Entries in Marine Life (2)


Gray Whales, Protected Off Mexico, May Face New Threat in Arctic

iStockphoto/Thinkstock(NEW YORK) -- Gray whales are starting to make a strong comeback in the Pacific thanks, in part, to Mexico’s aggressive eco-tourism program, where whale-watching is regulated, but a new threat is emerging some 10,000 miles away.

Hunters once pushed these gentle giants to the brink of extinction -- at one point, there were only 500 gray whales left. Now there are an estimated 20,000 of them and they are the first marine mammal to be removed from the endangered species list. In Baja, Mexico, researchers monitor the whales’ movements and growth, and even use crossbows to gather small samples of flesh to test how healthy they are.

But while the gray whales may be protected in the Baja lagoons where they mate and raise their young, environmentalists are concerned about a looming danger to the animals’ feeding grounds in the Arctic, where Shell Oil is scheduled to begin exploratory drilling this summer.

“Shell’s oil and gas leases exactly overlap with the critical feeding area of the gray whale,” World Wildlife Fund spokeswoman Leigh Henry said.

The process of looking for oil means sending sonic booms, or shockwaves, into the sea floor, and environmentalists worry the noise might affect the whales’ survival. These animals make deep sounds to do almost everything -- navigate, find food, find mates -- and the deafening booms could make the whales become disoriented and mothers could even be separated from their calves, Henry said.

Shell declined Nightline’s request for an interview, but said in a statement that their data shows whales are “generally undisturbed by industry activity.” The company pointed to another whale species, the bowhead, whose population has grown despite drilling in their feeding grounds.

“We would not consider working in the Alaska offshore if we were not confident in our ability to do so without negatively impacting...marine mammals,” Shell said in the statement.

But it’s not just the noise Henry is worried about. She said Shell is not prepared if a massive oil spill were to happen, and pointed to the BP oil spill disaster in the Gulf of Mexico last year.

“It’s a little unreasonable to think that we’re going to be prepared to clean up an oil spill in the Arctic,” she said. “Obviously, Shell has insurmountable resources to do this work and we would like them to step up and take responsibility and ensure that any operations they undertake in the Arctic have minimal impact on the whales.”

Shell argues that it has taken responsibility, engineering a containment system like the one that was ultimately successful in stopping the Deepwater Horizon blowout in the Gulf of Mexico. The company added that it has also “assembled an...oil spill response fleet that is second to none in the world.”

Environmentalists remain skeptical, and they hope to generate enough public support to delay or even halt the drilling, but the Obama administration has already approved it.

“What are we going to do after we drill in the Arctic?” Henry said. “It’s a short-term solution to a long-term problem and we need to be looking at alternative fuel sources.”

Copyright 2012 ABC News Radio


Marine Species Face Mass Extinction, Experts Say

Digital Vision/Thinkstock(OXFORD, England) -- Marine experts are now prophesying a perfect storm: a world where marine species could undergo unprecedented levels of extinction.

"The speed of change, particularly related to climate change is so great there simply isn't time for marine life to adapt to these new conditions," said Alex Rogers, a professor of conservation biology at the University of Oxford.  "When we've seen mass extinctions in the past they've been associated with large disturbances in carbon system of the oceans.  That's what we're bringing about through our own actions today."

Earlier this year, Rogers and 26 other researchers from six countries met for a three-day workshop in England to examine ocean stressors, such as overfishing.  This week, the panel of marine experts released a summary report from Oxford University -- and the full report is on the way.  Their findings?  A disturbing decline in the health of the ocean that is on track to get much worse.

Multiple factors, such as acidification of the ocean, rising ocean temperature and overfishing are contributing to the rapid decline of some species, such as reef-forming coral.  Rogers, lead author of the International Programme on the State of the Ocean report, says other species, such as sharks, may follow.

"In the Mediterranean nearly 50 percent of sharks are under threat of extinction in that region," Rogers told ABC News.

The significance of the scientists' meeting, Rogers explained, was to gather experts from different branches of marine biology and figure out how negative changes to the ocean are interacting with one another.

In some cases, the impacts canceled each other out, but Rogers said, "In many cases we found the impacts were negatively synergistic -- this means that when the effects are taken together, the overall effect is greater than the single effect."

The best example of this, he explained, is the coral reef ecosystems.  Overfishing and bleaching of the reefs, combined with the acidification that causes the corals to bleach, means the loss of "the most diverse marine ecosystems on the planet."

And one of the most valuable, Rogers pointed out.  The coral reefs provide tourism, coastal protection, and living environments for marine species.

Copyright 2011 ABC News Radio

ABC News Radio