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Indybay FeatureRelated Categories: California | Central Valley | East Bay | North Coast | Environment & Forest Defense | Government & Elections
Boat That Killed Blue Whale Didn't Have Valid Permit, Surveyor Contends
Why was the boat that killed a blue whale while doing sonar mapping surveys off the Mendocino County coast allowed to operate without a valid permit to conduct surveys in California waters?
Photo of dead blue whale by Larry Wagner.
Boat That Killed Whale Didn't Have Valid Permit, Surveyor Contends
by Dan Bacher
A research vessel contracted by NOAA for a mission to map the sea floor for the California Ocean Protection Council didn't have a valid permit when it struck and killed a 70-foot blue whale off the Mendocino County coast near Fort Bragg on October 19, a prominent sea surveyor contends.
The death of the whale drew an angry response from North Coast environmentalists, fishermen and seaweed harvesters, since one of the main reasons the boat was mapping the ocean floor was to gather the data used to develop so-called state "marine protected areas" (MPAs) under Governor Arnold's widely-criticized Marine Life Protection Act (MLPA) process, as well as for federal MPAs.
Steve Sullivan, Vice-President of Sea Surveyor, Inc., said the Pacific Star, an out-of-state vessel from Alaska, was surveying without the required permit to conduct geophysical surveys in California waters at the time that it struck the the rare blue whale.
"The permit the Pacific Star has been operating under (provided by Fugro-Pelagos) expired on September 30 and the new permit was not approved by the State Lands Commission until October 22, three-days after the whale was struck," he said. "NOAA, the Federal sponsor for the seafloor mapping project being conducted for the Ocean Protection Council, has never had a permit to survey in California waters, nor do they adhere to the provisions of the permit that ensure protection to marine mammals."
Sullivan has complained repeatedly to the Ocean Protection Council that the Pacific Star is not conducting their surveys in compliance with requirements from the California State Lands Commission to avoid adverse effects on marine mammals.
"The blue whale would not have been struck or killed if the Pacific Star had been conducting their surveys in compliance with State Lands Commission regulations," said Sullivan. "It is unfortunate that a Blue Whale had to die, but perhaps something good can come from this if it motivates the State to enforce the current laws that protect our marine resources."
Sullivan emphasized that the boat would not have been killed if the operators of the boat had been in compliance with the regulations that his operation is required to follow under state law.
First, geophysical survey boats equipped with multi-beam sonar or sidescan sonar are not allowed to operate at night in order to avoid collisions with whales and other marine mammals.
Second, operators are required to hire an observer trained in marine mammal biology to be on board during geophysical surveys to make sure that the boat doesn't endanger or hit whales and other marine mammals.
Third, the State Lands Commission requires operators to shut down the survey if the boat gets anywhere near a whale.
"The State, particularly the Ocean Protection Council, must stop funding illegal surveys in California waters," said Sullivan.
Steve Sullivan prophetically spoke in front of the California Ocean Protection Council regarding the non-compliance with the law of the MLPA survey vessel in September 2009. Here is his testimony: http://www.screencast.com/users/KellyCabal/folders/Default/media/f1da96f1-9dc0-4664-9635-b31271cb61f9
A representative from the Ocean Protection Council had not yet responded to my phone call at press time.
However, Samuel P. Schuchat, OPC Secretary and Executive Officer of the State Coastal Conservancy, tried to make light of this incident that has outraged North Coast environmentalists, fishermen and seaweed harvesters in his article, "Call Me Ahab," on the Ocean Protection Coalition website, http://www.opc.ca.gov/2009/11/call-me-ahab/.
"As you can imagine, we all feel pretty bad about it. After all, we are the Ocean Protection Council, not the Ocean Destruction Council," Schuchat stated. "To be fair, no one from the Council was on board the ship. In fact, we weren’t even paying them. Since the state bond freeze in December, our mapping project has been supported by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) until we are able to resume funding."
"Still, I feel like I just ran over my neighbor’s cat, except that I can’t run down to the pound and get a replacement," he quipped.
North Coast community activists are asking for a full, independent and impartial investigation of the killing of the blue whale by the Pacific Star, especially in light of Sullivan's relevation that the boat didn't have the necessary permit.
Jim Martin, West Coast Director of the Recreational Fishing Alliance, summed up the feelings of many North Coast environmentalists and fishermen when he said, "How ironic it is that a rare blue whale was killed by the people who say they want to 'protect marine life.'"