A California woman pleaded guilty to illegally feeding killer whales in the wild this Tuesday in federal court in San Jose, Calif., the Department of Justice Environment and Natural Resources Division and the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Northern District of California announced.
Nancy Black of Monterey, Calif. pleaded guilty to one count of violating the Marine Mammal Protection Act (MMPA), specifically the MMPA’s feeding prohibition. The MMPA regulations make it a crime to feed marine mammals in the wild. The prohibition applies to commercial and recreational boaters, and applies to all species of marine mammals.
Killer whales (orcas) prey on gray whales in the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary. 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. Often, portions of the carcass, including strips and chunks of blubber (some over six feet in length and weighing over a hundred pounds), remain floating or semi-submerged after a kill. Orcas and sea birds feed on these chunks of blubber while they are still available in the area.
According to the factual basis of the plea agreement, on or about April 25, 2004, Black was on her boat in the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary, when she and her assistants encountered a place where orcas had killed a gray whale calf. She was observing the orcas as they fed on pieces of gray whale blubber that were floating in the water. In an effort to facilitate their viewing, she or her crew grabbed the blubber, cut a hole through the corner of the blubber chunk, and ran a rope through the piece of the blubber. Shortly thereafter, they returned the blubber to the water and monitored the feeding behavior of the orcas as they ate the blubber off of the rope. Black and her crew repeated the process with the rope and other pieces of the blubber. In court papers, Black admitted that she did not have a permit that would have allowed her to engage in this conduct. She also admitted that on or about April 11, 2005, she was involved in a similar incident involving the collection of floating blubber and offering it to orcas utilizing the same rope method.
In a separate incident on or about Oct. 24, 2005, Nancy Black met with a sanctuary officer and a National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) investigative agent at their offices in Monterey. The sanctuary officer was investigating a reported harassment of an endangered humpback whale earlier that month in the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary. The interaction with the humpback whale was filmed by one of Black’s crewmembers. Before Oct. 24, the sanctuary officer had previously asked Black to provide the videotape of the humpback whale encounter.
Black voluntarily agreed to provide the videotape, but prior to doing so she edited the video footage to remove several minutes that included footage of the humpback whale between two vessels that belonged to Black’s whale watching business, among other footage, and sounds. Black did not tell the officer that she had edited the tape. In filed court papers, Black admitted that by not disclosing the editing of the video, she could have impeded or influenced NOAA's investigation into the humpback whale incident.
Sentencing in the case is set for Aug. 6, 2013.
The case was investigated by agents of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the FBI with support from enforcement personnel from the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary. The case was prosecuted by Christopher L. Hale of the Justice Department’s Environmental Crimes Section, Environment and Natural Resources Division, and Jeffrey Schenk of the U.S. Attorney’s Office in San Jose, California.