Calif. marine biologist accused of feeding whale

January 5, 2012 - 10:20 PM

SAN FRANCISCO (AP) — A marine biologist who runs popular whale-watching tours on California's Monterey Bay has been indicted for violating federal laws that protect marine mammals, though her attorneys said her interactions with the creatures were scientific research.

Nancy Black, a marine scientist whose work has been featured on PBS, National Geographic and Animal Planet, was charged Wednesday with four violations of the Marine Mammal Protection Act.

She was accused of feeding killer whales in 2005 during a research trip, and misleading investigators by editing video footage of her encounters with other whales during a whale watching trip, and then lying about it. All of the alleged incidents occurred within the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary, one of 13 ocean sanctuaries established in 1992.

Prosecutors say the charges were filed after an investigation by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and U.S. Department of Justice. Wyn Hornbuckle, a spokesman for the DOJ, declined to comment, as well as a spokesman for NOAA.

In addition to her scientific work, Black owns Monterey Bay Whale Watch and operates two commercial whale-watching vessels. Black has also worked with federal agencies on the study of whales, including the National Marine Mammal Laboratory, which is part of NOAA.

If she is found guilty of editing the video and then lying about it, Black could receive a maximum sentence of 20 years in prison and a half million dollars in fines. Each of the feeding charges carries a maximum penalty of a year in prison and a $100,000 fine. While these are the maximum sentences allowable by law, courts generally do not impose the maximum, instead relying on guidance from the U.S. Sentencing Commission.

According to the indictment, Black was asked to provide video taken from her whale-watching boat during an October 2005 trip that investigators believe included an illegal encounter with a humpback whale. Whale-watching boats are supposed to stay at least 100 yards from the animals.

Black is accused of providing an edited version of the video that took out the humpback encounter.

Lawrence Biegel, one of Black's lawyers, said the videos in question are often edited and offered to whale watching customers as keepsakes of their day. He said Black provided an edited copy to federal investigators, not knowing they wanted the original.

"She was out whale-watching with a full complement of passengers and spotted a humpback whale. It was a friendly whale, which loves to come up close to a boat and breach and frolic," he said. "There's video of this, which she turned over, of this whale doing exactly that, literally going from one side of the boat to another."

Biegel said Black never fed the creatures during her research trips.

Black was working with federal marine scientists at the time, Biegel said, to study the feeding habits of the powerful sea creatures. Orcas sometimes come to Monterey Bay to feed on gray whale calves as they migrate north along the Pacific coast, Biegel said.

Biegel said Black had collected a piece of gray whale blubber that was floating in the sea, cut a hole so a rope could be fed through, and dropped it back into the ocean. The idea was to keep the blubber close to the boat so Black could use a pole camera to film the killer whales eating underwater, he said.

"In the specific incident in question, Ms. Black used an underwater camera and filmed the eating habits of killer whales who were feeding off free floating pieces of blubber from a gray whale that had been killed by a pack of killer whales," Biegel said.

"She was never hiding what she did or how she did it. In fact, she was acting with the knowledge of other marine mammal scientists, some of whom work for agencies of the federal government," he said. Biegel said Black had a permit granted by the federal government to conduct the research.

Prosecution of MMPA violations is not uncommon. In 2010 a recreational fisherman pleaded guilty to two misdemeanor violations after his boat struck two humpbacks in the Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary off the coast of Massachusetts. In 2008, four members of the Makah Tribe were sentenced to prison and probation for illegally killing a gray whale off the northwest coast of Washington.