The guide is just one step in resolving conflicts between ships
and whales, but it seems like a worthwhile move. If people who
control the ships are willing to put scientific information into
action, they could avoid cumbersome regulations along with
unintended consequences that sometimes arise from political
“The purpose of this guide is to help mariners reduce their risk
of striking and killing, or seriously injuring a cetacean (whale,
dolphin or porpoise),” writes researcher Lance Barrett-Lennard in a
preface to the guide. “It includes descriptions of frequently
encountered whales and dolphins, locations along the coast where
cetacean densities are highest, and simple measures they can take
to greatly reduce their risk of striking a whale, dolphin or
“I have yet to meet a mariner who doesn’t feel terrible if his
or her ship hits a cetacean … so I know the motivation to reduce
strikes is there,” Lance continued. “The key is knowing how to do
it. To that end, I hope that bridge crews on vessels transiting
through B.C. coastal waters will use the information in this guide
to reduce the risk of hitting a whale on their watch.”
Humpback whales have been making the news for their organized
“rescues” — seemingly heroic efforts in which the humpbacks have
intervened in attacks by killer whales against other marine
The humpbacks have not only protected their own calves but they
have gone well out of their way to protect gray whales, minke
whales, Dall’s porpoises, Steller sea lions, California sea lions,
Weddell seals, crabeater seals, harbor seals, northern elephant
seals and even ocean sunfish, according to researchers.
The latest incident, in which humpbacks reportedly intervened in
a killer whale attack on a Steller sea lion, is said to be the
first reported incident in the Salish Sea. The incident took place
last week off Sooke, BC, about 20 miles west of Victoria.
“What we witnessed was pure aggression,” Capt. Russ Nicks of BC
Whale Watch Tours of Victoria said in a
news release from Pacific Whale Watch Association. “We had four
humpbacks trumpeting, rolling on their sides, flukes up in the air
“The killer whales split many times into two groups, with one
that appeared to try to draw the humpbacks away from the sea lion.
The other group would go in for the attack while the humpbacks were
safely away – but then they’d get in the middle of it again,
fighting the orcas off. It was amazing to watch.”
These killer whales were of the transient variety, a subspecies
of killer whales that eats marine mammals, as opposed to the
resident orcas that each fish.
The same attack and rescue was viewed by naturalist Alethea
Leddy of Port Angeles Whale Watch Company, as reported in the news
“We got there in time to see some crazy surface activity, with
humpback whales splashing in the distance along with orcas. Then
two humpbacks surfaced next to us trumpeting, and the next thing we
know there were four humpbacks, possibly six, all defending the sea
“The water boiled all around as the orcas tried to separate the
sea lion from the humpbacks. It was a wild scene, with the
humpbacks even circling the sea lion trying to keep him safe while
he frantically struggled to get his breath.
“The anxiety of the humpbacks was palpable, and they took turns
diving and slashing at the orcas. This life-and-death drama went on
and on until the four transient orcas, known as the T100 family,
moved off in the distance. As they did, we saw the sea lion appear
next to the humpbacks being guarded and escorted in the opposite
“This was an unbelievable encounter. Hats off to our courageous
humpbacks and best wishes to our little Steller sea lion, survivor
for another day!”
In July, 14 marine mammal experts reported on 115 apparent
rescue efforts by humpback whales during what appeared to be killer
whale attacks on other species of marine mammals. Their report
appeared in the journal Marine
Reasons for these rescue efforts are open to much speculation,
but the researchers noted that evidence is mounting in favor of a
belief that killer whales that eat marine mammals, called MEKW,
attack young humpback whales more often than commonly reported.
“Clearly, MEKW predation, even if rarely observed and targeting
mainly calves and subadults, represents a threat to humpbacks that
is persistent, widespread, and perhaps increasing,” the report
states. “As such, humpbacks could be expected to show some specific
anti-predator behaviors, and indeed some have been suggested. Ford
and Reeves (2008) summarized the defensive capabilities of baleen
whales faced with killer whale attack, and they identified two
general categories of response.
“Balaenopterid rorquals (including fin whales and minke whales)
use their high speed and hydrodynamic body shape to outrun killer
whales and were classified as flight species. The
generally more rotund and slower-swimming species — right whales,
bowhead whales, gray whales and humpback whales — apparently rely
on their bulk and powerful, oversized appendages (tail and
flippers) to ward off attackers. This group was categorized as
Of course, it is one thing for the humpbacks and other baleen
whales to take a defensive posture. It is quite another thing for
them to go after killer whales when another species of marine
mammal is under attack.
In the report, humpbacks initiated encounters with MEKWs 58
percent of the time, while the killer whales initiated contact 42
percent of the time — at least for those cases when the killer
whale ecotype could be identified as marine mammals eaters. On a
few occasions when known fish-eating killer whales were involved,
the encounter was relatively benign, the researchers said.
The video, shot by BBC filmmakers, show a pair of humpback
whales attempting to prevent a group of orcas from killing a gray
whale calf. In this case, the effort was unsuccessful.
When humpbacks went to the rescue of other marine mammals, it
appears that the rescuers were generally a mixture of males and
females, according to the report. Humpback postures, whether
attacking or defending, involved slapping their flukes on the
surface, slashing from side to side, bellowing, persuing and
flipper slapping. The length of battles reported ranged from 15
minutes to seven hours. In the end, the prey that was at the center
of the battles was killed 83 percent of the time — at least for
those cases when the outcome was known.
“The humpback whale is, to our knowledge, the only cetacean that
deliberately approaches attacking MEKWs and can drive them off,
although southern right whales may also group together to fend off
MEKWs attacking other right whales,” the researchers stated, adding
that humpbacks’ powerful flippers covered in sharp barnacles can
shred the flesh of their opponents.
When in hunting mode, transient killer whales are generally
silent, not making much noise. Once an attack begins, they become
more vocal, perhaps to coordinate the attack. It appears that
humpbacks respond to killer whale vocalizations from distances well
out of sight of the attack.
The reasons the humpbacks would get in a fight with killer
whales to save another species are listed in three categories:
Kin selection: Protecting an offspring or
closely related animal.
Reciprocity: Protecting unrelated animals,
generally as part of a social organization.
Altruism: Benefitting another animal at some
cost to the one taking action.
It is possible, the researchers conclude, that humpbacks could
be improving their individual and group fitness to fend off attacks
against their own by protecting other species. One idea is that the
killer whales may think twice about attacking a humpback of any
“We suggest,” they write, “that humpbacks providing benefits to
other potential prey species, even if unintentional, could be a
focus of future research into possible genetic or cultural drivers
of interspecific altruism.”
After more than a decade of losing court battles, the U.S. Navy
still refuses to fully embrace the idea that whales and other sea
creatures should be protected during Navy training exercises, says
Joel Reynolds, senior attorney for the Natural Resources Defense
But the blame cannot be placed entirely on the Navy, Joel says
in a blog entry he wrote for the
“In fact, much of the blame lies with the government regulatory
agency whose mandate it is to protect our oceans,” he writes. “It
lies with the failure of the National Marine Fisheries Service to
do its job.”
Joel has been at the forefront of the legal effort to get the
Navy to change its ways — and the effort has been successful to a
large degree. At least we now have a much greater understanding
about the effects of sonar on whales and other marine animals.
Legal challenges forced the Navy to acknowledge that it didn’t
really know what damage its activities were doing to the oceans.
The result was to develop studies, which turned out to provide some
Joel’s latest frustration comes this week in the wake of new
authorizations by NMFS to sanction Navy activities found to be
unacceptable by the U.S. Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals.
Joel’s life story and that of Ken Balcomb, who I call the dean
of killer whales in Puget Sound, are described in intriguing detail
in the book “War of the Whales” by Joshua Horwitz. The book
documents their personal and legal battles to hold the Navy
accountable for its impacts on whales.
The Navy would never have found itself on the losing side of
these sonar lawsuits if the National Marine Fisheries Service
(sometimes called NOAA Fisheries) had been doing its
congressionally mandated job of protecting marine mammals, Joel
says. For the agency, that would mean approving “take” permits only
when the Navy has done its best to reduce the risk of injury during
training exercises — which everyone agrees are important.
“Rather than exercising the oversight required by law, the
Service has chosen in effect to join the Navy’s team, acquiescing
in the omission of common-sense safeguards recommended even by its
own scientific experts,” Joel writes in his latest blog post.
After reading his post, I asked Joel by phone yesterday what it
would take to get the National Marine Fisheries Service on the
“I don’t have an easy answer for that,” Joel told me, noting
that he recently held a related discussion with Sylvia
Earle, renowned oceanographer and formerly chief scientist for
the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
“She is very familiar with the problems of NMFS,” Joel said.
“She said NMFS is an agency responsible for killing fish.”
That said, the agency has a lot of dedicated researchers and
experts who know what needs to be done, especially at the regional
level. But they are hamstrung by federal politics and by budget
“The Pentagon is essentially able to dictate every part of
government,” Joel said. “The financial implications are very real,
because the military is so powerful. If NMFS gives them trouble,
they call their contacts on Capitol Hill, and pressure is brought
The Navy has spent decades operating at its own discretion
throughout the world’s oceans. The notion that another federal
agency or some upstart environmental groups should limit its
activities just doesn’t sit well among established Navy
The problem is so entrenched in government that any resolution
“is going to take some focused attention under the next
administration,” according to Joel.
If Hillary Clinton is elected, Joel said he might look to John
Podesta to untangle the mess. Podesta served as chief of staff
under President Bill Clinton and was instrumental in opening up
long-held but arguably unnecessary government secrets. He currently
serves as chairman of Hillary Clinton’s campaign.
“John Podesta understands these things,” Joel told me. “If we
can’t get him (to do something), we can’t get anyone. I think it
would take a reorganization. The way NMFS is set up, they are in
the business of authorizing ‘take’ instead of issuing permits based
on the protections that are needed.”
Joel wasn’t clear how a regulatory agency might be organized to
hold its own against the Navy, but the idea should be on the table,
he said. Until then, the NRDC and other environmental groups will
continue to battle in the courts, where judges are able to use some
Meanwhile, NOAA has developed an “Ocean Noise Strategy
Roadmap,” which promises to find ways to control harmful
man-made noise. The roadmap is based, in part, on scientific
studies about the hearing capabilities of marine mammals. Review my
Water Ways post on the “draft guidance”
Water Ways, March 26, 2016.
These steps have been encouraging — at least until this week
when NMFS issued
letters of authorization for the Navy to keep operating under
its 2012 plan, which the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals had
declared a failure to meet requirements for the “least practicable
adverse impact.” (Read
The agency chose to move ahead because the court had not yet
issued its mandate — a formal direction to a lower court — by the
time the letters of authorization were issued.
“The Navy has a robust and practicable monitoring and mitigation
program that we believe is very effective in reducing the
likelihood of injury,” according to an
explanation from NMFS.
Check out Ramona Young-Grindle’s story about this latest finding
Courthouse News, which includes these further comments from
“We are astonished to see an LOA issued in the wake of the court
of appeals’ decision that the LFA (low frequency active sonar)
permit is illegal. NMFS is entrusted under federal law to enforce
the Marine Mammal Protection Act for the benefit of marine mammals
— not for the convenience of the Navy. This capitulation to the
Navy’s request to continue ‘business as usual’ under a permit
determined by a federal court to be illegal is outrageous.”
After 43 years and some legal prodding, the United States is
preparing to use its economic and political power to protect
whales, dolphins and other marine mammals around the world.
On Monday, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration
is scheduled to
publish regulations that will set up a system to ban imports of
seafood from any country that fails to control the killing of
marine mammals in its fishing industry.
To avoid a ban, foreign controls must be as effective as
standards adopted by the United States to reduce the incidental
death and injury to marine mammals in the U.S. fishing industry.
Harvesting nations that wish to continue selling fish and fish
products to U.S. markets will have five years to implement their
marine mammal protection programs, if they have not already done
When it was first approved by Congress in 1972, the Marine
Mammal Protection Act included provisions that would ban imports of
fish caught in commercial fisheries where the “bycatch” of marine
mammals exceeded U.S. standards. But the law was largely ignored
until environmental groups filed a lawsuit against NOAA two years
ago. The lawsuit was eventually settled, with NOAA agreeing to
approve new rules by August of this year.
NOAA estimates that 650,000 marine mammals are killed each year
in fishing operations. Meanwhile, U.S. consumers obtain 94 percent
of their seafood from a growing import market valued at $33 billion
“The new regulations will force countries to meet U.S.
conservation standards if they want access to the U.S. market,
saving thousands of whales and dolphins from dying on hooks and in
fishing nets around the world,” said Sarah Uhlemann, international
program director for the Center for Biological Diversity. “The U.S.
government has finally recognized that all seafood consumed in the
United States must be ‘dolphin-safe.’”
Comments were made in a
joint news release from the Center for Biological Diversity,
the Natural Resources Defense Council and the Turtle Island
Restoration Network — the three groups that brought the
The new regulatory program on imports calls on NOAA Fisheries to
issue a “comparability finding” after harvesting nations
demonstrate that they have a regulatory program that meets U.S.
standards for protecting marine mammals. Each program must prohibit
the incidental killing or serious injury to marine mammals in all
fisheries, estimate numbers of marine mammals on their fishing
grounds and find ways to reduce harm if established limits are
Over the next year, the regulations call for NOAA Fisheries to
request information on marine mammal bycatch from countries that
export to the U.S. On a list of foreign fisheries, each fishery
will be classified either as “export” or “exempt.” Exempt fisheries
are determined to have a remote chance of killing marine mammals,
so they are not required to have a regulatory protection program.
Those fisheries likely to impact marine mammals and those lacking
information about impacts are placed in the export category. All
fisheries must prohibit intentional killing of marine mammals to
At the end of the five-year period, NOAA Fisheries will publish
a list of fisheries that will not receive a comparability finding
along with a list of fish banned from import. Those countries will
receive information about why they were denied certification and
are eligible to reapply at any time. Other details are outlined in
fact sheet from NOAA Fisheries.
The U.S. Marine Mammal Commission, a group appointed by the
president to advise the government on the Marine Mammal Protection
Act, welcomed the long-overdue regulations to protect marine
mammals throughout the world, but said the five-year implementation
period is too long. See
comments, Nov. 9, 2015. (PDF 1.4 mb):
“Inasmuch as this is an ongoing, long-standing statutory
requirement, the Commission does not see a legal basis for
deferring implementation. To the extent that any delay can be
countenanced, it should be kept to the absolute minimum necessary
to secure the required information from exporting countries.
“The Commission is concerned that the proposed delay would
result in at least another six years during which seafood could
continue to be imported into and sold in the United States, despite
unacceptably high levels of marine mammal bycatch, unbeknownst to
U.S. consumers, and during which U.S. fleets would face unfair
competition from foreign fleets with little or no accountability to
follow comparable marine mammal conservation measures.”
In 1988, while the U.S. was developing new fishing standards to
protect marine mammals, U.S. fishermen were required to report the
type of gear they were using and any incidental catch of marine
mammals, the Marine Mammal Commission noted. Fishermen also were
required to allow observers on their boats while the agency
developed stock assessments and new rules to protect various
species of marine mammals. Those kinds of interim measures should
be required of foreign fleets as well, the commission said.
Among its many comments when the rule was first proposed last
year, the commission criticized the plan for placing too much
burden on NOAA Fisheries to gather the information, rather than
requiring the importing countries to document their protections for
“The Commission further recommends that the final rule clearly
specify that nations be issued a CF only if they meet the U.S.
standards, rather than be issued a CF unless it is shown that they
do not meet the applicable requirements.”
As far as I can tell, the final rule failed to incorporate most
of the commission’s suggestions. Still, using the economic and
political power of the U.S. to protect marine mammals around the
world is a considerable leap.
While the new regulations are expected to level the playing
field for U.S. fishermen who must comply with marine mammal
protections, we have yet to see the full response from other
countries. At some point, a ban on U.S. imports is likely to
trigger a challenge based on existing international trade
agreements. I haven’t seen much written about the legal
implications of the new marine-mammal-protection rules, but we have
seen what can happen. Review the article by Mark J. Robertson about
“dolphin-safe” tuna rules in a report for the
International Centre for Trade and Sustainable Development.
On Thursday, it appears the transient killer whales started the
day in Poulsbo’s Liberty Bay, passed by Illahee and went out Rich
Passage about 10 a.m. I heard from researcher Mark Sears that they
had spent the day traveling around Vashon Island, ending up at 8
p.m. at the south end of Bainbridge Island. Check out my story in
today’s Kitsap Sun for a few more details.
I’ve been hearing about transient killer whales in Puget Sound
all year. Dozens of these seal-eating orcas have been sighted in
small groups here and there throughout the region. Check out
Network’s Archives for reports made to that organization.
Transients have come and gone quickly from Sinclair Inlet near
Bremerton a few times this year. But, as far as I know, yesterday
was the first time since 2004 that they made it all the way into
By the way, the last report we had last night was at 7:30 in
Ostrich Bay, but an observer reported them at 9:20 p.m. on the west
side of Dyes Inlet and posted a comment on the story. (Appreciation
goes to “rgdimages#217099.”)
Howie informed me this morning that a group of four transients
was seen coming out of Liberty Bay near Poulsbo at 6:45 a.m. We’ll
try to report whether those are the same animals as the ones in
Dyes Inlet and where they go next. To report to Orca Network, one
can send an e-mail, firstname.lastname@example.org, or call (866)
It seems to be a big year for the transients. Why this is
happening is open to speculation, which is always risky, but I
appreciate Ken’s willingness to think out loud sometimes and kick a
few ideas around. I mean, if scientists are unable to come up with
hypotheses, there is nothing to test for.
So one possible explanation is that transients are here because
residents are somewhere else. Residents may be somewhere else
because there aren’t many salmon here right now. On the other hand,
maybe seals and/or sea lions are finding enough to eat, and
transients are finding success in hunting the smaller marine
This whole notion raises all kinds of questions for me, and I’ll
try to explore these ideas in future stories. For example, if there
are fish for seals and sea lions, why aren’t the resident killer
whales eating them? Maybe the smaller marine mammals are
concentrating on smaller fish? If fish are in short supply, will
the population of seals and sea lions crash, or will these animals
go somewhere else, too? And, given the cyclic nature of salmon
populations, what is happening to the entire food chain — from the
forage fish that salmon and seals eat up to the largest predators,
the killer whales?