Last Week in Whales: Mass Stranding of Dolphins in Cape Cod; Dolphins Are People Too?; Sale of Whale Bycatch in Korea Spurs Illegal Slaughter...

News in the world of whales last week (or close to it).

Okay, let’s start with some dolphin news.

  • The big news last week was the mass stranding of dolphins that continued throughout the week in Cape Cod.  It started on January 14 with the stranding of about 30 dolphins and appears to have ended at the close of the weekend after a total of 90 dolphins stranded, making it the largest dolphin beaching in years.  Rescuers not only saved dolphins that were trapped on shore, but also helped about 300 dolphins swim out of Wellfleet Harbor, where they were at risk of stranding.  Scientists do not know why the animals strand, but it is not unusual for a high number of dolphins to strand this time of year on the Cape, although these numbers are startling. 
  • Speaking of dolphins, while I am not a fan of “swim with dolphin” attractions  (I think all marine mammals that are capable of making it in the wild should be released and those that can’t shouldn’t be exploited for our entertainment), if they are going to exist I’m glad that swimming with dolphins provides wounded soldiers some solace
  • One of the reasons I don’t support dolphin attractions is because of research showing how intelligent and self-aware they are.  This article discusses the research and rightfully questions why such studies aren’t mentioned on SeaWorld’s website (which devotes enormous space to discussing and disseminating other information on marine mammals but omits any research that indicates the intellectual and emotional sophistication of these animals).  It’s unethical to exploit such species for our entertainment in light of this research.  According to Thomas I. White, a Fellow at the Oxford Centre for Animal Ethics, “There is now ample scientific evidence that capacities once thought to be unique to humans are shared by these beings.  Like humans, whales and dolphins are ‘persons’.  That is, they are self-aware beings with individual personalities and a rich inner life.  They have the ability to think abstractly, feel deeply and choose their actions.  Their lives are characterized by close, long-term relationships with conspecifics in communities characterized by culture.  In short, whales and dolphins are a who, not a what.”  Yeah, what he said. 
  • In defense of our laws protecting dolphins, it’s great to see that the US is appealing a WTO ruling against US dolphin-safe tuna labeling
  • Finally in dolphin news, a Hong Kong, China conservation group has set up a DNA bank for the rare Chinese white dolphin.  There are about 2,500 Chinese white dolphins in the body of water between Macau and Hong Kong, China and experts say their numbers have dropped significantly in the past few years because of the usual litany of problems:  increase in maritime traffic, water pollution, habitat loss, and coastal development.  So, the Ocean Park Conservation Foundation Hong Kong, China has joined hands with a Chinese university to set up a DNA bank.  According to Judy Chen, the foundation chairwoman, “We hope to offer the scientific community a standardized genetic analysis platform to assess the sustainability of Chinese whit dolphin populations.  The collected datat will provide important reference to governments in the region for developing critical strategies of Chinese white dolphin conservation.”  I hope it’s not too little, too late. 
  • Let’s kill seals, they’re eating our cod.  Yep, you read that right.  A study has come out showing seals should be blamed for cod’s failure to recover off Nova Scotia.  Turns out that seals love to eat.  Go figure.  And they’re eating lots of cod.  Of course, this will only support the Canadian government’s proposal to wipe out about 70 percent of the grey seals in the southern Gulf of St. Lawrence.  Ah, Canada, just when I thought you couldn’t have an even more horrible conservation record. 
  • Very interesting news coming out of Britain.  I’m not going to jump for joy just yet, until I do more research, but it looks live British naval ships could be forced to scale back its use of sonar off Cornwall’s coast to protect dolphins and whales.  If this turns out to be true, it will be a significant step in the right direction.
  • A Western Pacific gray whale from Russia just passed through Southern California waters.  The female whale, Varvara, is from a critically endangered population of fewer than 100 individuals.  It’s becoming increasingly clear that the Western Pacific gray whales use the same breeding and calving area as the Eastern Pacific gray whales (Baja California), although their summer feeding grounds are different. 
  • Wow, during the past ten years alone, cetacean bycatch in South Korean waters accounted for 33% of global large whale mortality from bycatch.  According to a new study, Cetacean By-Catch in the Korean Peninsula—by Chance or by Design? by Douglas MacMillan and Jeonghee Han, this high level of bycatch is no accident, but is actually deliberate and supported by South Korean laws that ban whaling outright but allow the sale of whale meat and other products if the whales are caught “accidentally” when fishing.  This legal loophole also encourages the illegal hunting of whales, which can then be sold on the market described as bycatch.  Ugh. 
  • In a surprising turn of events, the circle of life is alarming some scientists as orcas and other predators are targeting and killing Steller sea lion pups.  Okay, I jest, it’s not the circle of life that’s alarming them, it’s the status of endangered Steller sea lions and how this predation may set back their chance of surviving as a species.  According to researchers, there are not enough Steller sea lions born each year to rejuvenate their populations, which has declined by 80 percent from a peak about forty years ago.  Markus Horning, a marine mammal expert at Oregon State University’s Hatfield Marine Science Center says, “As the density of more ‘profitable’ adults declines, more juveniles may be targeted and never grow to adulthood, which makes rebuilding their populations problematic.”  It’s a classic vicious cycle.  Let’s hope these sea lions find a way to break it.

Meanwhile, this week in Wales…

First Minister Carwyn Jones says that austerity’s not working.  He’s right; the British government’s economic policy has been a disaster.  Responding to GDP figures showing contraction in the final quarter of 2011, the First Minister said, “The figures confirm what we have been telling the UK Government for some time – their economic policies are simply not working.  The cuts being imposed on Wales are too deep, too fast – and we now face the very real prospect of a double dip recession.”  Yep, heckuva job George Osborne.