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NOAA Launches Investigation Into Unusually High Humpback Whale Die-Offs

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) announced Thursday it is investigating the unusually high number of humpback whale deaths off the U.S. Atlantic Coast.

A total of 41 humpback whales died in the waters off Maine to North Carolina since January 2016, including 15 that washed up dead this year. That's about three times more than the region's annual average of just 14 humpback deaths.

"The increased numbers of mortalities have triggered the declaration of an unusual mortality event, or UME, for humpback whales along the Atlantic Coast," said Mendy Garron, stranding coordinator at the NOAA Fisheries Greater Atlantic Region, on Thursday.

A UME is issued whenever there is an "unexpected, involves a significant dieoff of any marine mammal population, and demands immediate response," she added.

So far, NOAA has examined 20 of the whales that died last year and determined that 10 of the mammals "had evidence of blunt force trauma or pre-mortem propeller wounds" likely from marine vessels, the agency said.

The whales may be moving around in search of prey, exposing themselves to shipping traffic, researchers suggested.

"It's probably linked to resources," Greg Silber, the large-whale recovery coordinator for NOAA fisheries, told reporters. "Humpback whales follow where the prey is."

The other half of the whales that were examined had no obvious signs of what caused their demise.

"Whales tested to date have had no evidence of infectious disease," Garron said.

The scientists stressed that they are unsure about what is causing the spike in humpback deaths.

"The answer is really unknown," Silber said.

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Alaska Senators Introduce Bill to Expand Offshore Oil Drilling in Arctic Ocean and Cook Inlet

Senators Lisa Murkowski and Dan Sullivan, both Republicans from Alaska, have introduced legislation to expand oil and gas drilling in the Arctic Ocean and Cook Inlet, putting fragile ecosystems and endangered wildlife at risk.

In December, President Obama permanently protected large areas of U.S. waters in the Arctic from oil and gas drilling. The new bill—Senate Bill 883—would effectively cancel these protections and force the Department of the Interior to quickly approve new oil and gas leasing.

"It's not possible to drill safely in the Arctic, as we just saw from the leaking oil and gas well on the North Slope," said Miyoko Sakashita, ocean programs director at the Center for Biological Diversity. "This legislation's nothing more than a giveaway to oil companies. It'll hurt Alaska's healthy habitat and endangered wildlife."

S. 883 would require Interior to add at least three leases each in the Beaufort and Chukchi seas and one in Cook Inlet to each five-year leasing plan. The agency would be required to establish a new near-shore Beaufort planning area with annual lease sales for the next three years.

The bill would also overturn President Obama's decision to stop exploration and drilling permanently in most of the Chukchi and Beaufort seas under Section 12(a) of the Outer Continental Shelf Lands Act. These areas are home to several endangered species, including polar bears and bowhead whales.

"If we let oil companies drill the Arctic, a catastrophic oil spill is just a matter of time," Sakashita said. "It's shameful that the Alaska congressional delegation has so little regard for the horrendous damage the oil industry could do to this fragile ecosystem and the people who live and work along this coast."

Leading climate scientists say the vast majority of untapped fossil fuels must stay in the ground to avoid catastrophic, irreversible changes to the climate. Unleased federal waters contain an estimated 75 billion barrels of crude oil, more than twice that of unleased federal lands. Stopping the expansion of new leases in federal waters would keep 61.5 gigatons of carbon dioxide out of our atmosphere and oceans.

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A volunteer examines a pilot whale during a 2013 mass stranding in the Florida Everglades. Photo credit: Everglades NPS

Noise Pollution Forces Whales and Dolphins From Their Homes

By Jason Bittel

Waves lap at motionless heaps of blubber and fins and the sun bears down on chapped skin. Gulls start to, well, do what gulls do. This heartbreaking scene happened in January when nearly 100 false killer whales became stranded along a remote shore in the Florida Everglades.

Authorities tried to steer the cetaceans back out to sea, but most were too exhausted or too entangled in the mangroves to make the last-ditch effort. In the end, more than 80 of the whales died. Just a few months later, a similar tragedy played out on the coast of New Zealand, this time with hundreds of pilot whales.

When a single whale beaches itself, the cause is thought to be injury, illness or old age. But when dozens or even hundreds, of the animals come ashore at once, scientists think something more is at play. While no one can say definitively what causes mass strandings, a growing body of research seems to point to one trigger.

Noise.

According to a study published last month in the Journal of Experimental Biology, noise pollution such as ship traffic and seismic testing may force marine mammals to exhaust more energy on their dives than usual. This is particularly bad news because today our oceans are noisier than ever.

The oil and gas industry searches for its next score using giant air-gun explosions beneath the surface. And when fossil fuels are found, the drills used to extract them create even more of a din. Meanwhile, the U.S. Navy sends far-reaching sonar into the sea day and night as part of routine monitoring and training exercises. Furthermore, every ship that isn't powered by wind adds to the undersea clatter with its generators, propellers and engines. Making matters worse, sound travels much farther in water than it does in air, which means each aural insult can radiate outward for miles and miles from its source.

"For whales, dolphins and other marine life, industrial and military noise is a death of a thousand cuts," said Michael Jasny, a marine mammal expert with the Natural Resources Defense Council. "It degrades their foraging, keeps them from finding potential mates, silences them and drives them from their homes. Human noise has emerged as a major environmental threat and there is virtually no corner of the ocean that is free of it."

The study's lead author, Terrie Williams, has been studying this problem for more than a dozen years as a wildlife eco-physiologist. When she started, very little was known about what was going on inside marine mammals that might be causing their mysterious, untimely deaths. That changed when wildlife veterinarian Paul Jepson published a 2003 study in Nature that found gas bubbles in the livers of stranded cetaceans. That would indicate decompression illness or the bends.

As you know, whales and dolphins breathe air at the surface and dive below for food and travel. In order to adjust between the two environments, they have what's called a diving response or reflex, which allows the body to shift its physiological priorities from what works best in air to what works best underwater. When down below, for instance, the heart rate lowers, blood vessels constrict and blood flow slows down. So for them to fall victim to decompression is definitely odd. "It seemed impossible," said Williams, "due to all of the biological safeguards that marine mammals have in place for diving without injury."

However, the bubbles in stranded whales' livers showed that the dive response doesn't always work. Williams wondered whether that diving response was less automatic than previously thought.

Through a new technology that Williams and her team invented, the researchers were able to place a device on diving dolphins to monitor second-by-second changes in heart rate, stroking mechanics and depth changes. The scientists learned that a marine mammal's diving response is related to both the depth to which it dives and the amount of exertion it takes to get there. This was really important, said Williams, because it showed that the movement of nitrogen and oxygen throughout the animal's body is not set in stone. That is, a whale or a dolphin might be able to dive safely in one scenario but not in another.

The next step was to prove that an outside factor, such as noise pollution, could possibly push the animal's physiology from its normal, safe diving state to a more rushed and risky kind of dive. This is where Williams's most recent research comes in.

Working in a deep pool aquarium, Williams and her colleagues trained retired military dolphins to wear the cetacean equivalent of Fitbits. The dolphins were taught to navigate through an underwater obstacle course at both a regular pace and a faster, escape-like pace to simulate both kinds of dives. The animals then surfaced under a sealed hood that measured the mammals' exhalations. In other words, Williams wanted to know "how much of the internal oxygen scuba tank is used during a dive by a dolphin, especially if it is trying to escape oceanic noise."

Predictably, the scientists found that it cost dolphins about twice as much physiologically to perform escape dives as opposed to dives at regular speed.

Marine mammals, of course, are not all the same. Whales are built differently from dolphins and even between whale species, body shape and dive adaptations vary. (Just think about the differences between a sperm whale and a blue whale). The scientists also had to account for the fact that larger animals require more energy to start moving but need less energy to keep all that blubber cruising once they reach higher speeds.

Fortunately, the researchers were able to make use of other studies that placed accelerometers on various whale species to measure dive times and depths. Using those data, they came up with a formula that allowed them to estimate the costs of swimming fast and slow for various types of cetaceans.

As a proof of concept, Williams and company applied their findings to the Cuvier's beaked whale, which may grow to 23 feet long and 5,500 pounds and is known for making dives of nearly two miles in depth—deeper than any other mammal. Perhaps most important, beaked whales have already been shown to be extra sensitive to noise pollution. In one 2011 study, scientists found that Blainsville's beaked whales stopped echolocating during dives when navy sonar was present and then avoided the source of the sound for two to three days. What's more, several other studies have shown a correlation between navy sonar exercises and beaked whale strandings.

So what happened when they crunched the numbers for Cuvier's beaked whales? The scientists estimated that a beaked whale may have to ratchet up its metabolic rate by more than 30 percent in order to escape oceanic noise quickly—and that's in response to a single sound event. Imagine how those energy costs might add up across repeated run-ins with acoustic pollution.

"The implications of this are enormous," said Williams. "Have the animals expended too much of their internal scuba tank? Is there enough oxygen going to their brains when they are trying to exercise at the same time that they are diving?"

These are questions Williams hopes to answer in future experiments as she attempts to establish "that last link" between ocean noise and marine mammal strandings. But with all the evidence she and other scientists have already assembled, it raises the question—how much more do we really need to know before changing our underwater ways?

Jason Bittel writes the Species Watch column for onEarth. Reposted with permission from our media associate onEarth.

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Photo credit: Sea Shepherd Global

333 Minke Whales Killed by Japanese Fleet

Japan's whaling vessels returned to port with 333 minke whales on Friday after its months-long Antarctic hunt.

The Fisheries Ministry said the whales were killed in the name of science.

"The purpose of this research is to carry out a detailed calculation of the catch limit of minke whales and study the structure and dynamics of the ecological system in the Antarctic Ocean," it said.

Japan plans to hunt nearly 4,000 whales over the next 12 years despite the International Whaling Commission's 1986 moratorium on commercial hunting. The country launched its "scientific whaling" program in 1987 as a loophole to the moratorium.

Reuters noted that Japan's ultimate goal is the resumption of commercial whaling. Japan insists that most whale species are not endangered and that eating whale is part of its culture, even though most Japanese people no longer eat it.

Conservation groups have rebuked the most recent hunt.

"Today Sea Shepherd mourns the loss of these whales," the marine wildlife conservation organization said. "We have called an emergency meeting of the Global Board of Directors in Amsterdam this weekend to review our whale defense strategy in the Southern Ocean, and will release a more detailed statement on Monday morning."

Sea Shepherd's long-running Operation Nemesis campaign has a mission of ending Japan's whaling program. The group is urging governments to "stop making hollow statements of disapproval and start taking action to hold Japan accountable" or the "needless slaughter of marine life will continue."

Kitty Block, the executive vice president of Humane Society International, had similar sentiments.

"There is no robust scientific case for slaughtering whales," Block said. "Commercial whaling in this, or any other disguise, does not meet any pressing human needs and should be relegated to the annals of history."

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Cook Inlet is a designated critical habitat for beluga whales. Photo credit: Flickr

3 Months and Counting: Pipeline Leaks Natural Gas Into Alaska's Cook Inlet

For more than three months, an underwater pipeline has been spewing hundreds of thousands of cubic feet of processed natural gas per day in Alaska's Cook Inlet, possibly threatening critically endangered beluga whales, fish and other wildlife.

The 8-inch pipeline, owned and operated by Hilcorp Alaska, is leaking more than 210,000 cubic feet of gas per day. The gas is 99 percent methane and provides fuel for four platforms in Cook Inlet.

A notice from the U.S. Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA) revealed that Hilcorp knew about the leak as early as December but did not report the leak until Feb. 7 after a helicopter spotted gas bubbling to the surface of the water.

PHMSA said that the natural gas discharge could pose a risk to public safety, the environment and marine mammals and has given Hilcorp until May 1 to permanently repair the line or shut it down.

But conservation groups warn that waiting until May could allow the release of another 16 million cubic feet of gas. Seven groups have submitted a letter to the Trump administration urging for an immediate shutdown of the 52-year-old pipeline.

"This dangerous leak could stop immediately if regulators did their job and shut down this rickety old pipeline," said Miyoko Sakashita, the Center for Biological Diversity oceans program director. "We're disgusted with the Trump administration's lack of concern about this ongoing disaster. Every day the leak continues, this pipeline spews more pollution into Cook Inlet and threatens endangered belugas and other wildlife."

The letter was signed by the Center for Biological Diversity, Friends of the Earth, Natural Resources Defense Council, Defenders of Wildlife, Resisting Environmental Destruction on Indigenous Lands, Greenpeace and the Eyak Preservation Council.

Hilcorp contends that Cook Inlet's heavy ice cover and strong tides has made it too risky for divers to immediately fix the problem and is waiting until at least late March or April for the ice to clear.

The ice cover has also made it impossible to survey the leak's risks to environmental and wildlife. But scientists have already warned that the impact could be disastrous.

"There are three potential impacts that we worry about," Chris Sabine, a chemical oceanographer with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), detailed to InsideClimate News.

First, methane exposure could be harmful to fish, potentially disturbing its main functional systems—respiration, nervous system, blood formation, enzyme activity and others. Secondly, Sabine explained that bacteria metabolizing the methane-saturated water could produce additional carbon dioxide and deplete oxygen levels in the water, creating a hypoxic zone. Lastly, this extra CO2 can cause the water to become more acidic, which can cause shells of some animals to weaken.

Sadie Wright, a NOAA marine mammals specialist, added that the hypoxic zone could impact the food supply for Cook Inlet's estimated 340 belugas.

The the noise coming from the leak could also be a "potential stressor," she said, as excessive noise can cause belugas to abandon their habitat.

"We don't have any idea how loud the leak might be," said Wright.

Not much is known about what is happening under Cook Inlet's icy waters. State regulators only issued a preliminary approval of Hilcorp's sampling and environmental monitoring plan on Tuesday.

So far, aerial surveys of the leaking gas field has not uncovered any injured birds or marine mammals, including beluga whales, state officials reported.

To slow the leak, the company lowered pressure in the affected line on March 4, estimating that leak was reduced to 210,000 to 310,000 cubic feet of gas daily. It again lowered the pressure on Monday and estimated the line is leaking 193,000 to 215,000 cubic feet daily.

As for why Hilcorp hasn't just shut down its line, the company said that an oil spill could occur because the line was once used to carry oil.

Shutting down the pipeline would risk it "taking in water, freezing and potentially rupturing," Lori Nelson, external affairs manager at Hilcorp Alaska, explained last month to Alaska Dispatch News. Nelson also said that the line needs to be kept pressurized or else it could fill with water, allowing residual crude oil to escape from what was previously used as a crude oil pipeline.

The Center for Biological Diversity has sent a notice of intent to sue Hilcorp under the Clean Water Act and the Clean Air Act. Homer, Alaska nonprofit Cook Inletkeeper has sent a similar notice to sue.

"If Hilcorp cannot or will not stop polluting our public resources, then it should have no right to operate in our waters in the first place," Cook Inletkeeper executive director Bob Shavelson wrote in a blog post. "Hilcorp has put forth various excuses why it cannot shut down the leaking pipeline in Cook Inlet's icy conditions—including that water would infiltrate the gas line and other reasons—but the fact remains Hilcorp simply wants to maintain production and profits without interruption."

Photo credit: EPA / Mike Nelson

Kenya Joins Growing Fight Against Plastic Pollution

Kenya just became the latest country to ban plastic bags. According to Environment Cabinet Secretary Judi Wakhungu, "The ministry has banned the use, manufacture and importation of all plastic bags used for commercial and household packaging."

Kenya's ban follows the United Nations' new Clean Seas initiative, which has already inspired 10 governments to address plastic pollution.

Indonesia has pledged to reduce marine waste by 70 percent within the next eight years, and Africa, Rwanda and Morocco have already announced bans on plastic bags, with other countries expected to sign on within a month.

"Kenya should be commended for its environmental leadership," said Erik Solheim, head of UN Environment. "It's a great example that I hope will inspire others, and help drive further commitments to the Clean Seas campaign."

"Kenya is taking decisive action to remove an ugly stain on its outstanding natural beauty," Solheim added. "Plastic waste also causes immeasurable damage to fragile ecosystems—both on land and at sea—and this decision is a major breakthrough in our global effort to turn the tide on plastic."

Recent reports tell of whales suffering and dying after ingesting plastic waste. Including a whale found dead with more than 30 plastic bags in its stomach.

Many marine creatures such as fish, seabirds and turtles are choking on the 8 million metric tons of plastic garbage infesting oceans each year.

According to Douglas Broderick of the UN, "5.25 trillion pieces of plastic are swirling around in the world's seas. Five giant 'patches' of garbage are floating in the world's oceans. They are nearly equivalent to the entire land mass of Indonesia. They're growing. Patches have collected so much trash—mostly plastic—they can be seen from space."

Broderick estimated that at current pollution rates, "there could be more plastic particles than fish in the oceans by 2050."

Kenya's ban, which begins in September, will require sweeping changes to business as usual. Supermarket shoppers, for example, use about 100 million plastic bags annually. Local entrepreneurs are already preparing to sell sustainable alternatives. Watch here:

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90% of Minke Whales Killed in Norway Are Female and 'Almost All' Pregnant

Ninety percent of the minke whales hunted and killed each year in Norwegian waters are female and " almost all" of them are pregnant, according to a documentary aired earlier this month on NRK, a government-owned public broadcasting company.

The documentary, Slaget om kvalen ("Battle of Agony"), shows grisly footage of Norway's whaling industry, including one bloody scene where a fisherman cuts open a whale and removes its fetus.

The release of the documentary has sparked intense outcry from conservation groups in light of Norway's long-standing objection to the International Whaling Commission's (IWC) 1986 ban on commercial whaling.

"Whale hunting is now even more unacceptable," the head of Greenpeace Norway, Truls Gulowsen, told AFP.

"On the one hand because it's in violation of an international ban but also because ... it's indefensible from the point of view of the animal's well-being to hunt them during an advanced stage of gestation."

The estimated present population of minke whales is more than one million.

Norway is the world's top whaling nation, and has a quota to kill 999 minke whales during the 2017 hunting season, up from its quota of 880 whales in 2016.

A 2016 joint report from the Animal Welfare Institute, OceanCare and Pro Wildlife found that in 2014 and 2015, Norway killed more whales than Japan and Iceland combined.

"We have a professional approach and therefore we don't think about it," said Dag Myklebust, the captain and harpoonist on the Norwegian fishing vessel Kato.

He added that the fact that they are pregnant "is a sign of good health," Myklebust added.

An expert told NRK that the killing of pregnant animals is common.

"Lots of slaughtered animals are sent to the slaughterhouse when they are pregnant," said Egil Ole Oen, a veterinarian who specializes in whale hunting.

Norway and Iceland are the only countries that continue to hunt whales despite the IWC's moratorium. Japan also conducts whaling for "research" reasons.

Last year, Japan faced similar scrutiny after its whaling fleet came back with 333 dead minke whales, including 230 that were female and 90 percent of the mature females pregnant.

Animal rights groups remarked that the killing of pregnant whales is especially egregious because it affects the next generation.

"It is horrific to learn that such a high rate of the whales killed in Norway are female and pregnant," OceanCare said in a statement to AFP.

"The whalers are not only killing the current but also part of the next generation of whales," it added.

Astrid Fuchs, the program lead at Whale and Dolphin Conservation said that "the revelations of the film are absolutely shocking."

"Given the fact that a vast majority of the whales is pregnant, the minister's proposed doubling of the quota would mean close to 4,000 whales could be slaughtered each year in European waters," Fuchs noted about Norway's fisheries minister, Per Sandberg, who proposed to double the number of minke whales killed to nearly 2,000 and sell the meat to the European Union.

So how can you help stop this gruesome practice?

In an email to EcoWatch, Gulowsen of Greenpeace Norway suggested contacting the Norwegian Seafood Council (NSC) about your opposition to the slaughtering of pregnant minke whales. The state-owned NSC is the world's largest generic marketing company for seafood and works to "safeguard" the Norwegian fisheries "positive image"—meaning they probably do not want the negative PR about its whaling industry.

"Although whale products are not exported, the seafood business is part of one large state/private operations, where they are all mutually responsible for each others practices," Gulowsen pointed out.

The Animal Welfare Institute is also urging its supporters to write to Kåre R. Aas, Norway's ambassador to the U.S., "to let him know that you are opposed to his country's continued killing of minke whales" and to "encourage him to support responsible whale watching instead."

Hundreds of Pilot Whales Die in Devastating Mass Stranding in New Zealand

More than 500 volunteers flocked to a remote bay in New Zealand in response to a devastating mass stranding of pilot whales.

Around 416 pilot whales beached near the base of Farewell Spit in Golden Bay overnight, of which 250 to 300 were already dead when the whales were discovered, the Department of Conservation announced in a Feb. 10 media release.

A witness told The Washington Post that the whales were "crying and sighing" as they lay stranded on the beach.

Friday's incident was the third largest whale stranding ever recorded in New Zealand and the largest known whale stranding in the country since 1985, when 450 were stranded in Auckland, Reuters reported.

Rescuers tried to refloat the remaining cetaceans during high tide on Friday morning but only had partial success. Around 50 whales had swum out of the bay but 80 to 90 had re-stranded on the beach by the afternoon.

Andrew Lamason, Department of Conservation operations manager for Golden Bay, told The Guardian it was common for whales involved in a mass stranding to re-beach themselves because they are very social animals who like to stay in close proximity to their pod.

"We are trying to swim the whales out to sea and guide them but they don't really take directions, they go where they want to go. Unless they get a couple of strong leaders who decide to head out to sea, the remaining whales will try and keep with their pod on the beach," he said.

The rescue team has been pouring water over the re-stranded whales to try and keep them cool before floating them out at the next high tide. Children also sang songs to keep the creatures calm.

"I've never seen anything like this," a volunteer named Petra Dubois told Stuff.co.nz. "It's just so unbelievably sad to see all these bodies; so many lives gone and so many that might not survive. Just so devastating, I really don't know what to say."

Lamason explained to The Guardian that many volunteers were working around the clock in chilly temperatures and mentally traumatic conditions.

"It is cold, it's wet and some of us have been in and out of the water for nine hours now. We can only cope with robust volunteers, not ones that are going to break down, which happens quite often," he said.

According to RadioNZ, the effort to refloat the remaining 80 to 90 whales will resume Saturday. The whales will be kept comfortable and can survive for several days as long as they are kept cool and wet.

The cause of the stranding is unclear. However, Lamason said that the bay was prone to mass strandings due to the area's shallow waters that can confuse the mammals' sonar and find it difficult to get back out.

New Zealand is known to have the highest rate of whale strandings in the world, according to the marine environmental organization Project Jonah.

Still, the latest event came as "a shock," Project Jonah manager Darren Grover told Reuters.

In an interview with RadioNZ, Otago University zoologist Liz Slooten ruled out seismic blasting as a cause since the last survey in the area was done nearly a week ago. The blasting of seismic testing can potentially disorientate whales.

She added that the cause of the latest mysterious stranding may never be known.

According to Project Jonah, "strandings are complex events and there are many reasons why dolphins and whales may strand. In most cases the exact cause is unknown but any one of the following factors, or a combination of them, can be the cause."

Pilot whales are not considered to be endangered even though they are depleted in some areas. The American Cetacean Society stated, "There are likely to be almost a million long-finned pilot whales and at least 200,000 short-finned pilot whales worldwide."

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