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A new subspecies of fin whale, the second-largest species on Earth after the blue whale, has been discovered by scientists in the Pacific Ocean.
Fin whales are the second largest species of whale, sleek and streamlined in shape, and can be distinguished by their asymmetrical head coloration. The left lower jaw is mostly dark while the right jaw is mostly white. North Pacific fin whale, NOAA Fisheries / Paula Olson
By Jennie Gosché
In late 2019, before the world was completely upended by the COVID-19 pandemic, I was presented a last-minute chance to photograph polar bears outside one of the northernmost villages in the United States — Kaktovik, Alaska. It was an opportunity I couldn't refuse, and as the COVID-19 pandemic now stretches into summer 2020, I'm grateful I accepted.
Polar bears adorn the sign leading into Kaktovik. Jennie Gosché<p>Kaktovik is an Inupiat native village of around 250 people on the coast of the Arctic Ocean, located on barrier islands at the edge of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. My first trip there took place in September 2016, and I traveled with the purpose to photograph the <a href="https://www.usgs.gov/news/southern-beaufort-sea-polar-bear-population-declined-2000s#:~:text=The%20polar%20bear%20was%20listed,ice%20loss%20on%20their%20populations." target="_blank">threatened Southern Beaufort Sea polar bear population</a>. The coastal region of the Arctic Refuge in fall is a special place to photograph these magnificent animals, as they congregate on dirt and sand spits of land waiting for the winter ice of the Beaufort Sea to make its way to the Alaska shore.</p><p>During the late summer and early fall, Inupiat boat owners from Kaktovik guide "tourist" photographers out to view polar bears from a safe distance in the placid lagoon adjacent to the raging waves of the Beaufort Sea. I joined one such group of photographers led by <a href="https://hughrosephotography.com/" target="_blank">Hugh Rose</a>, a professional photographer and geologist who lives in Fairbanks, and we took a short charter flight from Deadhorse to Kaktovik, landing in a morning snowstorm. But by afternoon, the sun was out and we had three and a half days of sunshine that combined with the ice and snow to create great conditions in which to photograph polar bears.</p>
The welcome sign at the Waldo Arms Hotel. Jeff Stamer / www.firefallphotography.com<p>We were out in the lagoon twice a day, breaking only for lunch at our hotel, the modest but welcoming <a href="http://www.waldoarmshotel.net/" target="_blank">Waldo Arms Hotel</a> owned by Walt "Waldo" Audi and Merlyn Trainer — one of only two options for places to stay in Kaktovik when visiting. The boat guides are skilled, and they have to be, because knowledge and awareness of depths in the lagoon is critical to prevent a boat from getting stuck in shallow water.</p>
Polar bear viewing is done by boat for the safety of both people and polar bears. Jennie Gosché<p>This trip we were in a boat with a heated cabin, a perk since we were there later in the season. Our boat driver, however, told us that at that very same time the previous year, the lagoon was completely frozen over. He shared this as we floated on the lagoon in open water, though ice was visible in places and we occasionally heard pieces rubbing against the hull of the metal boat.</p><p>____________________________________________________________________________________________________________</p><p>With rapidly rising temperatures, <a href="http://forestry.alaska.gov/Assets/pdfs/firestats/2019%20Alaska%20Fire%20Statistics.pdf" target="_blank">increases in wildfires</a>, thawing permafrost, receding glaciers, <a href="https://www.alaskapublic.org/2019/11/21/new-report-sheds-more-light-on-climate-change-impacts-to-alaska-native-villages/" target="_blank">eroding coastlines</a> and disappearing sea ice, <a href="https://www.cjr.org/special_report/whats-become-of-arctic.php" target="_blank">Alaska and the Arctic are on the front lines of climate change</a>. It has hit Alaska's rural communities and <a href="https://www.alaskapublic.org/2019/11/21/new-report-sheds-more-light-on-climate-change-impacts-to-alaska-native-villages/" target="_blank">Alaska Native villages especially hard</a>, including villages like <a href="https://www.mercurynews.com/2019/11/25/changes-in-climate-make-alaskas-traditional-ice-cellars-unreliable/" target="_blank">Kaktovik</a>. Warming waters and the disappearing Arctic ice cap are also impacting ocean life, from plankton to <a href="https://www.ktuu.com/content/news/Polar-bears-face-swimming-to-land-or-ecological-trap-as-sea-ice-diminishes-567243261.html" target="_blank">polar bears</a> to whales. And the decline in sea ice is making it <a href="https://nsidc.org/cryosphere/seaice/environment/indigenous_impacts.html" target="_blank">increasingly unsafe for humans and wildlife to travel across it</a> to hunt marine mammals like seals, walrus and bowhead whales.</p>
Coastal erosion is causing permafrost to thaw and break off, here along the Arctic coastal plain in the Teshekpuk Lake Special Area of the National Petroleum Reserve - Alaska. Brandt Meixell, U.S.Geological Survey<p>The Inupiat are primarily subsistence hunters and whalers, harvesting whales each summer (in addition to caribou and other wildlife), the meat from which is shared by the entire village. It is a staple of their diet and has been for thousands of years, but as temperatures warm, the lack of ice combined with changes in whale migration patterns and timing could make hunting progressively more difficult.</p><p>The Inupiat <a href="https://www.fws.gov/refuge/arctic/pbcommunity.html" target="_blank">share their whale meat with the polar bears</a>, something they have done for many years. This gesture provides much needed food for polar bears, especially as they spend longer periods of time on land due to the receding sea ice. When I visited Kaktovik in 2016, my most memorable photo is of a cub on top of whale bones, shaking what looks like animal skin in its mouth.</p>
Bears have learned to scavenge whale carcasses left over from successful whaling hunts. Jennie Gosché<p>As I returned to the village in late 2019, however, they had moved the bone pile away from the lagoon to an area off-limits to tourists. I was told the bone pile now only stays on land for a short time, and then the bones are pushed into the ocean. Eventually, this change could affect the overall health of the Southern Beaufort Sea polar bears, as many of them increasingly den on land in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and utilize the shared whale meat for sustenance during the summer and early fall before they enter their maternal birthing dens in November.<br>____________________________________________________________________________________________________________</p>
Oil production facilities dominate the region around Prudhoe Bay, to the West of the Arctic Refuge. Florian Schulz / www.florianschulz.org<p>Helping to prevent development in the <a href="https://www.alaskawild.org/places-we-protect/arctic-refuge/" target="_blank">Arctic National Wildlife Refuge</a> — a place that supports the greatest variety of plant and animal life in the entire circumpolar north — is very important to me, not least of all because the <a href="https://www.alaskawild.org/wp-content/uploads/2018/01/USGS-wildlife-report-statement-1-26-2018-FINAL.pdf" target="_blank">U.S. government has admitted</a> it simply doesn't have enough information about the impacts of oil and gas development on the coastal plain to protect its wildlife and other values. Oil drilling <a href="https://www.americanprogress.org/issues/green/news/2019/11/20/477495/trumps-energy-policies-put-alaska-climate-crosshairs/" target="_blank">will compound the devastating climate impacts</a> already being felt by villages in the region, increasing carbon emissions, worsening climate pollution and further harming front line communities.</p><p>Especially now, in the midst of an uncertain present and looking forward to an uncertain future, we need to press pause on Arctic Refuge development. Instead of recklessly rushing ahead, more research over extended periods of time is needed so that we can fully understand the potential impact oil drilling will have on local villages, our climate and wildlife like the majestic polar bear.</p>
A mother nurses her cubs. Jennie Gosché<p><em>Jennie Gosché has traveled to the Arctic seven times to photograph polar bears. Having visited the five countries where polar bears are found (Denmark (Greenland), Norway, Russia, the United States and Canada), Kaktovik, Alaska, has become her favorite place to photograph them. Jennie's photography has been exhibited in Washington, D.C., Minneapolis and Maryland. She is a member of Alaska Wilderness League.</em></p>
Every day, sharks suffer from different threats. Up to 100 million sharks disappear every year, due to destructive fishing by humans and the impact of climate breakdown. One-third of the world's known shark species have been listed as "threatened" species by the International Union for Conservation of Nature.
This whale shark smiles for the camera in the warm water off the coast of the Philippines. Greenpeace<p>2. Sharks come in all shapes and sizes, from the tiny lantern sharks, which are about the size of your hand, to giant whale sharks, which are about the same size as a bus.</p>
A former fisherman, now a whale shark guide, hand feeds a whale shark as a tourist takes an underwater photo, Tan-awan, Oslob Cebu. Greenpeace<p>3. Greenland sharks, which live in cold polar waters, hold the record as the oldest known vertebrate animals on the planet. Since they are estimated to live as long as 500 years, there could be some alive today that were born in the Middle Ages. For reference, Leonardo Da Vinci painted the <em>Mona Lisa</em> 500 years ago!</p>
An oceanic whitetip shark in Egypt. Greenpeace<p>4. Mako sharks hold the record for being the most athletic sharks, reaching swimming speeds of over 40 miles per hour! They are also known to have jumped as much as 30 feet out of the water.</p>
A whale shark photographed from above in Cenderawasih Bay National Park, Indonesia. Greenpeace<p>5. The world's biggest sharks also have the widest mouths and eat only tiny ocean plankton, just like the largest whales.</p>
A whale shark in the Philippines. Greenpeace<p>6. Carpet sharks live on the ocean floor and have elaborate patterns to blend in with perfect camouflage. The Tasseled Wobbegong shark takes this to the extreme, with a fringe of feathery 'tassels' around its body.</p>
Lemon shark and other fish underwater at Tuamotus, French Polynesian. Greenpeace<p>8. Hammerhead sharks' elongated heads not only give them super-sense when it comes to electromagnetic detection, but they also have almost 360-degree surround vision.</p>
A Blue Shark (Prionace glauca) near the Azores. Greenpeace<p>9. When sharks are turned upside down, they go into a natural suspended state called tonic immobility.</p>
A shark is seen in the Republic of Palau. Greenpeace<p><span style="background-color: initial;">10. It's dark in the deep sea, so tiny lantern sharks have developed their own way to glow in the dark. It's not yet known if this is to find food, find each other, or help avoid being eaten!</span><br></p>
Grey Reef Sharks in Tahiti. Greenpeace<p>In June 2019, the Greenpeace ship Esperanza went to the North Atlantic to confront the overfishing of sharks. At the same time, Greenpeace International issued a report, <a href="https://www.greenpeace.org/international/publication/22700/sharks-under-attack/" target="_blank">Sharks Under Attack: Overfished and under-protected</a>. It proposed a solution: secure a strong Global Ocean Treaty at the UN.</p>
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New research finds that the western South Atlantic humpback population is well on its way to recovering from the devastating impacts of commercial whaling.
Humpback whale tail in vertical position. Picture taken off northern Bahia, Brazil in September 2009.
L. Candisani / Courtesy Instituto Aqualie<p>Protection measures for humpbacks adopted in the 1960s and the broader moratorium on all commercial whaling adopted by the International Whaling Commission (IWC) in the 1980s appear to have reversed that downward trajectory, however. There has been no hunting of the species since 1972, the report states, which is when the recovery really took off.</p><p>"Once protected, [western South Atlantic] humpback whales have recovered strongly, and their current abundance is close to 25,000 whales," the authors of the study write. That means that the current population is estimated to be at 93 percent of its numbers prior to the exploitation by whalers that nearly extirpated the entire population. The researchers add that there is "a high probability" that the population will be "nearly recovered," meaning that it will have hit 99 percent of its pre-exploitation abundance, by 2030.</p><p>This is a much more successful recovery than previous estimates had allowed for. The IWC completed an assessment of the status of all seven Southern Hemisphere humpback whale populations in 2015, concluding that the western South Atlantic population was at just 30 percent of its pre-whaling numbers. But the researchers behind the present study say that more complete data that have become available on catches, genetics, life-history, population size, struck-and-lost rates, and trends in abundance have allowed them to make a more accurate assessment than the IWC.</p><p>"We were surprised to learn that the population was recovering more quickly than past studies had suggested," study co-author John Best, a University of Washington doctoral student, said in a statement.</p><p>The study's findings are good news, according to the study's lead author, Alex Zerbini of the NOAA Alaska Fisheries Science Center's Marine Mammal Laboratory, because they show that an endangered species can come back from near extinction. "Wildlife populations can recover from exploitation if proper management is applied," Zerbini said in a statement.</p>
50,000 pairs of penguins on Saunders Island.
Jim Wilson.<p>Of course, the recovery of the humpback population will have important implications for their ecosystems, especially in the sub-Antarctic waters of the South Atlantic Ocean where the whales spend the summer and early autumn feeding primarily on Antarctic krill. The humpbacks must compete with other predators, like penguins and seals, for the 1.5 to 2.6 million metric tons of krill they're estimated to consume in a single season at their present numbers. Krill populations could also be impacted by warming ocean waters due to climate change. Understanding the potential effects of predators like humpbacks is therefore crucial to improving management of krill fisheries.</p><p>"The recovery of humpback whales in the western South Atlantic has the potential to modify the structure of the ecosystem in their feeding habitats around South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands," Zerbini said. "For this reason, it is important to continue monitoring abundance and potential shifts in distribution to understand how krill and their predators, including whales, will respond to effects from climate change and whether these effects will impact their populations."</p><p>"The progressive recovery of humpback whales in the sub-Antarctic region studied in this paper is a conservation achievement," Dona Bertarelli, co-chair of the Bertarelli Foundation, which supported the research through the Pew Bertarelli Ocean Legacy Project, said in a statement. "Full protection by the UK of the waters around the South Sandwich Islands is needed to help safeguard these whales' food source, krill, and help ensure this population's full recovery."</p>
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When you have a whale-sized appetite, you need to figure out some pretty sophisticated feeding strategies. They mysteries of how a humpback whale traps so much prey have eluded scientists, until now.
Figure 1. Study sites used to document foraging behaviours of humpback whales in Southeast Alaska (2016–2018). Red dots indicate release sites for juvenile hatchery-reared salmon.
Graphical representations of horizontal pectoral herding by whale in Southeast Alaska. Prey are denoted in yellow. Stage A: Deployment of an upward-spiral bubble-net to corral the prey and establish the first barrier (1). Stage B: Movement of the left pectoral in and out of the water, along the edge of the bubble-net barrier, creating a secondary barrier (2). Stage C: Lunge to engulf the prey.
Kyle Kosma / Royal Society Open Science<p><br>After capturing the phenomenon on video, Kosma and her colleagues analyzed the footage. They found that the humpbacks use their fins in two different ways. In one way, called "horizontal pectoral herding," the whale traps the school with air bubbles and then rises up at an angle and uses the fins to put up a wall and scoop the fish into its mouth. In the second way, called "vertical pectoral herding," the whale again uses bubbles as a trap. Then it comes from directly below the trapped fish and shoots out its fin. The light gray color spooks the salmon, which dart for the darkness of the whale's gaping mouth, as <a href="https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2019/oct/16/humpback-whales-recorded-using-huge-fins-to-forage" target="_blank">The Guardian</a> reported.</p><p>"From a hydrodynamical perspective, holding your fins like that would be a waste of energy," said Kosma, as <a href="https://www.nationalgeographic.com/animals/2019/10/humpback-whales-herd-fins-salmon/" target="_blank">National Geographic</a> reported, "so they must have a good reason for doing this, like catching more fish."</p><p>In the <a href="https://royalsocietypublishing.org/doi/10.1098/rsos.191104" target="_blank">paper</a>, the researchers said that they believe the herding strategy makes feeding more efficient since it brings a lot of fish into a small space. That is vital for a humpback, since swimming with its mouth open is a huge energy expenditure.</p><p>"We believe that the whales are getting more bang for their buck by using pectoral herding techniques," said Kosma, as <a href="https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2019/oct/16/humpback-whales-recorded-using-huge-fins-to-forage" target="_blank">The Guardian</a> reported.</p><p>"The main lesson I take away from this study is that humpbacks are capable of innovation and learning new foraging strategies that may help them to feed more effectively on specific prey species," says <a href="https://www.mersociety.org/team" target="_blank">Christie McMillan</a>, a whale expert at the Marine Education & Research Society in British Columbia, Canada who was not involved in the study, to <a href="https://www.nationalgeographic.com/animals/2019/10/humpback-whales-herd-fins-salmon/" target="_blank">National Geographic</a>.</p><p>"But it is unclear how long it takes whales to learn these new strategies," she added. "And therefore, whether they will be sufficient to allow them to respond effectively to climate change and the depletion of their prey."</p>
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The population of a marine parasite that sometimes worms its way into sushi has increased by 283 times in the last nearly 40 years, a University of Washington (UW)-led study has found.
By Tara Lohan
The conclusion to decades of work to remove a dam on the Middle Fork Nooksack River east of Bellingham, Washington began with a bang yesterday as crews breached the dam with a carefully planned detonation. This explosive denouement is also a beginning.
The History<p>The Middle Fork Nooksack drains glacier-fed headwater streams that run off the icy summit of 10,778-foot Mt. Baker. The Middle Fork joins the North Fork and then the mainstem of the Nooksack River, which travels to Bellingham Bay and Puget Sound. The entire Nooksack watershed stretches 830 square miles across Washington and into British Columbia.</p>
A Plan Comes Together<p>The Middle Fork dam is not a pool dam built for water storage. Much of the time, water flows over the top until dam operators drop a floodgate to divert water to new locations. That water travels about 14 miles through tunnel and pipeline to Mirror Lake, then Anderson Creek, and to Lake Whatcom before finally being delivered to residents' taps.</p><p>Before removing the dam, engineers had to move the water intake 700 feet upstream and situate it at an elevation that still enabled city water withdrawals throughout the year, regardless of flow conditions.</p><p>They also needed to make sure that the rushing water didn't sweep up fish and accidentally send them through the water-supply system.</p><p>"The solution required a fairly complex design in the intake structure, including a fish exit pipe out of that structure to put fish back into the river in a way that meets current environmental permit standards," explains LaCroix.</p>
Project layout for the removal of the Middle Fork Nooksack diversion dam and rebuilding of water intake. City of Bellingham<p>Despite the cost and the work, she says, being able to continue to meet their municipal water obligations while opening up habitat for threatened species has been a win-win.</p><p>"I think there's a lot of benefits to having a dam removal versus fish passage — the main one being that you get a free-flowing river that can be a dynamic ecosystem and change over time," she says. "A static fish ladder just can't provide that same level of ecosystem benefit."</p>
Restoration Success<p>Despite local authorities' championing dam removal on the Middle Fork, the project has largely flown under the radar, overshadowed in the Pacific Northwest by heated discussions about a much larger potential project — removing <a href="https://www.seattletimes.com/seattle-news/feds-reject-removal-of-4-snake-river-dams-in-key-report/" target="_blank">four federal hydroelectric dams on the lower Snake River</a>, a major tributary of the Columbia River.</p><p>Proponents of dam removal there see it as the best chance for recovering threatened salmon populations, including Chinook, which could help starving Southern Resident killer whales. Those dams also provide irrigation water, barge navigation and hydropower, so there's been more pushback against removal efforts.</p><p>Previous dam removals around the country, however, have proved successful at aiding fish recovery and river restoration.</p><p>Most notably the 1999 demolition of <a href="https://therevelator.org/edwards-dam-removal/" target="_blank">Edwards Dam on Maine's Kennebec River</a> restored the annual run of alewives, a type of herring essential to the food web. The fish run has gone from zero to 5 million in the two decades since dam removal. Blueback herring, striped bass, sturgeon and shad have also extended their reach. And the resurgence has brought back osprey, bald eagles and other wildlife, too.</p><p>The overwhelming success of river restoration on the Kennebec helped to spur a nationwide dam removal movement that's now seen 1,200 dams come down since 1999. Last year a record <a href="https://www.americanrivers.org/conservation-resource/a-record-26-states-removed-dams-in-2019/" target="_blank">90 dams</a> were removed in 26 states, including <a href="https://therevelator.org/cleveland-forest-dam-removal/" target="_blank">20 dams in California's Cleveland National Forest</a>.</p>
Spider excavators remove on dam on San Juan Creek in California's Cleveland National Forest. Julie Donnell, USFS<p>The results have been seen in the Pacific Northwest, as well, which boasts the largest dam removal thus far in the country. In 2011 and 2014, the demolition of <a href="https://therevelator.org/elwha-dam-removal/" target="_blank">two dams</a> on Elwha River, which runs through Washington's Olympic National Park, opened up 70 miles of habitat that had been blocked for a century. Scientists have started seeing all five species of salmon native to the river coming back, particularly Chinook and coho. Bull trout, they've observed, have increased in size since the dams were removal.</p>
Benefits on the Middle Fork Nooksack<p>McEwan hopes to see a similar outcome on the Middle Fork.</p><p>Like the Elwha the Middle Fork Nooksack is a relatively pristine river with little development, and dam removal is expected to provide a big boost to fish. The additional miles of spawning habitat are important, but so is the temperature of that water.</p><p>The dam removal will open access to cold upstream waters, which are ideal for salmon and getting harder to come by as climate change warms waters and reduces mountain runoff.</p><p>"This is really great for the climate change resiliency for these species," says McEwan.</p><p>Steelhead will get back 45% of their historic habitat in the river, and scientists expect Chinook populations to increase in abundance by 31%.</p><p>That <em>could</em> help Southern Resident killer whales.</p><p>"When you get to the ocean, it's a little bit of a black box in terms of what you can model and say definitively is going to help, but more fish is better for orcas," McEwan says.</p><p>Upstream habitat will see benefits, too.</p><p>Oceangoing fish like salmon enrich their bodies with carbon and nitrogen while at sea. When they return to their natal rivers to spawn and die, the marine-derived nutrients they carry back upriver become important food and fertilizer for both riverine and terrestrial ecosystems — aiding everything from trees to birds to bears.</p><p>"Once the fish start making their way back, it will start changing the whole ecological system," says Delgado.</p><p><span></span>But any ecological benefit from salmon restoration, either in the ocean or the upper watershed, won't be immediate.<br></p><p>"The population of salmon on the Middle Fork is so low that we expect it's going to take quite a while to rebound," she says. "But the big picture is that what's good for salmon is good for the region — our history and our destiny are intricately intertwined."</p><p>After decades of work, that process of restoration has finally begun.</p>
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