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article imageMarine biologists could get 20 years in prison for feeding whales

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By JohnThomas Didymus     Jan 7, 2012 in Environment
Nancy Black, a marine biologist who runs whale-watching tours in Monterey Bay, California, has been accused of violating federal laws that protect marine mammals. She was charged on Wednesday with violation of the Marine Mammal Protection Act.
Los Angeles Times reports that the four-count indictment accuses Black of twice feeding killer whales in the Monterey Bay sanctuary, in 2004 and 2005. She was accused of feeding killer whales during a research trip in 2005, within the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary, but she tried to mislead investigators by editing video footage of the incident and lying. Investigators believe that during her research trip, Black violated a regulation that requires whale-watching boats to stay at least 100 yards away from the whales. When she was asked to provide a video of her encounter with a humpback whale taken from her boat during her trip in October 25, she provided investigators with an edited version that had the encounter with the humpback removed.
The charges against Black were filed after an investigation by the National Oceanic and Atmosphere Administration and U.S. Department of Justice.
AP reports that Black's lawyer Lawrence Biegel, said it was not unusual for his client to edit videos of whale-watching encounters she offered to her customers. She had, he said, provided the edited version when investigators asked because she did not know they wanted the original. Biegel said: "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. 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."
Black's lawyer denied she fed the whales during the trip. Biegel, according to Los AngelesTimes, explained that what Black did was collect a piece of gray whale blubber floating in the sea, cut a hole in it, passed a rope through it and drop it back into the sea close to the boat so that she could use a pole camera to film the killer whales feeding underwater.
AP reports that Black's lawyer 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. 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."
The San Francisco Chronicle reports that Biegel argued that Black could not be rightly accused of feeding the whales because the blubber was already in the water naturally. Biegel said: "The federal government says that's like feeding the bears in Yosemite. You've got to be kidding me. We're not bringing in Twinkies and moving them into cars; this is what they are eating."
Biegels said that he hoped Black would have the opportunity of explaining to an impartial tribunal how her action were part of legitimate scientific research activity. The lawyer said: "This is a classic example of the government taking a position that just may not be right. I think the government wants to make an example of Nancy and try to draw a bright line and say even scientists can't do this. I think they're wrong."
The Los Angeles Times reports that Black at the time the incident happened was working with federal marine scientists in a study of feeding habits of whales. According to her lawyer, she was acting within boundaries of a whale-research permit issued by the federal government.
The Los Angeles Times reports that the Monterey Bay Whale Watch website describes Black as an "expert in the biology of killer whales off the California coast who has a master’s degree in marine science and works to catalog, identify and document their behavior in Monterey Bay." Black has featured on PBS, National Geographic and Animal Planet. The San Francisco Chronicle reports that Black's tour company offers trips aboard its vessels, the 70-foot Sea Wolf II and 55-foot Point Sur Clipper.
If Black is found guilty of charges brought against her she could receive a maximum sentence of 20 years in prison and half a million dollars in fines. It is, however, unlikely that the judge will impose a maximum sentence.
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