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Wednesday, June 19, 2024 | Back issues
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No Jail Time for Biologist Who Fed Killer Whales

(CN) - A marine biologist will not serve jail time over a study of orca feeding that illegally relied on whale blubber tied to a rope, her lawyers said.

The charges stemmed from Nancy Black's discovery of orcas, also known as killer whales, feeding off a gray whale calf they had killed in the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary on April 25, 2004.

"On the occasions when orcas manage to kill a gray whale, the pod of orcas does not always eat all of the gray whale at once," Black acknowledged in a 2013 plea. "Often, portions of the carcass, including strips and chunks of blubber (some over 6 feet in length and weighing over 100 pounds), remain floating or semi-submerged after a kill. Chunks of gray whale blubber have been observed to persist in the general area of a kill, depending on wind and currents, for 24 to 72 hours. Orcas and sea birds feed on these chunks of blubber while they are still available in the area."

Sitting aboard her ship, the Black Dog, with a team of assistants, Black grabbed a piece of the blubber, cut a hole, ran a rope through it, and then returned the blubber to the water, watching the feeding behavior of the orcas as they ate the blubber off of the rope, according to the plea.

She and the crew repeated the process with the rope and other pieces of the blubber, though this conduct was not permitted under her permit, according to the plea.

Black, of Monterey, Calif., said she staged a similar feeding on April 11, 2005.

Later that year, a sanctuary officer who was investigating the reported harassment of an endangered humpback whale in the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary asked Black to provide the videotape her crewmember had created of her interaction with that humpback.

Before she turned over that footage to the officer and an agent of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration on Oct. 24, Black edited the tape.

Those changes removed several minutes that included footage of the humpback whale between two vessels from Black's whale-watching business.

Black did not tell the officer that she had edited the tape and has admitted that her actions could have impeded the agency's investigation.

Under the feeding prohibition of the Marine Mammal Protection Act (MMPA), it is a crime to feed marine mammals in the wild. It applies to commercial and recreational boaters, and protects all species of marine mammals.

Black delivered her plea to this crime this pas April.

Her lawyers with Cause of Action revealed that Black had been a victim of "overcriminalization," but that their client was sentenced Monday to three years of probation, plus a $12,500 fine and 300 hours of community service.

"The government's original charges could have resulted in up to 27 years in prison, a $700,000 fine and forfeiture of her research vessel," the government accountability group said in a statement.

It added that Black had been "the first person to be criminally charged with violating a Marine Mammal Protection Act (MMPA) regulation prohibiting feeding marine mammals in the wild."

"Every other violation of this regulation resulted in relatively modest fines or, in a recent case with far more egregious facts, forfeiture of an old boat," the group continued.

U.S. District Judge Edward Davila handed down the sentence in San Jose, Calif. Black had been represented by attorneys Mark Vermeulen and Lawrence Biegel.

The marine biologist expressed her relief that the case had concluded.

"My work is very important to me, and I look forward to returning to my passion of studying marine mammals without the distractions that I have had during this case," Black said in a statement through Cause of Action. "I am very grateful for the support I've received from the community as well as the help of Cause of Action and my entire legal team."

Cause of Action's executive director Dan Epstein meanwhile called Black's case "a cautionary tale to those who believe the administrative state is benign."

"When power is unchecked it becomes unbridled and so individuals and small businesses - not the politically well-connected and powerful - often end up as victims of its abuse," Epstein added.

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