This Is What Happens When You Feed a Wild Killer Whale

In a bizarre legal twist, a respected marine biologist is convicted for doing what tourists at SeaWorld do every day.

(Photo: Franco Banfi / Getty Images)

David Kirby has been a professional journalist for 25 years. His third book, 'Death at Seaworld,' was published in 2012.

Visitors to SeaWorld pay money to feed marine mammals in the tanks, but they should never try to do that in the ocean. Just ask Nancy Black, a respected marine biologist in Monterey, Calif., who pleaded guilty earlier this week to “chumming” for wild killer whales.

Black, the operator of Monterey Bay Whale Watch, was slapped with a $12,500 fine and sentenced to three years' probation and 300 hours of community service for violating the Marine Mammal Protection Act, which forbids catching, touching, harassing, or feeding marine mammals. Originally charged with multiple felony and misdemeanor counts in 2012, she faced a 27-year prison term and a $700,000 fine.

Prosecutors accused her of threading rope through pieces of gray whale blubber and lowering it off her boat in an attempt to lure wild orcas during a research excursion on their feeding habits in 2004 and 2005. Video footage of the incidents was shot by oceanographer Jean-Michel Cousteau, who forfeited his boat, the Manfish, after his crew similarly attempted to entice orcas in April 2004.

Black, whose work has appeared on PBS, National Geographic, and Animal Planet, had a federal permit to conduct research on killer whales, allowing her to approach them more closely than tourist boats can, but even researchers are not allowed to feed marine mammals.

According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration website, “feeding, attempting to feed, or otherwise harassing marine mammals in the wild” is illegal because it harms the animals in the following ways:

—It causes marine mammals to lose their natural wariness of humans or boats and become conditioned to receiving handouts and associate people with food.

—It changes their natural behaviors, including feeding and migration activities, and decreases their willingness to forage for food on their own.

—Some of the items that are fed to marine mammals may be contaminated (old or spoiled) or not food at all.

—Marine mammals sometimes become aggressive when seeking food, and are known to bite or injure people when teased or expecting food.

Lead prosecutor Christopher Hale used those points in arguing for a hefty fine for Black. “When wild animals are fed by humans, they learn to lose their natural wariness,'' he said. "That can lead to devastating effect.''

Hale said he had never heard of an orca attacking people but added, "Who wants to be Patient Zero to be eaten by a killer whale because they're chumming for them?” Black was emotional when speaking to U.S. District Court Judge Edward Davila. “I made a mistake,” she said. “I've learned a big lesson.”

Black and her work are well respected in marine conservation circles. Nobody I spoke with wanted to condemn her on the record, though some privately expressed scorn. Others were supportive.

“This case has dragged on too long, cost way too much to taxpayers and too much grief and expense to Ms. Black,” says Howard Garrett, cofounder of Orca Network and a killer whale expert featured prominently in the anti-captivity documentary Blackfish. “Good researchers now risk unnecessary prosecution.”

Bernardo Alps, a field biologist with the Cabrillo Marine Aquarium in San Pedro, Calif., and a friend of Black's, is also sympathetic.

“I can totally understand why she did it,” he said. “You're a researcher, and you're out there, and an opportunity presents itself, and she went for it.” But, he says, “she did break the law,” and “she shouldn't have done that.”

Alps adds that the case gave the entire cause of marine-mammal protection “a black eye, because public reaction was really negative about such heavy-handed prosecution for what they consider a minor offense.” A large number of the more than 5,400 comments on a 2012 Yahoo article about Black’s predicament, for instance, “ridiculed the government for prosecuting the case.”

Ironically, such derision undercuts NOAA’s desire to send a message to other potential offenders, he says.

“It creates a disregard for the MMPA,” Alps says. “So many people now think the government is overreaching, that we need less government and fewer laws protecting marine mammals.”

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