Chinese want Namibia’s sea creatures

September 30, 2016

THE fisheries ministry is mulling over an application by a Chinese company which wants to capture live Namibian marine mammals for export to China for breeding.

Welwitschia Aquatic and Wildlife Scientific Research, a company which is registered in Namibia but owned by a Chinese businessman, is working with the Beijing Ruier Animal Breeding and Promoting entity as its technical support partner.

The Namibian understands that the company has applied to be allowed to export 10 orca (killer whales); 500-1 000 Cape fur seals; 300-500 African penguins; 50-100 Indo-Pacific bottlenose dolphins; 50-100 common bottlenose dolphins; and various sharks.

Fisheries ministry permanent secretary Moses Maurihungirire yesterday confirmed that they had received such an application, and were looking into the matter. Maurihungirire, who admitted that dolphins, penguins and whales were endangered and protected species, also said these species were not plentiful in Namibian waters.

According to documents seen by The Namibian, the company will invest N$300 million it says would be important for the protection and management of these marine resources.

The company also says it will pay the relevant taxes when the animals are exported, adding that the Chinese market for the creatures is “enormous”.

In addition, the company says it will introduce leading scientific technologies, and strictly abide by international and Namibian laws and regulations in managing the marine species.

The proposal is, however, based on several assumptions, among them that Namibia does not have a marine mammal monitoring strategy to enable the country to harvest excess resources.

It also assumes that Namibia has “abundant” seals, penguins, dolphins and orcas, fin whales, pygmy whales and heavyside dolphins.

Namibia’s fish catches, the proposal further assumes, have been on a downward spiral in recent years because the number of dolphins, whales and seals have dramatically increased, and prey on the fish.

It further claimed that the project could be of great importance to Namibia to determine the precise nature of its marine mammals and the impact they have on fisheries.

“We trust that government will provide us with the required licence to engage in this project on a scientific and sustainable basis,” the document reads.

The presence of a Russian vessel – the Ryazanovka manned by a Chinese crew – at Walvis Bay since 18 August has raised red flags.

This vessel was previously involved in the highly controversial capture of orcas along the Russian Pacific coast some years ago. The chairperson of the Namibia Environment and Wildlife Society Frauke Kreitz said the removal of the listed species will not improve Namibia’s fish stocks.

Instead, she said, this will worsen the already bad situation regarding the status of threatened and uncommon species in Namibian waters.

“For ethical and conservation reasons, there has been a move away from acquiring wild-captured animals to obtaining captive-bred animals in zoos and aquaria,” Kreitz said, adding that they regard such capture of the desired species as unnecessary, even in low numbers.

“Capturing wild animals is highly stressful, and is invariably accompanied by a high mortality rate during capture,” she explained.

According to Kreitz, cetaceans (carnivorous, finned, aquatic marine mammals) live in complex social groups, and the indiscriminate removal of individuals could have a serious impact on population dynamics.

A marine specialist, who declined to be named, said Namibia was blessed with a variety of whales and dolphins, some only found in the Benguela Current.

The specialist said if Namibia sells its dolphins to the Russians or Chinese, it would have catastrophic consequences for the cetacean populations as well as coastal tourism, and the reputation of Namibia as a high-value nature tourism destination.

On the presence of the Ryazanovka at Walvis Bay, the specialist said the ship has been heavily modified for this purpose, and its unexplained presence in Namibian ports raises major concerns among coastal residents and tour operators.

Maurihungirire said he cannot disclose what the fisheries ministry will recommend.

“All I can say is that we know what we are doing. The answer we will have for them will be very prudent. We will be responsible, and the public will be happy with our answer,” he noted.

According to Maurihungirire, there have been similar applications in the past, and companies do have a right to apply. He said the company will be informed next week about his ministry’s decision.



September 28, 2016

Three decades of research has confirmed one thing about the appetites of Norway’s killer whales: they love Atlantic herring. The orcas here feed almost exclusively on the small, silver fish – but new drone footage proves that some rogue groups prefer a mammalian meal. Not only do the members of these unique pods hunt seals, but they also share them with each other.

This stunning footage was captured by researchers at the Norwegian Orca Survey (NOS), who are in the midst of a lengthy study that aims to crack open the habits of the region’s seal-eaters.

To be clear, orcas in other parts of the world – namely a population known as the “Transients” or “Bigg’s” in the Pacific – do eat mammals, but in Norway, this behaviour was observed for the first time only in 2014. “We finally got to capture [it],” the team wrote on Facebook. “To our knowledge, such images by drone are unique and may be a first worldwide.”

The NOS team has been watching this particular group for three years, and the emergence of drones has made that effort significantly easier. Unlike noisy research boats, the sky-high tech goes largely unnoticed by passing whales, but drones also have another leg-up on traditional, manned vessels: polarized lenses allow them to see what human eyes cannot.

“Drones enable observations of activities that may occur within the first meters below the surface, yet completely out of the observers’ sight,” write NOS researchers Eve Jourdain and Richard Karoliussen in a guest blog at ZME Science.

This is exactly what happened during the seal hunt. After a typical coastline cruise, the team noticed that the largest male in the orca group had begun to show behaviour associated with hunting (sharp turns, explosive breaths and highly arched dives), but the researchers realised what was going on only when the drone picked up the seal’s presence in the water.

“The five killer whales were persistently circling it, leaving it with no chance to escape towards the haul-outs nearby,” the researchers explain. “For a few minutes, the sea surface remained quiet. The seal may have escaped to the bottom where cavities and rocks offer hiding places. Yet killer whales are skilled top predators able to cooperatively search and handle all prey types and, eventually, the group came up back to the surface with the prey: dead.”

Then came the second surprise: the orcas proceeded to take turns at the carcass. “Food-sharing has been previously highlighted in other killer whale populations,” explain Karoliussen and Jourdain. Among fish-eating killer whales, for example, it’s common for a mother orca to hold salmon in her mouth while her calf has its fill.

Why share food? When each member of the group is fed and healthy, the pod improves its chances of landing prey, producing healthy offspring and defending each other from predators. It’s a common strategy among many terrestrial pack animals, but seeing it play out among orcas is a treat made possible by new drone technology.

“The oldest female of the group could be seen leading the [seal] carcass towards the surface and taking the first bites out,” recalls the team. “She then deliberately dropped the carcass, leaving an opportunity for the rest of the group to join the feast.” The spectacle went on for 15 minutes, during which time, five members of the pod fed from the carcass.

Source: Earth Touch

Coming Soon to SeaWorld, “Respectful” Orca Performances

September 27, 2016

In announcing the construction of a new, massive rollercoaster at SeaWorld San Antonio, the park’s president slipped in an arguably bigger piece of news: the local theme park is brining back its contentious orca program – the one it promised to shutter earlier this year.

“The public perception has changed somewhat,” said San Antonio park President Carl Lum. “So we are too. Our shows will be more respectful and more educational than before.”

SeaWorld dramatically rolled back its orca shows after the 2013 release of Blackfish, a documentary that unveiled an abusive, dark underbelly to the theme park’s orca program. The serious financial blow ignited by the film forced SeaWorld to refocus the park’s mission, putting conservation and education above animal performances.

That is, until now. According to the company’s website describing the forthcoming “natural” orca programs, SeaWorld “will continue to present the whales at scheduled times before a guest audience.”

But, Lum said, “what we’re calling ‘shows’ is different than before. Our audiences will just be watching orcas exhibit natural behavior, like jumping.”

In March, SeaWorld announced it would stop breeding whales in captivityand begin to phase out its orca program, a move applauded by conservationists and orca advocates alike. However, the future of the remaining, “last generation” of orcas living in SeaWorld parks was unclear. Since they have all been raised in captivity, SeaWorld’s orcas wouldn’t last long if released into the wild ocean. But is keeping an arctic whale in a tank in the middle of Texas and requiring it to swim in front of thousands of people truly the most “natural” option?

It appears SeaWorld thinks so. This week’s announcement of the new orca shows is a sign the company intends to profit off the 29 remaining whales until the bitter end.

Lum stressed the new programs will be less “Hollywood” and more organic — but in explaining how, pointed to the most Hollywood-esque change in the works.

“The backdrop and set will look more natural,” Lum said. In a promotional video, SeaWorld shows a pool surrounded by a few boulders and trees. A large photo of the ocean is plastered on the screen behind the pool. The camera fails to pan to the opposite side of the pool, where the onlooking audience will sit —probably the most unnatural part of the equation. When asked why the whales will continue to be paraded in front of crowds of people for their remaining 30 to 50 years, Lum paused, then pivoted to focus on orca trainers’ expertise instead.

The new “respectful” shows are set to kick off in San Antonio by 2019.


Live stream allows for whale watching anytime, any place

September 26, 2016

A live stream has become an internet viewing sensation allowing you to watch for orcas day and night.

The live camera aimed at Killer Whales in British Columbia has become a hot spot on the internet for people looking to spend minutes…or hours just whale watching.

This is at Blackney Pass, which is one of the main travel routes for Northern orca families and you will likely be able to see fins of the whale constantly peaking through the surface of the water.

Now is a peak time for seeing the whales, because there are about 150 that live in the waters during the summer months.

You might also be able to see humpback whales and seals on the camera.


SeaWorld will stop paying dividends

September 20, 2016

Theme park operator SeaWorld says it will soon stop paying its shareholders a quarterly dividend.

SeaWorld, known for its water shows featuring killer whales and dolphins, has been dealing with falling attendance and revenue as people’s feelings about using animals for entertainment has soured. Earlier this year, the Orlando, Florida, company said it won’t breed killer whales and stop using them in shows.

The company said late Monday that it will pay its last dividend on Oct. 7, and the amount it pays will be cut by 52 percent to 10 cents for each share owned, down from 21 cents in the previous quarter. SeaWorld says the money saved on dividends will be used to buy its own shares.

Last month, the company reported that its second-quarter revenue fell 5 percent from the year before, and the number of people entering its parks fell nearly 8 percent to 6 million.

SeaWorld operates 12 parks, including Busch Gardens, Sesame Place and Aquatica.


Ol’ Tom the Orca is back – whale watchers off Brier Island spend time with solitary whale

September 17, 2016

A boat of whale watchers spent 30 to 40 minutes Sept. 17 observing the solitary whale swimming with about 20 or 30 dolphins just off the coast of Brier Island.

Shelley Longeran, research co-ordinator with Brier Island Whale and Seabird Cruises, has seen Ol’ Tom a few times and gets just as worked up every time.

“Oh yes it was exciting – every bit as exciting as the first time I saw him,” she said to the Courier by phone. “I’ve been doing this 28 years and even to see a humpback I get really excited. You get to know these whales – that sounds funny – but you do, you get to see the different personalities and you look forward to seeing certain individuals.”

Ol’ Tom has been coming into the Bay of Fundy every couple years since at least 2006. Longeran saw him in 2010 and in 2015, swimming with dolphins like he was this year.

Orcas are toothed whales of the dolphin family and, like all dolphins, orcas usually travel in a permanent family social group called a pod. Longeran suspects  Ol’ Tom might have been orphaned.

She has photos of a pod of orcas in the Bay of Fundy in 1999 and she wants to check and see if he was part of that group.

Every orca has a uniquely-shaped saddle patch, which enables whale watchers and researchers to identify and tell them apart.

The first to spot Ol’ Tom this morning was Harold Graham, the owner of Brier Island Whale and Seabird Cruises.

He often drives to North Point on Brier Island and watches for whales from shore and then directs the boat to the whales.

“He was telling us, ‘There are a couple of humpbacks over there, there is another one over there,’ and then he said ‘Oh there’s an orca out there,’” says Longeran.

Longeran says they also saw about 500 dolphins in the Bay today and nine humpbacks up close with more in the distance.

“This has been one of the best summers we’ve ever had: whale wise we’re up and people wise too,” she said.

In a normal summer they document about 140 to 150 individual humpback whales, but this year they identified 170.

Numbers of minke and fin whales are also up, but not right whales – those have moved further north to Cape Breton and the St. Lawrence chasing after food.

Brier Island Whale and Seabird Cruises will be offering whale watch trips until the Thanksgiving weekend.


Orca Shows and Breeding Banned in California

September 14, 2016

California Governor Jerry Brown signed the Orca Protection and Safety Act into law on Tuesday, banning the breeding of killer whales in captivity, as well as the circus-like shows that have them performing for crowds.

Facing increasing criticism since the 2013 documentary Blackfish exposed concerns about orca welfare, SeaWorld had already agreed to discontinue breeding their orcas in all of their U.S. parks. The new law mirrors several changes that SeaWorld had already committed to making, but the bill’s sponsors say the legislation was still important to make sure that SeaWorld can’t change its mind, and that no other California park can breed or do non-educational orca shows in the future. (Read SeaWorld to End Controversial Orca Shows and Breeding.)

“This codifies this corporate policy in law, so they’re stuck now,” says Naomi Rose, a marine mammal scientist at the nonprofit Animal Welfare Institute, which co-sponsored the legislation along with state assembly member Richard Bloom (D-Santa Monica.). “And now we have more momentum to build on,” Rose says.

In practice, the bill will mean that the only orcas allowed to be kept in captivity in California will be the 11 already grandfathered in at SeaWorld San Diego. Orcas can still be rescued and rehabilitated if they are found stranded, but Rose says that’s unlikely.

“I can count on one hand the number of times an orca has been stranded alive, was rescued, and survived in captivity,” says Rose, referring not just to California, but the world.

While the act bans the use of orcas in entertainment, SeaWorld can continue orca shows if they are educational. The company has already decided that their theatrical killer whale shows will be replaced with what they call “educational orca encounters” starting in 2017. “Guests will feel like they are taking part in a live documentary,” wrote Dave Koontz in an e-mail to National Geographic, “with a modified habitat for a more natural looking setting.” (Read Former Trainer Slams SeaWorld for Cruel Treatment of Orcas)

Next, the Animal Welfare Institute hopes to retire animals to a marine sanctuary, making orcas in concrete tanks a thing of the past. However, SeaWorld does not plan to return its 11 orcas to the wild. Koontz wrote that “the best, and safest, future for these whales is to let them live out their lives at SeaWorld, receiving top care, in state-of-the-art habitats.”

While the orcas at SeaWorld San Diego aren’t likely to be released, it’s nearly certain that they will be the last in captivity there. “As more and more members in the public in this post-Blackfish era are deciding to turn away from entertainment, the future holds a more hopeful animal-friendly entertainment outcome,” says Carney Anne Nasser, senior counsel for wildlife and regulatory affairs at the Animal Legal Defense Fund. (Read SeaWorld Orca Was Trying to Save Itself, Not Kill Itself.)

Other states have passed similar legislation. South Carolina prohibits the public display of whales and dolphins—although the state doesn’t have any in captivity anyway. In states without marine animal parks, such laws prevent future developments. But the fact that California already has SeaWorld San Diego makes this bill a more powerful development. “This is real, this is a state that has them,” says Rose. “This is a real change in business as usual.”

The next states that animal activists hope will consider a similar bill are Texas and Florida, as they have marine parks with cetaceans in them as well. Nasser believes that there is hope for orca captivity to end. “It’s only a matter of when, not if, the use of animals in entertainment will become a relic of the past,” she says.

Source: National

Orca ‘super-pod’ in Whangarei Harbour

September 9, 2016

A “super pod” of about 25 orcas have been socialising and hunting stringrays in the Whangarei Harbour.

Northland orca expert Ingrid Visser said the orca were first sighted at 8am yesterday in Reotahi and a second sighting was made at Parua Bay.

The pod included a male orca called Ben, who had previously stranded off Mangawhai Heads in 1997 and another named Putita who had stranded on Ruakaka beach in 2010.

Then there was brother and sister, Funky Monkey and Pickle, and A1- an adult female spotted under the Auckland Harbour Bridge in 1988.

A new calf was also among the pod seen in the harbour yesterday.

The orca swam into a little basin between the Onerahi foreshore past the boat ramp and Limestone Island.

“I’ve never seen so many orca in that area before. It was fantastic to see so many of them socialising and hunting,” Dr Visser said.

She said the super pod was seen in the greater Hauraki area three weeks ago and they could stay in the harbour for a few days or only a few hours.

She urged people who see orca to call the 0800 SEE ORCA hotline.


The Loss of Killer Whale J14

September 1, 2016

Perhaps even more than we do, killer whales need their moms. I’m heartbroken to report that the Southern Resident killer whales—a small, endangered group of orcas that spend the summer in Puget Sound—lost J14, one of their best. The scientists who study and know these whales have seen J14’s family—two girls (J37 and J40), one young boy (J45), and a grandson (J49)—but they can’t find her. For a killer whale to not be with its immediate family is almost a sure sign of death.

J14 was particularly special to the Samish Nation, who identified with the whale named Samish. The tribe has named her children and grandchildren in traditional potlatch ceremonies ever since. Samish means “those who stand up and give.” As the matriarch of her family, J14 did just that. Erin Heydenreich at the Center for Whale Research spends her days studying these whales. Erin described J14 as a good mom and a solid leader of her family. J14 piloted the family group. She made important decisions. She held the memories of how things are done, knew when and where the salmon run, and taught the younger generations, so they too, one day, would be good parents. Without its matriarch, a whale family can come undone.

In a study published in Science, scientists found that young killer whale males were three times more likely to die the year after their mother’s death than were males whose mothers were still around. But the moms aren’t just important to young whales. Killer whale males over 30 years old that lose their mom have a risk of death that is more than 8 times their peers, and daughters are also almost 3 times more likely to die.

The bad news isn’t over. Another J pod mom is in trouble. The Center for Whale Research has reported that J28 is showing signs of starvation. She is gaunt, her fat stores are depleted leaving her with a peanut shaped head, and she is lagging behind her family pod. She is also nursing a 7 month old calf. A killer whale mom nurses its calf for about a year. The milk is high in fat to ensure the baby gets a thick layer of blubber—to live off of in times when food is scarce and to keep warm in cold waters. Nobody can say if J54 could survive his mother’s death.

With J14 gone, there are only 82 Southern Resident killer whales left. We can’t let these whales die away. I’ve seen them. They are knowing, gentle, and connected. Humans have ruptured that connection over and over again. In the 1960s and 70s we hunted these whales to put them in marine park tanks and on display. At the same time, we polluted their waters and built dams across the west that devastated the salmon runs the whales feed on. Yet, despite all they’ve been through—and the name we’ve given them—these killer whales remain gentle giants of Puget Sound.

I was lucky enough to find myself on a boat this April with Dave Ellifrit and D. Giles from the Center for Whale Research. We were hardly out of Snug Harbor when he rose from the deep. J26. In our boat, next to this twenty five year old male killer whale, I suddenly felt no bigger than an ant in a walnut shell. Every thought circling through my brain—work deadlines, the snacks I’d packed, what my kid was doing—disappeared. He undulated beside us and then slipped away. We followed. His mom and family, the J16’s, soon appeared. Several family members played in the wake of a freighter headed north. We’ve already lost J14. J28 is at death’s door and might take her young son with her.