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Watchdog Accuses Trump's NOAA of 'Choosing Extinction' for Right Whales by Hiding Scientific Evidence

Animals
Watchdog Accuses Trump's NOAA of 'Choosing Extinction' for Right Whales by Hiding Scientific Evidence
Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility on Thursday accused NOAA of ignoring its own scientists' findings about the endangerment of the North Atlantic right whale. Lauren Packard / Flickr / CC BY 2.0

By Julia Conley

As the North Atlantic right whale was placed on the International Union for Conservation of Nature's list of critically endangered species Thursday, environmental protection groups accusing the U.S. government of bowing to fishing and fossil fuel industry pressure to downplay the threat and failing to enact common-sense restrictions to protect the animals.


Only 400 right whales are left in existence, and fewer than 250 of them are mature, leading the IUCN to drop its "endangered" classification for the whale and add it to its "critically endangered" Red List.

According to Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER), NOAA has access to extensive science showing the danger in which humans have placed the whales, but internal emails show the agency aimed to put a positive spin on the outlook for the creatures.

Emails from February 2020 show career scientific staff writing that political officials within the agency were "freaked out" at the notion of the press reporting on Dragon, a female right whale who has not been seen in months and is presumed dead.

"But they'd be all over another calf sighting," NOAA Fisheries biologist Tim Cole wrote.

"Ah, I see. They only want to share the good news, not the bad," replied Allison Henry, another scientist at the agency.

According to PEER, 100% of North Atlantic right whale fatalities are caused by boats striking them and by entanglements in fishing gear.

"The North Atlantic right whale is the world's first large whale species nearing extinction," said PEER science policy director Kyla Bennett. "Its extinction is entirely preventable. NOAA has powerful tools to protect the North Atlantic right whale, but it is choosing not to use them. In this case, NOAA is choosing extinction."

In addition to fishing boats and 900,000 vertical lines that right whales are forced to navigate during lobster season, the whales' wellbeing is threatened by seismic airgun blasts conducted by oil and gas companies for offshore drilling.

In March, Democracy Forward called on the inspector general of the U.S. Commerce Department to investigate whether political appointees at NOAA had altered career scientists' proposed conservation measures regarding the blasts.

Reports that appointees modified scientists' warnings "raise troubling questions about whether political appointees at NOAA violated federal law and NOAA's own Administrative Order on Scientific Integrity, which mandates that in 'no circumstance may any NOAA official ask or direct Federal scientists or other NOAA employees to suppress or alter scientific findings,'" Democracy Forward said.

Democracy Forward demanded an investigation by the U.S. Commerce Department's inspector general.

"In reportedly bowing to political pressure and altering required scientific analysis in the policymaking process, NOAA appointees may have violated federal law and NOAA's own regulations, and jeopardized the very survival of the North Atlantic right whale," said Democracy Forward senior counsel Michael Martinez at the time. "The Trump administration's practice of injecting politics into the scientific decision-making process risks NOAA's credibility as a fact and science-driven agency. An investigation is warranted."

PEER called for a similar probe in 2019 when the National Marine Fisheries Service reportedly omitted scientific research about endangerment in its reporting on the right whale, but neither investigation has been completed.

NOAA has also failed to aggressively restrict the activities of fishing boats even when the agency is aware of right whales in a particular offshore area, PEER said Thursday.

In June, one of just 10 calves born this season was struck by a boat and killed off the coast of New Jersey, where officials had not issued a speed warning to vessels. Warnings are only issued when at least three right whales are known to be in an area.

"At the very least, NOAA must alert vessels when any right whale is in the area of shipping lanes," Bennett said.

The effects of NOAA's negligence on right whales has been compounded by President Donald Trump's June executive order permitting commercial fishing in the Northeast Canyons and Seamounts Marine National Monument, said the Center for Biological Diversity on Thursday.

"The United States and Canada must do more to protect whales from speeding ships and slow, painful deaths in fishing gear," said Kristen Monsell, legal director of the Center for Biological Diversity's oceans program. "We should be closing more right whale habitat to fishing, speeding the transition to ropeless gear and requiring large ships to slow down. These are some common-sense measures both U.S. and Canadian officials should adopt to save these beautiful whales."

Reposted with permission from Common Dreams.

A net-casting ogre-faced spider. CBG Photography Group, Centre for Biodiversity Genomics / CC BY-SA 3.0

Just in time for Halloween, scientists at Cornell University have published some frightening research, especially if you're an insect!

The ghoulishly named ogre-faced spider can "hear" with its legs and use that ability to catch insects flying behind it, the study published in Current Biology Thursday concluded.

"Spiders are sensitive to airborne sound," Cornell professor emeritus Dr. Charles Walcott, who was not involved with the study, told the Cornell Chronicle. "That's the big message really."

The net-casting, ogre-faced spider (Deinopis spinosa) has a unique hunting strategy, as study coauthor Cornell University postdoctoral researcher Jay Stafstrom explained in a video.

They hunt only at night using a special kind of web: an A-shaped frame made from non-sticky silk that supports a fuzzy rectangle that they hold with their front forelegs and use to trap prey.

They do this in two ways. In a maneuver called a "forward strike," they pounce down on prey moving beneath them on the ground. This is enabled by their large eyes — the biggest of any spider. These eyes give them 2,000 times the night vision that we have, Science explained.

But the spiders can also perform a move called the "backward strike," Stafstrom explained, in which they reach their legs behind them and catch insects flying through the air.

"So here comes a flying bug and somehow the spider gets information on the sound direction and its distance. The spiders time the 200-millisecond leap if the fly is within its capture zone – much like an over-the-shoulder catch. The spider gets its prey. They're accurate," coauthor Ronald Hoy, the D & D Joslovitz Merksamer Professor in the Department of Neurobiology and Behavior in the College of Arts and Sciences, told the Cornell Chronicle.

What the researchers wanted to understand was how the spiders could tell what was moving behind them when they have no ears.

It isn't a question of peripheral vision. In a 2016 study, the same team blindfolded the spiders and sent them out to hunt, Science explained. This prevented the spiders from making their forward strikes, but they were still able to catch prey using the backwards strike. The researchers thought the spiders were "hearing" their prey with the sensors on the tips of their legs. All spiders have these sensors, but scientists had previously thought they were only able to detect vibrations through surfaces, not sounds in the air.

To test how well the ogre-faced spiders could actually hear, the researchers conducted a two-part experiment.

First, they inserted electrodes into removed spider legs and into the brains of intact spiders. They put the spiders and the legs into a vibration-proof booth and played sounds from two meters (approximately 6.5 feet) away. The spiders and the legs responded to sounds from 100 hertz to 10,000 hertz.

Next, they played the five sounds that had triggered the biggest response to 25 spiders in the wild and 51 spiders in the lab. More than half the spiders did the "backward strike" move when they heard sounds that have a lower frequency similar to insect wing beats. When the higher frequency sounds were played, the spiders did not move. This suggests the higher frequencies may mimic the sounds of predators like birds.

University of Cincinnati spider behavioral ecologist George Uetz told Science that the results were a "surprise" that indicated science has much to learn about spiders as a whole. Because all spiders have these receptors on their legs, it is possible that all spiders can hear. This theory was first put forward by Walcott 60 years ago, but was dismissed at the time, according to the Cornell Chronicle. But studies of other spiders have turned up further evidence since. A 2016 study found that a kind of jumping spider can pick up sonic vibrations in the air.

"We don't know diddly about spiders," Uetz told Science. "They are much more complex than people ever thought they were."

Learning more provides scientists with an opportunity to study their sensory abilities in order to improve technology like bio-sensors, directional microphones and visual processing algorithms, Stafstrom told CNN.

Hoy agreed.

"The point is any understudied, underappreciated group has fascinating lives, even a yucky spider, and we can learn something from it," he told CNN.

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