Can a killer whale be a slave?

March 10th, 2015 | 2 Comments
Homepage, Whales

Sign our Avaaz petition: Let’s keep working to #FreeLolita!

Originally posted on CNN Opinion, February 4, 2015.

(CNN) – “Lolita’s story reminded me of my own,” says African-American actress and singer Robbyne Kaamil. “My own relatives, my family ancestors, were captured and forced into slavery.”

Captured in waters off Washington State in 1970, Lolita is an orca — a killer whale. Kaamil, who perceives clear parallels between Lolita’s life of captivity-for-profit and the human slave trade, was inspired to record “Let The Girl Go: Free Lolita,” a bold music video about Lolita, and a courageous interview on the parallels of captivity between human slaves and performing orcas.

Robbyne Kaamil

Robbyne Kaamil

Lolita is still living in Florida at the Miami Seaquarium. She’s been the focus of a concerted campaign to win her release. In January, Kaamil participated in a march in Miami that drew animpressive crowd estimated by the Miami Herald to be around 1,000 people.

Can a killer whale be a slave? Literally? “It’s important to understand how horrendous it is to steal a baby orca from her family, force her to perform, and hold her in the equivalent of a bath tank until she dies. It’s a crime,” Kaamil said.

Lolita has spent 44 years in a teacup. She is 20 feet long, living in a tank reportedly to be about 20 feet deep, 35 feet wide and 80 feet long. Free-living orcas usually travel 25 to 75 miles per day. Compared to say, 40 miles, 80 feet is about 1/2600th the size of an orca’s normal daily life.

Like a second lump of sugar, a whale named Hugo who had been captured from the same free-living whale community two years earlier, shared Lolita’s teacup for 10 years. Hugo died in 1980 after repeatedly ramming his head into the wall of the pool. Did he commit suicide? Free-living orcas never do anything self-destructive. They have never even been seen fighting.

Consider Lolita’s isolation. At age 4, she was taken from her mother. Free-living orcas live their entire lives traveling with their mothers, siblings and children. Unlike any other known creature, unlike elephants and humans, orcas like Lolita never leave their birth family. Free-living orcas frequently live into their 50s or beyond (they can live up to a century). They often cooperate and help one another, and may perform midwife duties.

Forty-year veteran orca expert Ken Balcomb has told me that tooth marks on a recent healthy newborn suggest that another whale, likely its grandmother, assisted her daughter during a difficult birth by pulling the infant from her body.

Thousands of miles away, Lolita’s family has been without her. During these decades, the family desperately needed her. “The captures of young whales in the 1960s and ’70s really caused a long-term problem,” Balcomb told me. The so-called “resident” orca families travel the U.S. West Coast off Washington, Oregon and California hunting fish. Before the captures they totaled about 120 whales. The captures took them down to about 70. They managed to rebuild to 99 whales by the 1990s.

But when the whales removed as babies would have been the next maturing generation, rebuilding hit a wall: too few females. Forty years later, the population—around 80 whales—is losing one or two members a year. The whole U.S. resident population now has just two-dozen females of reproductive age. In some families, the only females are past reproductive age. Those families are doomed.

Lolita, who has never given birth, is now menopausal, her gifts to the future forever withheld by her denatured existence. By continuing to lure paying customers, Lolita continues to make money for her owners. Palace Entertainment, owner of the Miami Seaquarium, claims Lolita can no longer survive in the wild. But that’s not the proposal.

The proposal is to move her into a vastly larger open-water net-pen in her home waters of Washington State. There, she can be in vocal contact with her family. Depending on how that goes and whether after all this time there remains recognition, the possibility of full return to her family could be considered.

Lolita’s fish-hunting skills are by now somewhere between rusty and nonexistent, but free-living orcas routinely share food. Bottom line: What’s proposed for her is better than the situation she is in. Even death might seem preferable—as Lolita’s companion Hugo seemed to think.

“Most of us have a clear understanding about the cruelty of slavery. It is imperative to recognize the inhumanity of forcing any living being into captivity.” Kaamil said.

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A Recipe for Seafood Survival

March 10th, 2015 | No Comments
Climate Change, Fish, Fishing & Fishermen, Overfishing

Co-authored by Brett Jenks

You know that hunger and the oceans are on a collision course when your 89-year-old mother phones you — as Safina’s mom did this morning — and says, “Did you see the article saying that we’re driving seafood extinct? We’d better go get some oysters and some blackfish before they’re all gone!” The irony wasn’t entirely lost on her (she was laughing), but she wasn’t entirely kidding, either. “Get ’em while supplies last” is most people’s first response to scarcity. And when billions of people have the same first thought, disaster is right around the corner.

The United Nations estimates that three billion people rely on fish as an important source of protein, while about 65 percent of the world’s fisheries are overfished. Worse, a new study in Science magazine concludes that humans have so profoundly depleted ocean life, we’re causing mass extinction in the sea. But that study also concludes that establishing protected areas could avert many sea-life extinctions.

Ocean fish depletion haunts the world’s coastal communities, where most people live. It’s as true of Jakarta as of Boston. But protecting specific areas — if done before collapse, and if the areas protected are sufficiently large — can allow fish populations to rebound. Fishing around those reserves can then ensure fish and food. Think of it simply: in order to have continued supply and demand, you need supply. You can’t just take from everywhere; you have to have some places reserved for production. It’s startling that with something as important as hunger, something so basic as food supply still isn’t universally understood.

Photo courtesy of Rare

Photo courtesy of Rare

Click here to read the full blog originally published in Huffington Post, January 26, 2015.

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To Fight Disease, Protect the Ocean

March 10th, 2015 | No Comments
Climate Change, Pollution, Sea Turtles, Sharks, Whales

By marine scientist and Safina Center Fellow Dr. Ellen Prager, Co-authored by Carl Safina

Why should we curb ocean pollution, stop overfishing, prevent invasive species and save coral reefs?

Because the next wonder drug in the battle against some of our most insidious diseases, such as cancer or Alzheimer’s, may be lurking just beneath the waves!

The ocean covers nearly three-quarters of our planet and provides billions of people with a critical source of protein along with hundreds of millions of jobs and billions of dollars in economic revenue. The ocean is part of the Earth’s life support system, producing oxygen while absorbing carbon dioxide and heat. Simply put, our quality of life on the planet is inherently connected to the sea! And you’ve probably heard all of that before. Still not convinced?

Well, how about this: The ocean, in fact, may be the greatest reservoir of new, effective and as of yet, undiscovered pharmaceuticals. Already, there are eight approved drugs derived from marine chemicals that are being used to fight cancer, pain, viruses and inflammation. Another twelve compounds are in clinical trials with many more in the preclinical phase, these look to combat cancer, Alzheimer’s, viruses, asthma and to promote wound healing. And we’ve only explored some five percent of the ocean!


Click here to read the full blog originally published in Huffington Post, January 9, 2015.

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Your Chance, Your Voice, On a Liquefied Gas Facility Off New York

March 10th, 2015 | No Comments
Climate Change, News, Pollution

The hearing is tonight, Wednesday. And there are other ways to comment.

The proposal is to create a liquefied natural gas facility 20 miles south of Jones Beach. It would be called “Port Ambrose.” Ships would bring super-chilled liquefied natural gas, which would be piped to shore. I use natural gas for heating and cooking. I also oppose this facility. That doesn’t make me a hypocrite; it makes me someone with a conscience who wants alternatives to fossil fuels rather than more excuses for more fossil fuels.

Do we really want to allow gas pipes all over the seafloor, locking us into more use of a dangerous fossil fuel and interfering with planning to develop wind turbines in the same region? I don’t. Neither does the NY Daily News, who came out against this plan.



Click here to read the full blog originally published in Huffington Post, January 7, 2015.

Obama Gives Bristol Bay Fishermen A Great Christmas Present!

March 10th, 2015 | No Comments
Fish, Fishing & Fishermen, Salmon, Whales

By Carl Safina and Elizabeth Brown

Last month, President Obama used his executive power to protect Alaska’s Bristol Bay from future oil and gas drilling. Bristol Bay is a 52,000 square mile area (roughly the size of Florida), north of the Aleutian Islands that the largest surviving salmon populations on Earth swim through on their way to and from the rivers where they were born and where they will spawn and die. President Obama said, “It’s something that is too precious for us to be putting out to the highest bidder.” 1

Bristol Bay provides 40% of America’s wild-caught seafood – worth $2 billion annually. It also supports numerous recreational and subsistence fisheries, and a large tourism industry.

Bristol Bay is best known for its abundant wild salmon. Each year, all five species of salmon – sockeye, coho, king, pink, and chum – return to Bristol Bay to breed. These events are referred to as “salmon runs.” The most abundant is the sockeye, with an average of 37 million sockeye flocking to its waters each year 2. In fact, Bristol Bay hosts the largest remaining sockeye salmon run in the world. In addition to salmon, Bristol Bay fishermen fish for several other important species including Alaska pollock, halibut, sablefish, and king crab.

Aerial view of braided wetlands and tundra that is typical in the pristine Bristol Bay region. Photo from U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

Aerial view of braided wetlands and tundra that is typical in the pristine Bristol Bay region. Photo from U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

Click here to read the full blog originally published in National Geographic’s Ocean Views, January 5, 2015.

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Protected No Longer? Desperate Fisheries Managers Want to Open Closed Areas

March 10th, 2015 | No Comments
Fish, Fishing & Fishermen, Overfishing

By Carl Safina and Elizabeth Brown

By the early 1990’s, decades of heavy fishing had depleted several of New England’s important fish species, including cod, haddock, pollock and flounders (collectively referred to as ‘groundfish’). Fishermen had been catching fish faster than they could reproduce and had degraded fish habitats by dragging nets. To help rebuild New England’s fish populations, managers established several areas where fishing with any gears capable of catching groundfish species were prohibited. These areas were designed to protect both young, immature fish and large breeding adults. Later, in the early 2000’s, several areas both within and outside these closed fishing areas were designated as habitat closures, designed specifically to protect vulnerable habitats from all destructive bottom fishing gears.

Over the last 10-20 years, these protected areas have provided important safe havens for many species and have allowed previously degraded ocean habitats to recover. These protected areas have complex bottom structures and living communities that include kelp, mussel beds, sponges, and more. These areas often contain larger and older fish compared to fished areas. Since larger fish produce many times more eggs than small fish, these large fish are critical to helping populations rebuild1. Protected areas also help create a build-up of fish, which can swim into outside areas, and actually improve fishing there2.

These protected areas have provided many benefits to New England’s groundfish species, including Georges Bank haddock, Acadian redfish, pollock, and white hake–which have all recovered from previously depleted states. They have also benefited other species, like scallops–whose populations are thriving– and many marine mammals.

Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary. Photo by NOAA.

Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary. Photo by NOAA.

Click here to read the full blog originally published in National Geographic’s Ocean Views, December 19, 2014.

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Breeding Protections for Giant Bluefin Tuna

March 10th, 2015 | No Comments
Bluefin Tuna, Fish, Fishing & Fishermen

This post was co-authored with Elizabeth Brown.

Starting January 1, fishing within two bluefin tuna breeding hotspots in the Gulf of Mexico with a particularly destructive kind of fishing gear during their peak breeding months (April-May) will be prohibited by federal rule. The technique uses fishing lines up to 40 miles long with hundreds of baited hooks. It’s called long-lining. Finally, half a century after this method was used to invade their breeding grounds and deplete them to remnants of their former abundance, bluefin tuna that come to the Gulf of Mexico to breed will have a safe haven. The new rule will also prohibit longline fishing for five months (Dec.-April) in an area off Cape Hatteras, North Carolina where bluefin gather to feed.

Ironically, intentional fishing for Atlantic bluefin tuna with longline gear has been prohibited in the U.S. for years. Despite this, bluefin tuna have continued getting caught by longline fishing gear. Fishermen use longlines to catch yellowfin tuna and swordfish. But the gear is very indiscriminate, incidentally catching high number of bluefin each year and many other non-target species (sharks, sea turtles, marlins).

Longline fishermen catch much of this bluefin tuna in the Gulf of Mexico, where bluefin have come to breed, and in a few other hotspot areas where bluefin gather at certain times of the year. This incidental catch has contributed to the decline of this species. And it is particularly harmful in the Gulf of Mexico, because the Gulf is their only known breeding area on our side of the Atlantic Ocean.

Traditional Blue Fin Tuna Fishing Off The Coast Of Spain

Click here to read the full blog originally posted on Huffington Post, December 15, 2014.

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“Beyond Words: What Animals Think and Feel” – In Stores July 2015

January 27th, 2015 | 1 Comment
Elephants, Homepage, Whales

Beyond Words jacketIn a world where we usually measure animals by human standards, I take us into the inner lives of animals themselves; witnessing their profound capacity for perception, thought and emotion; showing why the word “it” is often inappropriate as we discover who they really are.

Weaving decades of observations of actual families of free-living creatures with new discoveries about brain functioning, I bring us inside their lives and minds, breaching many commonly held boundaries between humans and other animals. In Beyond Words, readers travel the wilds of Africa to visit some of the last great elephant gatherings, and follow as free-living wolves of Yellowstone National Park sort out the aftermath of their personal tragedy. Then we plunge into the astonishingly peaceful society of killer whales living in waters of the Pacific Northwest. We spend quality time, too, with dogs and falcons and ravens and dozens of other denizens; and consider how the human mind originated.

In this book readers explore astonishing new discoveries about the similarities in our consciousness, self-awareness, empathy, non-verbal communication, imitation, teaching, the roots of aesthetics and music, and a surprising capacity for grief widespread among elephants, wolves, whales, and even certain birds. Turns out, animals think and feel a lot like people do; after all, people are animals.

I’m passionate about this topic. I’ve worked hard to provide a graceful examination of how animals truly think and feel, and to show what really does—and what should—make us human.

Publication date: July 14, 2015

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Near Collapse of Gulf of Maine Cod Leads to Fishing Ban

December 21st, 2014 | No Comments
Fish, Fishing & Fishermen, Homepage, Overfishing

By Carl Safina and Elizabeth Brown

Last Monday, fishery managers with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) announced that they are banning nearly all fishing for Gulf of Maine Atlantic cod for at least the next 6 months, to protect the severely depleted population.

In August, scientists declared that the abundance of Gulf of Maine cod was at an all-time low. Scientists estimated that the population was at a mere 3-4 percent of a sustainable abundance level. They also found very few young cod in the population, which means recovery of the population is not going to occur anytime soon.

Atlantic cod. Photo Credit: NOAA

Atlantic cod. Photo Credit: NOAA

Click here to read the full blog originally posted on Huffington Post, November 17, 2014.


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How Climate Change is Sinking Seabirds

December 21st, 2014 | No Comments
Climate Change, For the Birds, Homepage

By Carl Safina

Far out in the center of the cobalt pacific, hundreds of miles from the next atoll—about as far from a continent as it’s possible to get—Laysan Island seems like the morning of the world, a place you and I aren’t meant to see. The atoll measures roughly two by three miles; you can walk around it in a couple of hours, and as you do you’ll find a million screaming Sooty Terns swirling overhead like a living tornado. You hear, smell, and feel the heat of life at full burn.

Tiny and remote, Laysan is one speck in a small, far-flung chain. The Northwestern Hawaiian Islands, with less than 0.1 percent of the state’s land area, provide breeding grounds for 90 percent of its seabirds, about 6 million of them, representing some 20 species. In addition to the terns, there are frigatebirds, noddies, tropicbirds, and Bonin Petrels, not to mention 600,000 breeding pairs of Laysan Albatross and 60,000 pairs of Black-footed Albatross—virtually the entire world populations.

Laysan albatross, Photo Credit: Frans Lanting

Laysan albatross, Photo Credit: Frans Lanting

Click here to read the full article originally published in Audubon Magazine, September 9, 2014.


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