Conservation News: Orcas, Atlantic Monument, Ivory Trade

New California Law Bans Orca Breeding and Showings

3852cc0100000578-0-image-a-47_1473866177956In 2013, the documentary “Blackfish” casted SeaWorld in harsh light for raising captured young orcas in dark, cramped conditions. It also recounted the 2010 death of veteran SeaWorld trainer Dawn Brancheau by a killer whale named Tilikum. Since then, stock and attendance fell at the world’s largest marine park: SeaWorld.

Because of the public outcry, SeaWorld San Diego pledged in March to stop breeding its orcas and discontinuing their shows in 2017. Now, it’s the law.

On September 13, California Governor Jerry Brown signed the Orca Protection and Safety Act into a law. The new law mirrors the changes that SeaWorld had already committed to make, but the bill’s sponsors say that the legislation will ensure that SeaWorld will not change its mind. It also extends to all other California parks, preventing any breeding or non-educational orca shows in the future.

In practice, the bill will allow orcas already in captivity to remain in the state, but they must be used for “educational presentations” starting in June. The 11 residing at SeaWorld San Diego will no longer be used for the company’s theatrical killer whale shows.

Instead, the shows will be replaced with what they call “educational orca encounters” starting in 2017, when the law will be enforced. Dave Koontz, in an email to National Geographic, wrote “Guests will feel like they are taking part in a live documentary”. The habitat will be modified “for a more natural looking setting”.

The law also encourages returning the creatures, if possible, back into the wild. Nonprofit Animal Welfare Institute is also hoping to retire the orcas to a marine sanctuary, making orcas in concrete tanks a thing of the past.

However, SeaWorld does not plan to return their 11 orcas back to the wild. Koontz insists that because “most of SeaWorld’s orcas were born in a zoological setting and the environmental threats in our oceans, like oil spills and pollution are huge dangers for these animals. 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.”


Despite this, Carney Anne Nasser, senior counsel for wildlife and regulatory affairs at the Animal Legal Defense Fund, praises the bill. “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.”

Authored by California Assemblyman Richard Bloom, the law will make exceptions for scientific and educational institutions holding orcas for research or rehabilitation. But, it stipulates that they cannot be used for breeding, performance, or entertainment.

Rose, a marine mammal scientist at Animal Welfare Institute, says that the likelihood that this exception will be used is unlikely: “I can count on one hand the number of times an orca has been stranded alive, was rescued, and survived in captivity,” referring not just to California, but the world.

Other states have passed similar legislation. South Carolina prohibits the public display of whales and dolphins, although the state does not have any in captivity. However, it prevents future developments. But for California to already have SeaWorld San Diego under this bill is a powerful development.

Orca Shows and Breeding Banned in California

California Bans Kille Whale Theatrical Shows, Breeding

California Bans Orca Captivity and Breeding Following SeaWorld’s Decision to End Its Program

Obama Creates the First Atlantic National Monument

President Obama speaking at the 2016 Our Ocean Conference

On September 15, President Barack Obama established the first marine national monument in the Atlantic.

“The notion that the ocean I grew up with is not something I can pass on to my kids and my grandkids is unacceptable. It’s unimaginable,” Obama said in announcing the Northeast Canyons and Seamounts Marine National Monument at the State Department’s Our Ocean conference in Washington, D.C.

“Dangerous changes in our climate caused mainly by human activity, dead zones in our ocean caused mainly by pollution that we create here on land, unsustainable fishing practices, unprotected marine areas in which rare species and entire ecosystems are at risk. All those things are happening now. They’ve been happening for a long time. So if we’re going to leave our children with oceans like the ones that were left to us, we’re going to have to act and we’re going to have to act boldly.”

The monument, which is only 200 miles off the coast of New England, consists of two distinct areas covering a total of 4,900 square miles. The first, running along the edge of the continental shelf, will protect three canyons that cut thousands of feet into the shelf. These walls are covered with deepwater corals, anemones, and sponges.

South of the shelf is the second area, protecting four seamounts named the Bear, Physalia, Retriever, and Mytilus. Rising more than 7,000 feet from the ocean floor and taller than the Appalachians, they are ancient volcanoes formed a hundred million years ago.

These seamounts are biodiversity hotspots, home to many rare and endangered species. Scientific expeditions conducted in this region resulted in new discoveries including coral species found nowhere else on Earth and other rare fish and vertebrates.

newenglandmarinemonumentsmap-570-ngsversion-1473910275001Additionally, both the canyons and seamounts provide habitat for a variety of protected species such as Kemp’s ridley turtles as well as sperm, fin, and sei whales.

“These are places where you can go and still find animals, big animals, never named by science,” said Auster, senior research scientist at the Mystic Aquarium and research professor emeritus at the University of Connecticut. He has been exploring the region in a variety of undersea vehicles for the past 30 years. “They are places that represent how much we have yet to learn about the oceans. They are outstanding repositories of our natural heritage for the future.”

However, New England’s commercial fishing industry fought the designation of Canyons and Seamounts, objecting to Obama’s use of the Antiquities Act. Their opposition helped derail a proposal to create a monument at Cashes Ledge, a ridge that lies closer to the New England coast.

John Williams, CEO of Atlantic Red Crab Co., argued that wielding the Antiquities Act for marine conservation subverts the work of the regional fishery councils, who regulate the nation’s fisheries under the federal Magnuson-Stevens Act.

“After 40 years of crab fishing, our fishing grounds are described as ‘pristine’ by the same environmental groups who seek the monument designation,” said Williams, whose company has earned sustainability certifications from the New England and Monterey Bay Aquariums. “If these habitats are still ‘pristine’ after 40 years of fishing, how can a serious argument be made that the area is in imminent danger and in need of immediate, unilateral protection by presidential fiat?”

There are eight councils who develop the marine management plans for their regions, from setting up seasons and quotas to closing areas. Leaders of all eight wrote to President Obama urging that they are allowed to continue managing fisheries in any new monuments created under the Antiquities Act.

Photo By: 2013 Northeast U.S. Canyons Expedition Team and NOAA Okeanos Explorer Program

Their opposition has led to the final monument boundaries, reflecting a compromise with the industry. Mount designations come with restrictions on certain activities. Eventually, it will lead to a ban on commercial fishing, mining, and drilling. Whiting and squid harvesters will have 60 days to transition out. Lobster and red crab industries will have a seven-year exception. Recreational fishing will be allowed within the monument.

Scientists who pushed for the monument approval projected that commercial fishing could become more intensive as other areas become depleted. Other future threats cited in scientific assessments of the monument include the exploration, drilling, and mining of various resources such as oil, gas, manganese crust, and methane hydrate mining. Furthermore, the designation will “create natural laboratories for scientists to monitor and explore the impacts of climate change,” according to the White House.

Obama, in his statement, describes the creation of these monuments as investments “vital for (the US and other nations’) economy and national security, but also “vital to our spirit”.

“I know that in a contest between us and the oceans, eventually the oceans will win one way or the other,” he said. “So it’s up to us to adapt, not the other way around.”

Obama Creates Connecticut-Size Ocean Park, First in Atlantic

President Obama to Continue Global Leadership in Combatting Climate Change and Protecting Our Ocean by Creating the First Marine National Monument in the Atlantic Ocean

Oceans Key To Protecting Planet From Climate Change

Study Finds A Legal Ivory Trade Would Wipe Out Elephants

Photo By Gerry Ellis

Ivory trade supporters have always argued that a sustainable legal trade that could meet demand would be possible, even decrease poaching.

However, a new study, released on September 15, suggests that legalizing the ivory trade could increase the rate of extinction for the elephants. It finds that the demand far outpaces the amount of ivory Africa’s elephants could sustainably provide.

One of the study’s authors, Phyllis Lee, a researcher at the University of Stirling, argues “there is no way to harvest sufficient ivory in a controlled way that won’t drive elephant populations to extinction. Our argument is based on one of the best protected populations of elephants. If we can’t make the ivory trade model work here, it won’t work anywhere.”

Elephants have been in crisis for the past several decades, with an increasing amount of conservation efforts across the African continent to save them from extinction. But with demand for ivory continuously increasing, some 27,000 elephants are killed by poachers each year.

This study comes at a critical time, with countries around the world set to debate in October on bringing back the international ivory trade, which has been banned since 1989. Namibia, Zimbabwe, and South Africa have been the three largest voices in calling for a future trade in ivory.

Those in support argue that it would allow countries to regulate the black market, or that in some parts of Africa, elephant populations are robust enough to withstand hunting for ivory.

Those against the proposition say that erasing the stigma around ivory would only encourage more people to buy, hurting elephant populations. It would result in an increased illegal trade covered by legal sales.

Photo By: Kate Brooks

The type of trade the three countries wish to bring about is based on a process called the decision-making mechanisms. It would mean sourcing ivory from existing government stockpiles of seized illegal ivory, natural elephant deaths, elephant culls, and intentional elephant hunts.

But, these would only meet a fraction of the current demand for ivory. To meet the demand, the rest would have to come from hunted elephants.

According to the new study, one of two scenarios could occur. Either countries set high quotas to meet demand, resulting in overexploitation and driving elephants to extinction, or countries set sustainable quotas, which would not provide enough ivory. That means, poaching will likely continue.

Either way, the study argues, “a legal trade wouldn’t help elephants”.

Working alongside Lee, David Lusseau, a researcher at the University of Aberdeen, used population modeling to determine just how many elephants could be killed for their ivory before their deaths start causing the population to decrease. Their work takes into consideration the age and sex of elephants most likely to be targeted by hunters.

Typically older male are poachers’ first choice, due to their larger tusks. But once they have been killed, hunters will begin to rely on smaller or younger elephants to get the same amount of ivory as before. That could have a greater impact on the population.

The researchers used a sample group of 1,360 elephants in Amboseli, Kenya. Their analysis suggests that about 220-330 pounds of ivory can be taken sustainably each year. But on the other hand, demand for a population of that size, based on how many pounds of illegal ivory are seized each year, would be between 900 and 1,300 pounds. A sustainable ivory harvest could meet, at most, 37% of demand.

And that’s the best-case scenario.

It assumed that demand wouldn’t increase and poaching stopped if the ivory trade was legalized. It also assumes each country will have the adequate knowledge and expertise to perfectly determine how much ivory exists within its borders to set sustainable quotas. But, that isn’t reality.

The study concludes that there is a need to focus on reducing demand for ivory.

“We cannot brush aside the fact that poaching has reached industrial scale,” Lee and Lusseau write. “We must urgently work on finding ways to change consumer behavior as the only avenue by which we can resolve the ivory trade tragedy.”

A Legal Trade in Ivory Would Wipe Out Elephants, Study Finds


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