquerading as science and ordered Tokyo to end it.

Under the International Whaling Commission (IWC), to which Japan is a signatory, there has been a moratorium on hunting whales since 1986.

Tokyo exploits a loophole allowing whales to be killed for scientific research and claims it is trying to prove the population is large enough to sustain a return to commercial hunting.

But it also makes no secret of the fact that whale meat ends up on dinner tables and is served in school lunches.

Japan has hunted whales for centuries, and their meat was a key source of protein in the immediate post-second world war years, when the country was desperately poor. But consumption has dramatically declined in recent decades, with significant proportions of the population saying they never or rarely eat whale meat.

In response to the ICJ ruling, Japans 2014-15 mission carried out only non-lethal research such as taking skin samples and doing headcounts.

Past missions have been hampered by a confrontational campaign on the high seas by environmentalists Sea Shepherd. A fisheries agency official said that the whalers this time faced no obstructive behaviour threatening safety of the fleet and crew members by the group.

He attributed that partially to Japan dispatching patrol ships to protect the fleet.

Source: http://www.theguardian.com/us

Whales and dolphins lead ‘human-like lives’ thanks to big brains, says study

The cultural brain hypothesis of human development could also explain cetaceans forming friendships and even gossiping

Life is not so different beneath the ocean waves. Bottlenose dolphins use simple tools, orcas call each other by name, and sperm whales talk in local dialects. Many cetaceans live in tight-knit groups and spend a good deal of time at play.

That much scientists know. But in a new study, researchers compiled a list of the rich behaviours spotted in 90 different species of dolphins, whales and porpoises, and found that the bigger the species brain, the more complex indeed, the more human-like their lives are likely to be.

This suggests that the cultural brain hypothesis the theory that suggests our intelligence developed as a way of coping with large and complex social groups may apply to whales and dolphins, as well as humans.

Writing in the journal, Nature Ecology and Evolution, the researchers claim that complex social and cultural characteristics, such as hunting together, developing regional dialects and learning from observation, are linked to the expansion of the animals brains a process known as encephalisation.

The researchers gathered records of dolphins playing with humpback whales, helping fishermen with their catches, and even producing signature whistles for dolphins that are absent suggesting the animals may even gossip.

Another common behaviour was adult animals raising unrelated young. There is the saying that it takes a village to raise a child [and that] seems to be true for both whales and humans, said Michael Muthukrishna, an economic psychologist and co-author on the study at the London School of Economics.

Dolphins
Dolphins off the coast of South Africa. Photograph: Rainer Schimpf/Barcroft Media

Like humans, the cetaceans, a group made up of dolphins, whales and porpoises, are thought to do most of their learning socially rather than individually, which could explain why some species learn more complex behaviours than others. Those predominantly found alone or in small groups had the smallest brains, the researchers led by Susanne Shultz at the University of Manchester wrote.

Luke Rendell, a biologist at the University of St Andrews who was not involved in the study, but has done work on sperm whales and their distinctive dialects, warned against anthropomorphising and making animals appear to be like humans.

There is a risk of sounding like there is a single train line, with humans at the final station and other animals on their way of getting there. The truth is that every animal responds to their own evolutionary pressures, he said.

There is definitely a danger in comparing other animals to humans, especially with the data available. But what we can say for sure, is that this cultural-brain hypothesis we tested is present in primates and in cetaceans, Muthukrishna said.

There was still much more to learn, though, he added. Studies with underwater mammals are difficult and vastly underfunded, so there is so much we dont know about these fascinating animals, he said.

The fascination, however, should not only be interesting for people studying animals. We dont have to look at other planets to look for aliens, because we know that underwater there are these amazing species with so many parallels to us in their complex behaviours, said Muthukrishna.

Studying evolutionarily distinct animals such as cetaceans could act as a control group for studying intelligence in general, and so help the understanding of our own intellect.

It is interesting to think that whale and human brains are different in their structure but have brought us to the same patterns in behaviour, Rendell said. The extent of how this is close to humans can educate us about evolutionary forces in general.

However, Muthukrishna points out that intelligence is always driven by the environment an animal finds itself in. Each environment presents a different set of challenges for an animal. When you are above water, you learn how to tackle fire, for example, he said. As smart as whales are, they will never learn to light a spark.

Source: http://www.theguardian.com/us

‘That is definitely not a dolphin’: shark attack victim plays down hysteria

Jade Fitzpatrick says reports of attacks often make them sound bigger and scarier and he will be surfing again within days

Jade Fitzpatrick is still in shock a day after escaping the jaws of a 2.7-metre great white off the New South Wales north coast, but he says reporting of attacks should be kept in perspective and netting beaches is not the solution.

The 36-year-old surfer suffered three puncture wounds to his upper thigh when his surfboard bore the brunt of the attack off a beach between Suffolk Park and Broken Head near Byron Bay on Monday morning.

He described how he was lying on his board waiting for a wave when the shark struck. He bit down on my leg and this fin has got him in the mouth and he has spat me out, he told Network Seven 24 hours after the attack.

I thought, that is definitely not a dolphin, he said.

After analysing his board shark experts determined it was a 2.7-metre great white that took the bite. I have been up and down a little bit, Fitzpatrick said on Tuesday.

With the help of a friend, he was able to paddle into shore and make his way to Byron central hospital. He was discharged later in the day.

The attack has not deterred Fitzpatrick from surfing in the area and he said he would be back in the water in 10 days, when his wounds heal.

The attack, the third in a month, prompted the states primary industries minister, Niall Blair, to announce he would fast-track legislation in an attempt to have the nets installed before the summer school holidays, despite opposition from some locals.

But Fitzpatrick does not want shark nets, which he said would kill dolphins, whales and other marine life that provide a healthy ecosystem. [Nets] will maybe keep us a bit secure at the cost of [sharks] lives, or maybe it will give us a false sense of security.

He believes there is a lot of hysteria and fear mongering when it comes to the reporting of shark attacks. Everything gets bigger and scarier.

He holds no grudge against the shark. I am just doing what I love and he is just being what he is.

Source: http://www.theguardian.com/us

Seven right whales found dead in ‘devastating’ blow to endangered animal

Carcasses found off Canada in recent weeks in what may be biggest single die-off of one of worlds most endangered whale species, expert says

Seven North Atlantic right whales have been found floating lifelessly in the Gulf of St Lawrence, off Canada, in recent weeks, in what is being described as a catastrophic blow to one of the worlds most endangered whales.

The first whale carcass was reported in early June. Within a month, another six reports came in, leaving marine biologists in the region reeling.

Its devastating, said Tonya Wimmer of the Marine Animal Response Society, a charitable organisation dedicated to marine mammal conservation in the region. This is, I think, the largest die-off theyve ever had for this particularly species, at once.

The global population of North Atlantic right whales which live along the eastern seaboard of Canada and the US and can reach up to 16 metres in length is thought to be around 525, meaning that more than 1% of the population has died in the past month. So it is catastrophic in terms of potential impact to this population.

This
This is, I think, the largest die-off theyve ever had for this particularly species, at once, says an expert. Photograph: Marine Animal Response Society

At least two of the whales were female, with one of them known to be entering its reproductive years. Youre talking anywhere from five to 10 babies in their lifetime. And now they wont happen. Its heartbreaking, said Wimmer.

With no obvious causes for the deaths, a team including federal scientists, pathologists and veterinarians have been racing against time to figure out what is happening. Last week they carried out necropsies on three of the whales, hoping to find clues before the carcasses decompose.

While their findings are still preliminary, they found signs of severe blunt trauma and bruising on two of the whales, suggesting collision with a vessel, while the third had been tangled in fishing gear for weeks.

The findings still dont explain why the deaths have seemingly occurred within such a short time frame, said Wimmer, though regardless, there are some aspects of the last stages of their life that were impacted by human activities in that area. As scientists move into the laboratory to carry out further analyses, some have speculated that the deaths may have been caused by toxic algae or something the whales ate.

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A team including federal scientists, pathologists and veterinarians have been racing against time to figure out the cause of the deaths. Photograph: Marine Animal Response Society

The North Atlantic right whale has struggled since being nearly hunted to extinction by whalers in the late 18th century. In recent years, researchers have noticed the whales moving into the Gulf of St Lawrence in large numbers, leading to increased interactions with humans.

Earlier this week, reports came in of a right whale in the area that was tangled in fishing gear. Some six hours after it was first spotted, scientists were able to cut the whale free of a fishing line in its mouth.

The entanglement, along with the unprecedented number of deaths, may suggest that fishing gear needs to be set out differently or that vessels need to start moving more slowly through the region, said Wimmer. Right now theres still a lot of questions, she added. Theres probably more questions than there are answers.

Source: http://www.theguardian.com/us

‘Not ashamed’: dolphin hunters of Taiji break silence over film The Cove

Members of the tiny Japanese community, which was vilified in the 2009 documentary, speak to the Guardian about fishing and their unique way of life

Taiji is still in darkness when a dozen men gather at the quayside and warm themselves over a brazier. While the rest of the town sleeps, they sip from cans of hot coffee, smoke cigarettes and talk in hushed tones.

As soon as the sun edges above the peninsula, they take to their boats, steering out to sea in formation in search of their prey: the dolphin.

It has been eight years since the Oscar-winning film The Cove propelled this community in an isolated corner of Japans Pacific coast to the centre of a bitter debate over the pursuit of dolphins for human consumption and entertainment.

The films graphic footage of dolphins being slaughtered with knives, turning the surrounding sea a crimson red, shocked audiences around the world.

Unaccustomed to international attention and wrong-footed by their social media-savvy opponents, the towns 3,200 residents simply went to ground. Requests for interviews with town officials went unanswered; the fishermen took a vow of silence.

But after years of keeping their counsel, Taijis fishermen have finally spoken out, agreeing to talk to the Guardian about their work, their whaling heritage, and their determination to continue hunting dolphins.

Weve mostly stayed silent since The Cove, and thats why our point of view was never put across in the media, says Yoshifumi Kai, a senior official with Taijis fisheries cooperative.

Taijis
Taijis dolphin hunters head out to sea Photograph: Justin McCurry for the Guardian

Kai attributes that reticence down to what he claims are attempts by activists from Sea Shepherd and other conservation groups to manufacture confrontations, which they film and post online, and challenges claims that the practice of slaughtering dolphins beneath tarpaulin sheets is proof that he and his fellow fishermen have something to hide.

Activists say we are concealing something because we know that what we are doing is immoral, but thats nonsense, he says. You never see cattle or other animals being slaughtered in public. Its not something you do out in the open.

The earliest recorded coastal whale hunts in Taiji can be traced back to the early 1600s. Scrolls on display in the towns whale museum depict dozens of boats decorated with symbols taken from Buddhism and Japans indigenous religion, Shinto, in pursuit of a whale big enough to sustain the entire community for months.

Foreign activists ask us why we kill these cute animals, but we see them as a vital source of food, even now, says Taijis mayor, Kazutaka Sangen. When I was a boy, a third of the town would turn out to greet a whale being brought back to shore, because they were desperate to eat its meat. We are grateful to the whales we want Westerners to understand that.

Taiji Japan map

By killing dolphins and other small whales, fishermen are continuing a tradition that enabled their ancestors to survive before the days of mass transport and the availability of other sources of nutrition, adds Sangen.

We couldnt grow rice or vegetables here, and we had no natural water supply. We needed to kill whales to eat, and hundreds of people died doing so. This was a very difficult place to survive, and we will always be grateful to our ancestors for their sacrifice. Its because of them that we are all here today.

For Sangen, everything in Taiji from services for elderly residents to education and tourist infrastructure depends on the income it makes from the sale of dolphins to zoos and aquariums. Several times during the interview he refers to kujira no megumi literally, the blessing of the whale. Whaling enables this town to function, he says.

Using remote-controlled helicopters and hidden underwater cameras, The Cove provided graphic footage of Taijis infamous drive hunts, whose critics include the former US ambassador to Japan, Caroline Kennedy.

Typically, fishermen pursue pods of dolphins across open seas, banging metal poles against their boats to confuse their hypersensitive sonar, before herding them into a narrow inlet. There, they are either slaughtered for their meat or selected and sold for large sums to aquariums and marine parks.

While dolphin meat for human consumption generates only modest profits, Taijis fishermen can reportedly sell a live specimen to brokers for about 8,000 US dollars. A fully trained dolphin can then fetch more than 40,000 US dollars if sold overseas, and about half that in Japan.

Minke
Minke whale sashimi served at a restaurant in Taiji Photograph: Justin McCurry

The 20 or so Taiji fishermen who take to the sea between September and April to hunt bottlenose dolphins, pilot whales and other small cetaceans have been emboldened by the release of Okujirasama (A Whale of a Tale) a documentary by the New York-based filmmaker Megumi Sasaki that counters what she describes as The Coves one-sided treatment of a complex issue.

While making her film, Sasaki concluded that the debate over Taiji is an irreconcilable clash of cultures between the global, and Western-led, animal rights movement and local traditions steeped in religion and ancestor worship.

Whaling is the glue that holds this town together

If dolphins are so important to the local community, then why kill them thats what many Westerners cant understand, Sasaki says. But we think of animals as a resource, not that they are special creatures that can do things humans cant do. Its a totally different way of thinking. Whaling is the glue that holds this town together its inseparable from local identity and pride.

Kai dismisses claims that that he and other fishermen employ a singularly cruel method to kill the dolphins. The way we work has changed with the times, he says. In response to criticism, fishermen now dispatch the animals by inserting a knife into their neck, severing their brain stem a method he claims is the most humane possible, but which some experts have said does not result in a painless or immediate death.

On a recent morning, the seafront in Taiji is free from confrontation, although activists have tweeted their regular early-morning photos of the banger boats heading out to sea.

The fishermen appear to have reached an uneasy truce with overseas campaigners, first from Sea Shepherd, and now from the Dolphin Project, a group formed by the dolphin trainer-turned activist Ric OBarry.

Warning
Warning signs near the cove in Taiji. Photograph: Justin McCurry for the Guardian

But there is still little interaction between the two sides. They dont want to listen, only to provoke us, Mitsunori Kobata, president of Taijis dolphin-hunting association, says over a dinner of minke whale sashimi and steamed rice flavoured with thin strips of whale blubber.

Theyre here to do whatever they can to obstruct our business, so we dont see any point in engaging with them. Theyre never going to change their minds, whatever we say.

Pointing to slices of sauted meat, from the belly of a short-finned pilot whale, that he has brought from home, Kobata adds: In the days when there was no refrigeration, people preserved meat like this in salt. Of course, there are lots of other sources of protein around these days, but people of my generation and older still have the right to eat whale if we want to.

Both men hope Sasakis documentary will restore some equilibrium to a debate that has cast a shadow over Taiji for almost a decade.

They point out that they kill just under 2,000 small cetaceans a year, a tenth of Japans annual quota, adding that none of the species is endangered or covered by the 1986 global moratorium on commercial whaling.

Were not ashamed of hunting dolphins and would never consider stopping, Kai says. Its the most important part of our local tradition.

Just look around you if we didnt make a living from the sea, there would be nothing left. People keep telling us to stop whaling and find another way of earning a living. But what on earth would we do instead?

Source: http://www.theguardian.com/us

Conjoined baby turtle saved by Italian marine biologists

Survivor from twin endangered loggerheads is separated by scientists and freed in Mediterranean Sea

Marine biologists in southern Italy have separated conjoined twin loggerhead turtles and released the surviving newborn into the Mediterranean Sea.

The release occurred this week along the beaches of Campania where the endangered loggerheads nest every year.

Fulvio Maffucci, marine biologist at Anton Dohrn Zoological Station, said on Wednesday there had been seven known births of conjoined twin loggerheads in the Mediterranean. He said the fact that one survived was extraordinary.

The smaller twin was dead and significantly underdeveloped compared with the larger twin.

Maffucci said: After the removal of the dead brother from his chest, he crawled from the nest and hes been released in the wild without any help.

In addition to the twins, one of the hatchlings this year also included a rare albino loggerhead.

Source: http://www.theguardian.com/us

337 whales dead in Chile in one of history’s biggest beachings

AP Scientists say 337 whales beached on Chilean coast in massive stranding

The coast of southern Chile has become a grave for 337 sei whales that were found beached in what scientists say is one of the biggest whale strandings ever recorded.

Biologist Vreni Haussermann told the Associated Press Tuesday that she made the discovery along with other scientists in June during an observation flight over fjords in Chiles southern Patagonia region.

The team has been collecting samples since then. She declined to disclose the conclusions, which will be published by a scientific journal later this year.

The cause of death of the whales is unknown, although human intervention has been ruled out.

The scientific expedition counted 305 bodies and 32 skeletons of whales through aerial and satellite photography in an area between the Gulf of Penas and Puerto Natales.

Read more: http://www.theguardian.com/world/2015/dec/01/chile-337-whales-beached-stranding

Baby whales ‘whisper’ to mothers to avoid predators, study finds

Scientists reveal unique, intimate form of communication between humpback mothers and calves as well as silent method to initiate suckling

Newborn humpback whales and their mothers whisper to each other to escape potential predators, scientists reported Wednesday, revealing the existence of a previously unknown survival technique.

They dont want any unwanted listeners, researcher Simone Videsen, lead author of a study published in Functional Ecology, said.

Potential predators such as killer whales could listen to their conversations and use that as a cue to locate the calf and predate on it.

Whales are known for their loud calls, congregating fellow members of the pod. Male humpback whales also emit reverberating sounds to attract females during the mating season.

But this is the first time scientists have observed a unique, intimate form of communication between humpback mothers and calves.

Researchers from Denmark and Australia tracked each of eight calves and two mothers for 24 hours in Exmouth Gulf, Western Australia, a breeding ground for Antarctic humpback whales seeking warmer waters to mate and give birth.

Using tags attached to the animals, the team of scientists recorded their faint squeaks and grunts.

These signals between mother and calf are more quiet than those of normal adult humpback whales, Videsen said, noting they were 40 decibels lower than the singing of males in the area.

While a males cry can resound over an area covering several kilometres, the pairs in the study could only hear each others calls within a distance of less than 100 metres (330 feet), she added.

The low sounds were detected when the pairs were swimming, suggesting the discreet tone helps the mammals stay together in the murky breeding waters, infested with killer whales preying on stray calves.

The faint sounds are also a way to keep mate-seeking males from interfering in the humpbacks nurturing, a crucial time in the newborns life as it braces for an arduous 8,000km (5,000 mile) journey back home to the Antarctic, the researchers speculated.

And the migration is no less challenging for the mother.

There is no food for them in the breeding grounds so the mothers feast while they are there, Videsen said.

The researchers also believe that mother and calf in their effort to go undetected may have developed a silent method to initiate suckling.

Instead of signalling hunger vocally and risk getting spotted, the calves rub against their mothers, according to the studys findings.

Humpback whales can be found both in the Arctic and Antarctic. Each pod spends the summer at the poles and travels to tropical areas in their respective hemispheres during the winter to breed.

The scientific investigation also shed light on the growing problem of ocean noise pollution that can severely disrupt marine life.

Because mother and calf communicate in whispers, shipping noise could easily mask these quiet calls, Videsen said, potentially provoking the pair to lose each other.

Read more: https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2017/apr/26/baby-whales-whisper-to-mothers-to-avoid-predators-study-finds

Star of dolphin-hunting film The Cove to be deported from Japan

Ric OBarry is accused of trying to enter the country using tourist visa to join campaign against slaughter of dolphins in Taiji

A leading US animal rights activist is to be deported from Japan after being accused of trying to enter on a tourist visa to support a campaign against the slaughter of dolphins.

Ric OBarry, who starred in The Cove, the 2009 Oscar-winning documentary about the annual dolphin cull in the town of Taiji, has been detained at Narita airport near Tokyo since Monday.

His son, Lincoln OBarry, said immigration authorities had turned down his fathers request to visit Japan using a tourist visa. They reportedly accused him of lying during questioning and of having links to the marine conservation group Sea Shepherd, whose members have a constant presence in Taiji.

The 76-year-old, who trained dolphins for the 1960s TV series Flipper before devoting himself to conservation, reportedly denied the charges, saying he was going to observe dolphins as a tourist.

Taiji, on Japans Pacific coast, gained international notoriety as a result of The Cove, which followed OBarry and other activists as they attempted to document the killing of dolphins by local fishermen. The film, directed by Louie Psihoyos, won the Academy Award for best documentary.

The method used to kill the animals has been widely condemned by environmentalists. The US ambassador to Japan, Caroline Kennedy, has also voiced deep concern about the drive-hunt method.

Fishermen pursue pods of dolphins and bang metal poles together beneath the water to confuse their hypersensitive sonar. The dolphins are then driven into a large cove sealed off by nets, and taken to a secluded inlet to be killed with knives and spears.

Last year, aquariums in Japan voted to stop buying live dolphins from Taiji after they were threatened with expulsion from the worlds leading zoo organisation. Taijis mayor, Kazutaka Sangen, later said the town would set up a new body that would continue to sell dolphins to aquariums.

OBarry, who heads the Dolphin Project campaign group, is a regular visitor to Taiji, where fishermen catch hundreds of dolphins during the six-month season, which starts in September. The most attractive specimens, usually bottlenoses, are sold to aquariums and sea parks, while others are killed and their meat sold in local restaurants and supermarkets.

In an email to his son seen by the Associated Press, OBarry said: Im incarcerated, on trumped-up charges. In a world where so much that is wild and free has already been lost to us, we must leave these beautiful dolphins free to swim as they will and must.

Fishermen

Fishermen drive bottlenose dolphins into a net during the annual hunt off Taiji, Japan. Photograph: AP

Media reports said OBarry was resisting deportation and had been transferred to another detention facility near Narita airport. His lawyer Takashi Takano visited him on Friday and said OBarry was being held alone but was in good spirits.

The Japanese government was expected to issue a formal warrant and physically deport him, Takano added.

The deportation order marks a hardening of attitudes among Japanese authorities towards environmental activists in Taiji. Police have increased their presence in the town in case of clashes between Sea Shepherd members and locals, who claim they are being unfairly vilified for maintaining a coastal whaling and dolphin-hunting tradition stretching back centuries.

OBarry was arrested near the town last September for allegedly failing to carry his passport, but was released the following day.

Takano said immigration officials refused to believe OBarrys claim that he was not planning to participate in any campaigns. They cited his presence last August at Japan Dolphins Day in Tokyo, despite having told them he would not attend the event.

Immigration officials said they were unable to comment on individual cases.

Read more: http://www.theguardian.com/world/2016/jan/22/star-dolphin-hunting-film-cove-ric-obarry-deported-japan

Sea lion deaths linked to severe brain damage caused by toxic algae bloom

Sea lions on US west coast beaches that ingest domoic acid may face neurological problems that impair behavior and survival abilities, new study finds

The mystery of why sea lions have been stranding in droves on US west coast beaches in recent years is closer to being solved.

A new study suggests that sea lions have been eating crabs and small fish laced with the algal toxin domoic acid, which causes chronic seizures and brain damage, impairing the animals ability to navigate, eat and generally survive in the ocean.

Domoic acid was already a known cause of sea lion deaths, but the new study is the first to pinpoint how it affects behavior and thus how it could indirectly lead to widespread declines in the population even when it doesnt kill the animals.

By studying rescued sea lions at the Marine Mammal Center in Sausalito, California, researchers found that domoic acid bioaccumulates in sea lions as they eat large quantities of small fish until it causes significant brain damage, specifically to the hippocampus, a process which erodes memory.

And not just short-term and long-term memory deficit, but probably more global deficits as well, Peter Cook, the lead author said Monday. Whats happening is probably a chronic thing repeated exposure to domoic acid causes repeated seizures, which damage the brain.

Record numbers of sea lions have stranded in each of the past three years, according to the Marine Mammal Center. There are likely a number of factors, but Cook says domoic acid probably increases those strandings both directly, through damaging the animals navigation abilities, and indirectly, through pups being abandoned by mothers.

The findings provide critical new information about the impacts of domoic acid, which has increasingly devastated wildlife and fishermen in recent years.

The toxin is the reason why the season for Dungeness crab, a well-known and lucrative fishery along the west coast, has been delayed this year and has increasingly become one of the main impacts of warmer waters along the west coast as domoic acid-producing algal blooms grow larger and longer-lasting.

Those impacts have grown rapidly and recently.

In 1998, hundreds of sea lions experiencing seizures stranded off Monterey Bay, 75 miles south of San Francisco. At first, the reason for the seizures was a mystery. People thought it was mercury poisoning, said Kathi Lefebvre, a National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration scientist who was not involved in the new research. She happened to be looking at the effects of domoic acid in fish in 1998 and thought the toxin might be the cause for sea lion seizures.

It turned out to be the first documented case of domoic acid poisoning in marine life. Those cases have grown since, and this year could be the worst ever. Every year since for the last 17 years there have been sick and dying sea lions, sometimes in the hundreds, Lefebvre said.

This year was the first in which a sea lion affected by domoic acid poisoning was reported north of California, she said. What were most concerned about right now is this year we have had the likely largest ever recorded algal bloom producing domoic acid on the US west coast, spanning the largest geographic range.

Historically, the toxic algal bloom would last just a few weeks, but due to warmer waters from climate change and this years El Nio weather phenomenon, this years bloom lasted for months. She said that persistence and its northward expansion makes studying the sub-lethal chronic effects domoic acid has on animals particularly important.

Read more: http://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2015/dec/15/sea-lion-deaths-toxic-algae-bloom-domoic-acid-brain-damage

Big oil v orcas: Canadians fight pipeline that threatens killer whales on the brink

Conservationists say the proposed Trans Mountain Expansion project poses the greatest risk yet to a killer whale population on the edge of extinction

On one shore there are snow-capped mountains. On the other side loom towering skyscrapers. These churning waters off the coast of Vancouver are marked by a constant flow of ferries and containers ships but they are also home to 80 or so orcas.

Known as the southern resident killer whales the group has long had a fraught relationship with the urban sprawl they live alongside, leaving them on the knifes edge of extinction.

In the late 1960s and early 70s, dozens were captured and sold to aquariums and theme parks around the world. Those who remained were exposed to runoff chemicals used in local industry, making them some of the worlds most contaminated marine mammals.

But now the orcas of the Salish sea face what conservationists say is their biggest threat to date: an expansion proposal for a pipeline that would snake from Alberta to the Pacific coast.

Spearheaded by Texas-based energy infrastructure company Kinder Morgan, the C$6.8bn ($5bn) Trans Mountain Expansion project is designed to transport Albertas landlocked bitumen to international markets.

Canada pipeline map

The proposal which still needs the approval of the federal government, led by Justin Trudeau would expand an existing pipeline to lay nearly 1,000km of new pipeline from Alberta to Vancouvers coastline. Oil tanker and barge traffic in the region would soar nearly sevenfold, to as many as 408 tankers a year.

Conservationists warn that the spike in tanker traffic would be disastrous for the resident orca whales a genetically unique population that is already classified as endangered in both Canada and the US.

The approval of the project is also the approval of the extinction of the population, said Ross Dixon of the Raincoast Conservation Foundation. No one is disputing it. Nobody is saying thats not accurate. Its been accepted.

In May, Canadas energy regulator wrapped up two years of review into the Trans Mountain proposal, recommending that the federal government approve the project. The approval was conditional, subject to 157 conditions that include 49 environmental requirements. The regulator also noted the project is likely to result in significant adverse effects to the southern resident killer whale.

Trudeaus cabinet has until 19 December to make its final decision.

Anti-pipeline
Anti-pipeline signs are seen on the side of a road in the First Nations village of Old Massett, British Columbia. Photograph: Bloomberg/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Analysts have long speculated that the approval of the pipeline is imminent. The choice between pipelines and wind turbines is a false one, Trudeau told attendees at a Vancouver conference on clean technology in March. We need both to reach our goal, and as we continue to ensure there is a market for our natural resources, our deepening commitment to a cleaner future will be a valuable advantage.

Trudeau has faced immense pressure from Alberta where sagging oil prices have sent unemployment soaring to around 8.5% to approve a pipeline, but promises by Donald Trump to resurrect plans for the Keystone XL pipeline could alleviate some of this pressure.

Many are not taking any chances. The Raincoast Conservation Foundation has joined forces with several other organisations to launch a legal challenge against the energy regulators approval of the project, arguing that it failed to take into account the impact on the orca whales and their habitat. The groups are currently waiting to hear whether their application for judicial review, filed in June, will be given the go ahead by the court.

The anticipated increase in tanker traffic will heighten the physical and acoustic disturbances in the water, said Misty MacDuffee of Raincoast Conservation Foundation. The noise of the propeller and the engine emits at a frequency that can mask the communication of the whales, she said. And the overall traffic combines to create sort of a din so it reduces the actual space over which the whale can hear and be heard by other whales.

The result could hamper the whales ability to catch food, she said. Theyve got a unique diet, theyve got a unique language in terms of their dialect and theyve got a unique culture. And its that package thats in jeopardy.

Climate change has steadily diminished the availability of Chinook salmon, the whales main food source. Drone research has revealed whales with altered body shapes and lacking fat deposits, suggesting they are starving. You can visibly actually see the ribs on some of these whales, said MacDuffee.

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A pod of orcas in Johnstone Strait, British Columbia. Photograph: Alamy Stock Photo

If tanker traffic increases, the whales will not simply move to another area. That critical habitat is not just a space on the map. It has these acoustic components, food supply components and water quality components.

The fate of the orcas is just one facet of the broad opposition the project is facing. More than 20 municipalities and 17 First Nations communities have come out against the proposal while hundreds of youth marched in Ottawa last month to urge the government to shelve the proposal. Thousands more are expected to turn out for a protest march in Vancouver this Saturday.

The existing pipeline which began operating in 1953 passes near several schools, at one site running under a school playground, said Karen Wristen of Living Oceans.

It was concerns over this trajectory that launched 92-year-old Elsie Dean into action. It comes right through our community, said Dean, pointing to the pipelines route through her home of Burnaby, a city of some 220,000 people in British Columbia.

Since 1961, the pipeline system being eyed for expansion has reported approximately 82 spills to the countrys energy regulator, she noted. It just seems rather insane to consider putting this amount of bitumen in a community of people.

Those
Those opposed to the pipeline say increased oil tanker traffic will hamper the whales ability to catch food. Photograph: Bloomberg/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Dean helped launch Broke, or Burnaby Residents Opposed to Kinder Morgan Expansion, four years ago in an effort to steer Canada whose greenhouse gas emissions rank among the highest per capita in the OECD away from fossil fuels and towards meaningful efforts to tackle climate change. We know that if we dont cut back on fossil fuels, the future generation or certainly my grandchildren will be affected adversely by climate change.

One First Nations community has countered the proposal with a demonstration of the alternative. The Tsleil-Waututh Nation, which sits directly across an inlet from the existing Kinder Morgan tanker terminal, recently launched a fundraising campaign to expand the communitys commitment to solar energy. Its a poetic way to illustrate the choices before us, said Charlene Aleck, a councillor with the community.

The Kinder Morgan project was analysed through the same lens as all others that come through the territory, said Aleck. Is it feasible, is it something good for the water, land and air? The community of 500 people was unanimous in its opposition. It didnt even pass the lowest entry form of how we would run business on our land.

Chief among the communitys concerns was the possibility of an oil spill, she said. One accident and the lives and livelihoods of hundreds of thousands of people, as well as salmon, dolphins, whales, seals and a multitude of other aquatic and hundreds of thousands of avian species, would be destroyed forever.

Earlier this month, Trudeau announced C$1.5bn in funding to improve response measures. The move was widely seen as an attempt to quell some of the opposition to the proposed pipeline.

Aleck welcomed the funding as a way to address the issues arising from the industry already in operation in the region. But the best way to mitigate an oil spill is not to approve the Kinder Morgan expansion, she added.

When queried on the opposition facing the proposal, Kinder Morgan pointed to a series of links on their website highlighting the companys funding of orca research and its efforts to engage communities affected by the pipeline.

Since
Since 1961, the pipeline system being eyed for expansion has reported more than 80 spills. Photograph: Alamy Stock Photo

The project has received 41 letters of support from Aboriginal groups located along the pipeline and marine corridor in Alberta and British Columbia, said the company. More than C$13m in funding had been provided to some 98 communities who wanted to learn more about the project, it added.

The pipeline does not run under any buildings, the company noted. Living or being active near our pipeline does not pose any health risk. Where the pipeline runs near schools, it said, we are open to working with individual schools or districts to fully support their safety efforts and ensure their emergency response plans and ours are coordinated.

If the project is approved, the company said it would invest more than C$150m in marine spill response in the region. The investment will fund five new response bases, about 115 new employees and approximately 26 new vessels at strategic locations along BCs southern shipping lane, the company said.

The millions in funding does little to address what seems to be a certainty of the project the risk posed to the resident orca whales, said Dixon of the Raincoast Conservation Foundation. If this population goes extinct, its gone for good, he said. Theyre part of our identity, theyre part of the place in which we live. If we lose them, we lose a part of ourselves.

Read more: https://www.theguardian.com/world/2016/nov/16/canada-oil-pipeline-expansion-killer-whales-kinder-morgan

‘That is definitely not a dolphin’: shark attack victim plays down hysteria

Jade Fitzpatrick says reports of attacks often make them sound bigger and scarier and he will be surfing again within days

Jade Fitzpatrick is still in shock a day after escaping the jaws of a 2.7-metre great white off the New South Wales north coast, but he says reporting of attacks should be kept in perspective and netting beaches is not the solution.

The 36-year-old surfer suffered three puncture wounds to his upper thigh when his surfboard bore the brunt of the attack off a beach between Suffolk Park and Broken Head near Byron Bay on Monday morning.

He described how he was lying on his board waiting for a wave when the shark struck. He bit down on my leg and this fin has got him in the mouth and he has spat me out, he told Network Seven 24 hours after the attack.

I thought, that is definitely not a dolphin, he said.

After analysing his board shark experts determined it was a 2.7-metre great white that took the bite. I have been up and down a little bit, Fitzpatrick said on Tuesday.

With the help of a friend, he was able to paddle into shore and make his way to Byron central hospital. He was discharged later in the day.

The attack has not deterred Fitzpatrick from surfing in the area and he said he would be back in the water in 10 days, when his wounds heal.

The attack, the third in a month, prompted the states primary industries minister, Niall Blair, to announce he would fast-track legislation in an attempt to have the nets installed before the summer school holidays, despite opposition from some locals.

But Fitzpatrick does not want shark nets, which he said would kill dolphins, whales and other marine life that provide a healthy ecosystem. [Nets] will maybe keep us a bit secure at the cost of [sharks] lives, or maybe it will give us a false sense of security.

He believes there is a lot of hysteria and fear mongering when it comes to the reporting of shark attacks. Everything gets bigger and scarier.

He holds no grudge against the shark. I am just doing what I love and he is just being what he is.

Read more: https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2016/oct/25/that-is-definitely-not-a-dolphin-shark-attack-victim-plays-down-hysteria

Endangered Hawaiian crows join elite list of animals known to use tools

Scientists have discovered a rare bird that uses sticks to find food making it the latest addition to a select list that includes sea otters, elephants and octopuses

The Hawaiian crow is the latest animal to be added to the elite group of species that use tools, after scientists documented it employing sticks to extract hard-to-reach morsels of food from crevices in a log in less than one minute.

Its cousin, the New Caledonia crow, was already known to be a master toolmaker and user, and scientists believe that the similar features shared by both species large, mobile eyes and unusually straight bills are evolutionary adaptations to enable them to use tools, much like humans having opposable thumbs.

However these remarkable skills are in danger of being lost: the Hawaiian crow is the most endangered corvid species and is already extinct in the wild due to habitat loss and persecution.

While there is no definitive number of species that use tools and there remains some debate about what constitutes tool use, here are just some of the best-documented examples of non-human species using tools:

Sea otters

Each of these marine mammals carries a personal stone in the loose pouch of skin under its foreleg, and uses it to break open hard-shelled prey such as sea urchins, mussels, abalones, clams and snails. It either uses the stone as an anvil by lying on its back and hitting the shell against the stone on its chest, or as a hammer by smashing the stone against abalone to break them free from rocks. Sea otters also employ a range of other tools including driftwood, broken glass and empty shells.

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A sea otter uses a rock to open a clam in Monterey Bay, California, US. Photograph: Doc White/NaturePL

Dolphins

The intelligence of dolphins is well-known, but in 2005 a pod of Indo-Pacific bottlenose dolphins in Shark Bay, Western Australia, was seen tearing off pieces of conical sponges to use as tools. By wrapping the sponges over their beaks, they protected themselves from abrasions while stirring the sandy ocean floor to uncover prey. The researchers also believe that this behaviour is passed from parents to their young along mother-daughter lines.

Scientists
Scientists have discovered Indo-Pacific bottlenose dolphins in Shark Bay off the coast of Australia can apparently can use sponges as tools to get food. Photograph: Eric Patterson/Shark Bay Dolphin Project

Octopuses

Veined octopus off the coast of Indonesia have been seen using coconut shells as tools scooping up halves, stacking them and transporting them up to 20m across the seafloor where they reassembled them to use as a shelter when needed. The blanket octopus immune to the sting of the Portuguese man owar is known to tear off their stinging tentacles and wield them as a weapon against predators.

Coconut
Coconut octopus is one of the few cephalopods that is known to exhibit the behaviour of tool-use. Photograph: Mike Veitch/Alamy

Chimpanzees

There have been numerous examples of tool use among chimpanzees since Jane Goodall observed them using sticks to fish termites out of mounds in the 1960s. Sharpening sticks to use as weapons, using stones to crack open nuts and sticks to extract honey are just some of the behaviours scientists have witnessed.

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A chimpanzee uses a stick to catch food. Photograph: James Balog/Getty Images

Egyptian vultures

One of this species favourite foods is the ostrich egg, which has a hard shell. These vultures take rocks in their beak, rear their head and throw the rock repeatedly at the eggs until the shell breaks. They have been seen selecting round rather than jagged rocks as tools.

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An Egyptian vulture holds a stone in its beak to break an egg. Photograph: StockPhotoAstur/Getty Images/iStockphoto

Elephants

Elephants have demonstrated their ability to manufacture and use tools with their trunk and feet. Wild Asian elephants use branches to swat flies or scratch themselves, sometimes modifying the tool to make it more effective. Captive elephants have been seen problem-solving by moving boxes to reach food or dropping rocks on to electric fences to cut supply. One elephant in South Africa was observed digging holes, ripping bark from a tree, chewing it into the shape of a ball, filling the hole with water, covering over it with sand to avoid evaporation, then later going back for a drink.

Read more: https://www.theguardian.com/science/2016/sep/15/endangered-hawaiian-crows-join-elite-list-of-animals-known-to-use-tools

Most humpback whales to be taken off federal endangered species list

Nine of 14 distinct populations to be removed from endangered list, with four populations still listed as endangered, one as threatened

Federal authorities are taking most humpback whales off the endangered species list, saying they have recovered enough in the last 40 years to warrant being removed.

The National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) said on Monday that nine of the 14 distinct populations of humpbacks would be removed, while four distinct populations remain listed as endangered and one as threatened.

Todays news is a true ecological success story, said Eileen Sobeck, assistant NOAA administrator for fisheries. Whales, including the humpback, serve an important role in our marine environment.

Last year the NMFS, an office of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (Noaa), proposed that humpbacks be split into 14 population segments, allowing for 10 populations to be removed from the endangered list.

It said populations of the animals had steadily grown since the international community banned commercial whaling nearly 50 years ago.

When Noaa made its proposal in April 2015, Regina Asmutis-Silvia, executive director and senior biologist for Whale and Dolphin Conservation North America, noted that the public should be interested in the issue because of the humpback whales role in the ecosystem and economy.

They have an economic value. Internationally, they are probably the No 1 species targeted by whale watching, she said. So, theres a vested interest in making sure that these populations are maintained and healthy.

Humpback whales that frequent California, the Pacific north-west, Mexico and Central America will continue to receive Endangered Species Act protections.

Marta Nammack, the fisheries service Endangered Species Act listing coordinator, said the Mexico population numbered just 3,200. The Central American population is estimated at only about 400.

In contrast, more than 11,000 humpback whales breed in Hawaii waters. They are being taken off the list.

Read more: https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2016/sep/06/humpback-whales-endangered-species-list

Rare blue whales spotted off New England coast in ‘unheard of’ event

Weve never seen two together, says co-founder of marine conservation;the whales are the largest creatures on earth

Two blue whales have been seen off the New England coast, in a rare sighting of the largest creatures on earth.

Blue Ocean Society for Marine Conversation cofounder Dianna Schulte told WMUR-TV she was working aboard the Granite State off the coast of Rye Harbor, New Hampshire, on Friday when she spotted the whales.

The groups executive director, Jen Kennedy, said sightings of the animals, which can be up to 100ft long, are rare in New England. Spotting two together is even rarer.

To spot two blue whales together is simply unheard of, she said. In the Atlantic, they are usually sighted off of St Lawrence in Canada.

We might see a blue whale every five to 10 years, so it was possible, but rare. And weve never seen two together in our last 20 years of whale watching and research off the New Hampshire coast.

Schulte said she planned to send pictures of the whales to researchers in Canada, to try to learn more about the two that were spotted.

Read more: https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2016/aug/28/rare-blue-whales-spotted-new-hampshire-coast

Conjoined baby turtle saved by Italian marine biologists

Survivor from twin endangered loggerheads is separated by scientists and freed in Mediterranean Sea

Marine biologists in southern Italy have separated conjoined twin loggerhead turtles and released the surviving newborn into the Mediterranean Sea.

The release occurred this week along the beaches of Campania where the endangered loggerheads nest every year.

Fulvio Maffucci, marine biologist at Anton Dohrn Zoological Station, said on Wednesday there had been seven known births of conjoined twin loggerheads in the Mediterranean. He said the fact that one survived was extraordinary.

The smaller twin was dead and significantly underdeveloped compared with the larger twin.

Maffucci said: After the removal of the dead brother from his chest, he crawled from the nest and hes been released in the wild without any help.

In addition to the twins, one of the hatchlings this year also included a rare albino loggerhead.

Read more: https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2016/aug/19/conjoined-baby-turtle-saved-by-italian-marine-biologists

337 whales dead in Chile in one of history’s biggest beachings

AP Scientists say 337 whales beached on Chilean coast in massive stranding

The coast of southern Chile has become a grave for 337 sei whales that were found beached in what scientists say is one of the biggest whale strandings ever recorded.

Biologist Vreni Haussermann told the Associated Press Tuesday that she made the discovery along with other scientists in June during an observation flight over fjords in Chiles southern Patagonia region.

The team has been collecting samples since then. She declined to disclose the conclusions, which will be published by a scientific journal later this year.

The cause of death of the whales is unknown, although human intervention has been ruled out.

The scientific expedition counted 305 bodies and 32 skeletons of whales through aerial and satellite photography in an area between the Gulf of Penas and Puerto Natales.

Read more: http://www.theguardian.com/world/2015/dec/01/chile-337-whales-beached-stranding

Little River Dolphin Is Set Free After Getting Stranded In The Shallows

When an Indus River dolphin a small, freshwater dolphin native to the Indus River in Pakistan found herself stuck in some shallows, things did not look good.

Stranded there, she would be unable to find food, avoid predators, or be protected from the sun. It was especially perilous considering the Indus River dolphin, known locally as abhulan, is an endangered species, with only about 1,200 remaining in the wild. So her survival could make a huge difference to this fragile population.

Luckily, she wasn’t all alone. Even though she didn’t realize it, she had human friends coming to help her.

Just like the community that came together to rescue a pod of pilot whales in Indonesia, local fishermen, assisted by WWF-Pakistanand the Sindh Wildlife Departmentcame to her rescue and not a moment too soon.

She’s not the first dolphin WWF-Pakistan has rescued. Many dolphins become stranded in the shallower parts of the river, or run into human activity and become injured.

Check out this sweet little dolphin’s rescue below!

[H/T: The Dodo]

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Indus River dolphins, orbhulans, are an endangered species native to Pakistan’s Indus River.

Their populations have been decimated by pollution, construction, and other human activities, and today, there are only an estimated 1,200 in the wild.

So when one got trapped in some shallows, environmental workers knew she had to be saved.

WWF-Pakistan, with the help of local wildlife authorities and fishermen, came together to get her out of her peril.

She was personally escorted to a special soundproof ambulance, so as not to freak her out even more with any noise, and drove her further upriver, where the water was deeper and safer.

They gently lowered her into the river, and she was very excited to get back into the water.

In fact, this dolphin had been swimming around in the Indus’ shallower waters since the beginning of June, and WWF-Pakistan had been keeping an eye on her just in case something like this happened.

Their vigilance was why they were able to respond so quickly and save her life.

When she got her bearings and was off, the rescuers broke into applause.

Since 1992, WWF-Pakistan has rescued 119 river dolphins, and has worked with communities to provide education on keeping these animals safe. Their programs have led to a decrease in dolphin deaths in recent years.

Check out the video below to see the dolphin’s release!

SHARE this rescue story with anyone who loves helping the creatures who need it the most!

Read more: http://www.littlethings.com/indus-river-dolphin-set-free/

Scores of beached pilot whales found in southern India

Rescuers are struggling to save more than 80 short-finned pilot whales that have washed up on beaches in Tamil Nadu state

More than 80 whales are stranded on the southern coast of India, according to officials.

M Ravi Kumar, the top government official in the port town of Tuticorin in Tamil Nadu state, said on Tuesday that the short-finned pilot whales had begun washing up on beaches on Monday evening.

He said officials had rescued at least 36 of the mammals and returned them to the sea, but they appeared to be disoriented, with some finding their way back to the beach.

Kumar said short-finned pilot whales travel in pods, and that the absence of a leader confuses the group.

Beached

Short-finned pilot whales form social groups and move together as a unit. Photograph: M Sudalaikumar Kumar/Barcroft

Read more: http://www.theguardian.com/world/2016/jan/12/scores-of-pilot-whales-beached-southern-india

Ships’ noise is serious problem for killer whales and dolphins, report finds

Low-frequency noise is known to affect baleen whales but high-frequency din from vessels is harming endangered orcas ability to communicate and find prey

Noise emanating from passing ships may disturb animals such as killer whales and dolphins far more than previously thought, with new research showing that the animals communication and ability to find prey could be hampered by the underwater din.

The low rumble of passing ships has long been connected to the disturbance of large whales. But US researchers have documented persistent noise also occurring at medium and higher frequencies, including at 20,000Hz where killer whales, also known as orcas, hear best.

These noise disturbances could be hindering the ability of killer whales to communicate and echolocate the process of using sound to bounce off objects such as prey and identify where they are. Dolphins and porpoises, which also operate at higher frequencies, may be suffering the same problems.

The findings, published in PeerJ, suggest that the noise could well affect the endangered population of killer whales that are found near the shipping lanes. A population of just 84 killer whales forage up the US west coast and into Puget Sound.

The main concern of this is that even a slight increase in sound may make echolocation more difficult for whales, said Scott Veirs of Beamreach, who led the research. Thats worrying because their prey, chinook salmon, is already quite scarce. Hearing a click off a salmon is probably one of the most challenging things a killer whale does. Hearing that subtle click is harder if theres a lot of noise around you.

The researchers used underwater microphones to measure the noise created by about 1,600 individual ships as they passed through Haro Strait, in Washington state. The two-year study captured the sound made by 12 different types of vessel, including cruise ships, container ships and military vehicles, that passed through the strait about 20 times a day.

Some ships are quieter than others but the average intensity of noise next to all the ships was 173 underwater decibels, equivalent to 111 decibels through the air about the sound of a loud rock concert. Whales are not usually located right next to ships and so would be subjected to noise of about 60 to 90 decibels around the level of a lawnmower or a vacuum cleaner.

Veirs said scientists have already identified the impact of underwater noise upon baleen whales a class of fauna containing the largest animals on Earth. But the new research underlines the threat posed to smaller whales, dolphins and porpoises.

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A new baby orca whale is seen swimming alongside an adult whale in the Haro Strait in Washington state. Photograph: Dave Ellifrit/AP

Ships have been thought of as low-frequency sources of noise, like the rumbling of trucks or trains, he said. Most noise is at that low frequency but the background noise of the ocean is raised even in the high frequencies. This could be causing a significant problem that we need to look into more.

There are several knock-on consequences of a noisy marine environment. Whales may have to group together more closely in order to hear each other. And should they fail to find prey as effectively, they will need to use up their stores of excess blubber. This is problematic as this blubber often contains manmade pollutants that are toxic to whales if released fully into their systems.

Veirs said more work needs to be done to identify how badly the noise is affecting whales and also to quieten the ships that pass near the cetaceans.

It should be easy to reduce noise pollution, he said. Military ships are quite a bit quieter and there could be straightforward ways of transferring that technology to the commercial fleet. Another way to reduce noise is to slow down. Decreasing speed by six knots could decrease noise intensity by half.

While the fortunes of some whale species, such as humpbacks and blue whales, have improved as whaling has declined, others are still under threat from a range of factors. Last week, the US federal government protected nearly 40,000 square miles of the Atlantic in an attempt to avoid losing the critically endangered North Atlantic right whale, a species with just 500 individuals left.

In Europe, killer whales are carrying dangerously high levels of banned PCB chemicals in their blubber. Scientists are still trying to determine whether pollutants caused the death of five sperm whales that became stranded on the east coast of Britain in January.

Meanwhile, around the coast of Australia, whales face an increased threat from ship strikes and oil and gas drilling, as well as Japans recent pledge to resume whaling in Antarctic waters.

Read more: http://www.theguardian.com/environment/2016/feb/02/ships-noise-is-serious-problem-for-killer-whales-and-dolphins-report-finds

Star of anti-dolphin killing film The Cove held by Japanese immigration

Ric OBarry seen in documentary about slaughter in a Japanese village says government is waging a war on dolphins

The star of Oscar-winning documentary The Cove, about the killing of dolphins in a village in Japan, has been detained by immigration authorities at Tokyos Narita international airport.

Ric OBarry an American known for training the dolphins used in the TV series Flipper said immigration officials told him he could not enter Japan on a tourist visa because he was not a tourist, according to his lawyer, Takashi Takano.

Takano said officials accused OBarry of having close ties with the anti-whaling group Sea Shepherd, which OBarry denies. Immigration officials said it was their policy not to comment on individual cases.

Takano said he was appealing against the detention, and that the Japanese government would decide on whether to allow OBarry into the country or deport him. It was not clear when a decision would be made.

The Cove, which won the 2009 Academy Award for best documentary, shows the slaughter of dolphins herded into a cove in the fishing village of Taiji and bludgeoned to death.

The Japanese government is cracking down on those who oppose their war on dolphins, OBarry said in a statement sent to the Associated Press through his son, Lincoln OBarry.

Officials in Taiji, a small fishing village in central Japan, and fishermen have defended the hunt as a tradition, saying that eating dolphin meat is no different to eating beef or chicken.

Most Japanese have never eaten dolphin meat. Many say they are horrified by the dolphin killing and there is a campaign against the Taiji hunt. Animal welfare activists say the hunt is driven mostly by the lucrative sale of dolphins to aquariums, with the income from the sale of meat simply an added extra.

OBarry has been stopped and questioned by Japanese immigration before. He has also been taken into custody by local police on the suspicion of not having proper travel documents before being released. But this is the first time he has been detained in this way. He has the support of high-profile celebrities, including Sting, the US ambassador to Japan, Caroline Kennedy, and the former Guns N Roses drummer, Matt Sorum.

Read more: http://www.theguardian.com/world/2016/jan/19/star-of-anti-dolphin-killing-documentary-the-cove-ric-o-barry-held-by-japanese-immigration

Star of dolphin-hunting film The Cove to be deported from Japan

Ric OBarry is accused of trying to enter the country using tourist visa to join campaign against slaughter of dolphins in Taiji

A leading US animal rights activist is to be deported from Japan after being accused of trying to enter on a tourist visa to support a campaign against the slaughter of dolphins.

Ric OBarry, who starred in The Cove, the 2009 Oscar-winning documentary about the annual dolphin cull in the town of Taiji, has been detained at Narita airport near Tokyo since Monday.

His son, Lincoln OBarry, said immigration authorities had turned down his fathers request to visit Japan using a tourist visa. They reportedly accused him of lying during questioning and of having links to the marine conservation group Sea Shepherd, whose members have a constant presence in Taiji.

The 76-year-old, who trained dolphins for the 1960s TV series Flipper before devoting himself to conservation, reportedly denied the charges, saying he was going to observe dolphins as a tourist.

Taiji, on Japans Pacific coast, gained international notoriety as a result of The Cove, which followed OBarry and other activists as they attempted to document the killing of dolphins by local fishermen. The film, directed by Louie Psihoyos, won the Academy Award for best documentary.

The method used to kill the animals has been widely condemned by environmentalists. The US ambassador to Japan, Caroline Kennedy, has also voiced deep concern about the drive-hunt method.

Fishermen pursue pods of dolphins and bang metal poles together beneath the water to confuse their hypersensitive sonar. The dolphins are then driven into a large cove sealed off by nets, and taken to a secluded inlet to be killed with knives and spears.

Last year, aquariums in Japan voted to stop buying live dolphins from Taiji after they were threatened with expulsion from the worlds leading zoo organisation. Taijis mayor, Kazutaka Sangen, later said the town would set up a new body that would continue to sell dolphins to aquariums.

OBarry, who heads the Dolphin Project campaign group, is a regular visitor to Taiji, where fishermen catch hundreds of dolphins during the six-month season, which starts in September. The most attractive specimens, usually bottlenoses, are sold to aquariums and sea parks, while others are killed and their meat sold in local restaurants and supermarkets.

In an email to his son seen by the Associated Press, OBarry said: Im incarcerated, on trumped-up charges. In a world where so much that is wild and free has already been lost to us, we must leave these beautiful dolphins free to swim as they will and must.

Fishermen

Fishermen drive bottlenose dolphins into a net during the annual hunt off Taiji, Japan. Photograph: AP

Media reports said OBarry was resisting deportation and had been transferred to another detention facility near Narita airport. His lawyer Takashi Takano visited him on Friday and said OBarry was being held alone but was in good spirits.

The Japanese government was expected to issue a formal warrant and physically deport him, Takano added.

The deportation order marks a hardening of attitudes among Japanese authorities towards environmental activists in Taiji. Police have increased their presence in the town in case of clashes between Sea Shepherd members and locals, who claim they are being unfairly vilified for maintaining a coastal whaling and dolphin-hunting tradition stretching back centuries.

OBarry was arrested near the town last September for allegedly failing to carry his passport, but was released the following day.

Takano said immigration officials refused to believe OBarrys claim that he was not planning to participate in any campaigns. They cited his presence last August at Japan Dolphins Day in Tokyo, despite having told them he would not attend the event.

Immigration officials said they were unable to comment on individual cases.

Read more: http://www.theguardian.com/world/2016/jan/22/star-dolphin-hunting-film-cove-ric-obarry-deported-japan

Whale CSI: why sperm whales are washing up dead on British shores

Scientists from the UKs Cetacean Strandings Investigation team are trying to determine the cause of the biggest mass stranding in a century

Slicing cleanly through two inches of skin and blubber, Rob Deaville considers the possible causes of death of the sea mammal on his dissecting table. Its a female, juvenile, stranded in north Devon, he says. No signs of parasite infestation. It looks healthy. It may have just come too close to shore.

This porpoise, in the process of being dismembered with small parts of its vital organs tested for disease and pollutants, is one of hundreds that come to the labs in the Zoological Society of London each year, awaiting a post-mortem a necropsy, in the scientific term that will help to establish how the animal lived and why it died.

In recent weeks the teams expertise has been called on to investigate a highly unusual series of events. A mass stranding of sperm whales has puzzled scientists, with a total count of six now having washed up on British beaches, the biggest in the century since Zoological Society of London (ZSL) has been making a count, and taking custody of the bodies.

This is part of a much bigger event, as at least 29 have now been found on the coasts of the UK, the Netherlands and Germany. It is impossible to tell whether all the whales were members of the same pod, or a clutch of pods, but it seems likely that the strandings are related. Sperm whales tend to live in groups of females with their young, while adult males roam further afield singly.

Deaville, project manager of the Cetacean Strandings Investigation programme CSI for whales, dolphins and their relatives if you like is reluctant to make guesses as to what the cause of the deaths may be. While people naturally want to have answers as soon as possible, the need for close examination and the inherent caution of the scientific method mean this is not realistic. We just do not know yet, and I dont want to speculate without the data, he says.

Several potential explanations have been put forward. Disease may be a factor, or changes related to climate change, or the overfishing of some of the sea areas where the whales tend to gather. Most recently, concerns have been raised over the lingering effects of now-banned chemicals, called PCBs, polluting European waters.

PCBs are lipophilic, notes Deaville, meaning that they are found in concentration in the animals thick layer of blubber, which is why extensive samples of it are taken in the labs. The liver is also a key source of samples, as it will reveal the levels of heavy metals such as lead, cadmium and mercury that the creature has absorbed, mostly from its fish diet.

These are the early warning systems of the seas. Heavy metals are now so concentrated in fish that pregnant women and small children are advised to eat no more than two portions of affected fish in a week.

Another likely cause of death is that the whales simply got lost. The North Sea is one of the shallowest in the world, so much so that archaeologists are only now discovering the remains of human settlements buried on the seabed from the last Ice Age, when Doggerland was above sea level and inhabited.

For whales, which navigate by echo-location in a similar way to bats, shallow water is a trap, as it confounds their ability to use sound. When out of the breeding grounds of their usual prey, such as squid, they can quickly become starved and dehydrated, because they obtain their water from their food. Once in shallow water, the enormous weight of their bodies is no longer so buoyant, and can crush them. The recently found dead whales may simply have strayed too far from their usual haunts and been unable to find a way out. Whether climate change, which has caused cold water species to move north and brought normally tropical fish to UK waters, has played a role is still unclear.

Counterintuitively, the strandings may actually be good news for the species. While it is hard to count marine populations accurately, strandings can be a proxy says Deaville. The bigger the population, the more likely it is that some will be stranded, he explains.

The whales, and any more that are found, will be extensively examined in the ZSL labs and definitive results, with any clear conclusions that can be drawn from them, are likely to become available in the next few months. However, even those findings may still leave the mystery unsolved. We dont know whether we will find an answer, says Deaville.

Sperm

Cetaceans Strandings Investigation team inspects inspects the carcass of a sperm whale on the beach in Hunstanton in Norfolk, England. The whale is the 29th to get stranded in Europe in in recent weeks. Photograph: Alan Walter/Reuters

Cetacean Strandings Investigation programme in brief

The CSIP has a curious history. Under a 13th-century law enacted by Edward II, all whales, sturgeon and porpoises are regarded as royal fish, so that when caught by UK fishermen or stranded around the coast they are the property of the crown. The Queen no longer exercises her right to have this bounty hauled on to her dinner table or cut up to make corsets, but the CSIP fills in, building on work done at London zoo since 1913 when formal records of strandings began.

The information gleaned from investigating the circumstances of strandings and performing necropsies on the corpses helps to inform conservation efforts, and acts as an early warning system in case of emerging diseases or other hazards for marine mammals.

Based at the ZSL, next to London zoo, the CSIP recently celebrated its 25th birthday, and in that time Deaville has examined more than 3,500 specimens, adding greatly to our knowledge of the wildlife that dominate the UKs seas.

Read more: http://www.theguardian.com/environment/2016/feb/15/whale-csi-why-sperm-whales-are-washing-up-dead-on-british-shores

Japan admits to killing more than 300 whales in Southern Ocean

Austalian politicians decry Japans sickening actions, which are at odds with UN legal decision

Japan has confirmed that more than 300 whales, including 200 pregnant females, were slaughtered in the countrys latest whaling mission in the Southern Ocean.

The kill was confirmed by Japans Institute of Cetacean Research as its ships returned from their scientific expedition in the Antarctic region on Thursday.

Four ships were sent to the Antarctic region over a period of 115 days from 1 December last year and killed 333 minke whales.

Japans actions are in defiance of international criticism and despite a 2014 UN legal decision that ruled so-called scientific whaling activity in the Southern Ocean was a front for commercial hunts.

Darren Kindleysides, the director of the Australian Marine Conservation Society, said the 2014/15 summer was the first time in 70 years Japan had stopped its whaling program but the break was short-lived.

He said Australias leading international experts had examined Japans new so-called scientific research program this year and found it was also a guise for killing whales and a breach of international law.

That puts the onus on the Australian government to make sure this is the first and the last season of Japans new so-called scientific program, he said.

The Australian government in December described Japans decision to resume whaling over the summer as deeply disappointing and insisted it raised concerns at the highest level of the Japanese government.

It had said it would consider sending a customs patrol vessel to the Southern Ocean and explore options for legal action.

But the conservation group Sea Shepherd in February said the Japanese fleet had faced little or no scrutiny over the summer and Australia and New Zealand seemed unwilling to send a ship to intercept them.

Sea Shepherd Australias managing director, Jeff Hansen, said: Once again false promises from the Australian and New Zealand governments have resulted in whales being killed illegally in the Australian Whale Sanctuary.

The majority of Australians wanted the Australian government to send a vessel to oppose the slaughter. They did not.

The Australian Greens senator Peter Whish-Wilson said the government had turned its back on Japans sickening illegal activity.

Not in 40 years has an Australian government done so little to prevent whaling on our watch and in our waters, he said.

The government has repeatedly refused to confirm whether it undertook any monitoring missions in the Southern Ocean this summer.

Greg Hunt, the Australian environment minister, said the Australian government opposes whaling clearly, absolutely and categorically.

It is in my view abhorrent and a throwback to an earlier age, he said. There is no scientific justification for lethal research.

Hunt criticised Japan for going ahead with the killings in spite of a resolution by the [International Whaling] commission calling on it not to go whaling.

Tokyo claims it is trying to prove the whale population is large enough to sustain a return to commercial hunting but the meat still ends up on dinner tables and is served up in school lunches.

Some experts say that Japans refusal to give up the Antarctic mission despite censure by the international court is largely due to a small group of powerful politicians.

Australian Associated Press and Agence France-Presse contributed to this report


Read more: http://www.theguardian.com/environment/2016/mar/25/japan-admits-to-killing-more-than-300-whales-in-southern-ocean

Taiji legal battle: court backs activist over baby dolphin kept in aquarium

Victory for animal rights after Japanese court awards Australian activist 110,000 yen after museum refused her entry to check on captive bottlenose

Animal rights activists have claimed a significant victory in its battle to end Japans dolphin slaughter after a court ruled that an aquarium in Taiji where hundreds of dolphins are killed every year acted illegally when it refused entry to an Australian campaigner.

The court in Wakayama, western Japan, on Friday awarded 110,000 yen (690) to Sarah Lucas, head of Australia for Dolphins, who had attempted to enter the Taiji whale museum in 2014 but was turned away and shown a cardboard sign saying anti-whalers were not welcome.

Lucas had intended to check on the welfare of a baby albino bottlenose that had been kept at the museum since being separated from its pod and captured earlier in the year. The museum reportedly paid $500,0000 (354,000) for the animal.

Lucas said the rare dolphin, called Angel, was being kept in a tiny crowded tank full of chlorine, and was being bullied by other dolphins.

The legal battle to save Angel is much bigger than a rescue mission to save one albino dolphin calf, Lucas said after the verdict.

This win proves the Taiji whale museum, the institution at the heart of the dolphin hunting trade, behaved illegally. It also shows the Taiji dolphin hunts are not above the law, which means the Japanese legal system can be used to end the cruel dolphin hunts for good.

Tetsuo Kirihata, deputy chief of the Taiji museum, said he was satisfied with the verdict because the initial demand for damages had been for about 3m yen.

We feel much of our case was taken into account by the court, he told Associated Press. Kirihata said the dolphin was eating well and getting along with other dolphins, with regular blood tests showing it was healthy. What to some might look like bullying was, in fact, part of regular activity in nature, he added.

The museum is owned by the town government in Taiji, the setting for the Oscar-winning 2009 documentary The Cove, which showed fishermen driving pods of dolphins into shallow water before killing them with knives.

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Photo taken in 2014 by environmentalist group Sea Shepherd Conservation Society shows bottlenose dolphins trapped in the cove during the selection process by fishermen in the Japanese town of Taiji. Photograph: Sea Shepherd Conservation Societ/AFP/Getty Images

The use of the drive method has attracted widespread criticism, including from the US ambassador to Japan, Caroline Kennedy.

International pressure on Taiji to distance itself from the global trade in dolphins intensified last year when aquariums in Japan voted to stop buying live specimens from the town to avoid expulsion from the worlds leading zoo organisation.

The move came after the Guardian revealed that the World Association of Zoos and Aquariums (Waza) had been targeted in a court action launched by Australia for Dolphins. The group accused Waza of being complicit in the hunts by failing to take decisive action against Japanese aquariums.

The museum in Taiji, however, quit the Japanese branch of the world association in protest, with local fishermen vowing to continue the hunts.

During the most recent season, which ended last month, Taijis fishermen killed 652 dolphins and took 111 into captivity, according to figures supplied by the Sea Shepherd marine conservation group.

Read more: http://www.theguardian.com/world/2016/mar/26/taiji-legal-battle-court-backs-activist-over-baby-dolphin-kept-in-aquarium

Endangered whales in Washington’s Puget Sound to get individual records

The records will include data on behavior, reproductive success, and skin diseases and will be used to monitor individual health as well as overall trends

Endangered orcas in the inland waters of Washington state will now have individual health records, which researchers hope will help them identify threats to the whales health.

There are typically 84 whales residing in Puget Sound from spring to fall. These were listed as endangered in 2005 and are both genetically and behaviorally distinct from other killer whales. They use distinct calls to communicate and eat salmon rather than other marine mammals. Because of pollution, lack of prey and disturbance from boats, their numbers have fluctuated in the past few decades.

The whales are already thoroughly tracked and recorded. Researchers trail them by sea and with drones, keeping track of their measurements, waste and exhaled breath.

Individual health records, that combine all of the existing research on the whales, will be added to this program. On Tuesday, during a meeting in Seattle sponsored by SeaDoc Society, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (Noaa) Fisheries and the National Marine Mammal Foundation, more than two dozen wildlife experts discussed how this would be executed.

The records will include data on behavior, reproductive success, skin diseases and more, Lynne Barre with Noaa Fisheries told the Associated Press. They will be used to monitor individual health as well as overall trends.

The goal is to really start getting a lot of data and pull them together in a way that permits easier analysis, Joe Gaydos, a wildlife veterinarian at the University of California Davis, told the AP.

Ultimately, the real benefit of any health record is to help make [management] decisions, he added.

The records will help identify threats to the orcas health and provide insight into how to reduce or fix them, according to researchers.

It will be really powerful to rule out things that arent important and focus in on whats really important, Barre told the AP.

An initial database will be launched this summer using information on sex, age and gender as a starting point, according to Gaydos. Additional information will be added next year. Some details, such as who will manage the data and who will have access to it, have not yet been worked out.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Read more: http://www.theguardian.com/environment/2016/mar/30/endangered-whales-washington-puget-sound-health-records

Desert dolphins: plan to bring animals to Arizona for show outrages activists

More than 100,000 people signed a petition against a plan for Dolphinaris, which would house dolphins in pools and allow people to swim with and ride them

A plan to transport a group of dolphins to the Arizona desert so tourists can pay to frolic with them has come under fire from animal welfare activists who claim the attraction will be harmful to people as well as the dolphins.

More than 100,000 people have signed a petition against a plan for a Dolphinaris to be established on tribal land near Scottsdale, Arizona. The facility would house dolphins in pools and allow people to swim with and ride the marine mammals.

Dolphinaris is already established in five locations in Mexico. Its parent company, Ventura Entertainment, is looking to expand to the US with the Arizona attraction, which will be near OdySea in the Desert a 35-acre complex featuring sharks, turtles and penguins.

OdySea has denied that it is affiliated with the Dolphinaris project. According to reports in the Mexican media, the $20m Dolphinaris development is set to open in July. A protest against the attraction is planned for 7 May.

Opponents of the Dolphinaris argue the hot, dusty environment is no place for dolphins, which would be expected to swim in small, repetitive circles in an area vastly smaller than their natural marine habitat.

The Humane Society said swimming-with-dolphins attractions are also risky for people. There have been reports of confined dolphins biting people and even incidents that resemble sexual assault.

These animals are used to an environment where they can roam, swimming hundreds of miles a day in a rich environment, said Sharon Young, marine issues field coordinator at the Humane Society. Once you put them in a tank, its an impoverished existence. It would be like if someone never let you out of your bedroom. There has been some sexual aggression towards swimmers. Its not a good environment for anyone.

Young said it seems oxymoronic for people to go to the desert to see dolphins. She called for better regulation of facilities with dolphins, with around a dozen places in the US offering swim with the dolphin experiences.

Some researchers have called for an end to dolphin captivity, stating that it is cruel to trap intelligent, social creatures that require a large amount of space to feed and maintain relationships within their pods.

Tourist attractions that make marine creatures perform for visitors have come under increasing scrutiny since the 2013 documentary Blackfish caused a major dent in the reputation of SeaWorld, the theme-park operator known for its killer whale shows. In May, SeaWorld announced that it will stop breeding killer, or orca, whales in captivity. It will retain the 23 whales it currently has in its parks, however.

Ventura Entertainment didnt respond to a Guardian request for comment on its plans for the Arizona facility.

Read more: http://www.theguardian.com/environment/2016/apr/25/dolphins-arizona-dolphinaris-odysea-animal-rights-activists-outraged