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Scientists witness killer whales attack group of sperm whales; EPA, legislators tout flexible pollution cleanup program… 

  • By Associated Press on December 01, 1997
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Scientists witness killer whales attack group of sperm whales

In what is believed to be a very rare event, a group of nine adult sperm whales were attacked by approximately 25 killer whales 60 miles off the central California coast, as witnessed and filmed by National Oceanic and Atmospheric Admin-istration scientists on a research vessel this fall.

The NOAA ship David Starr Jordan was conducting a National Marine Fisheries Service research cruise to collect data on the behavior and social groupings of the sperm whale when the attack occurred. One adult sperm whale was killed and eaten with several others sustaining life-threatening wounds during the attack that lasted more than five hours.

"Although rarely witnessed, killer whales have been seen attacking small sperm whale calves, but never attacking and killing adults," said Susan Chivers, chief scientist on the cruise.

"The defensive posturing of the sperm whales was very interesting although rather ineffective in this encounter," she said. "They exhibited behavior previously reported only by whalers of past decades, wherein the group formed a rosette pattern with their heads pointing inward in a hub fashion and their flukes (tails) projecting out from the center of the hub. This enables the use of flukes as a defensive weapon."

Barbara Taylor, chief scientist on an earlier sister cruise, said that only six killer whale attacks on sperm whales have ever been seen and recorded in the scientific literature.

"Originally given the name 'whale killers' by whalers, killer whales have killed almost every other large whale, including fin, Bryde's, minke, humpback, bowhead, southern right, gray, and even the adult blue whale weighing approximately 100 tons," Taylor said.

Five days after the first encounter, the cruise observed several small groups of sperm whales. Detecting the presence of killer whales, the sperm whale groups gathered into one group of about 50 animals. The sperm whales were seen to line up in two parallel ranks, all facing the same direction.

Calves were present in the group. The killer whales departed without making an attack.

Sperm whales are listed as endangered under the federal Endangered Species Act. Both sperm and killer whales are protected by the Marine Mammal Protection Act.

EPA, legislators tout flexible pollution cleanup program

Connecticut-based Witco Corp. says it has a way to reduce pollution from its chemical operations without spending up to $5 million that otherwise would be required under federal regulations.

Under a pilot program, the EPA has given Witco the green light for an alternative plan at a West Virginia plant.

Such a program would be expanded across the nation under legislation introduced in late October by Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman, D-CT, and two Democratic members of the House from California, Ellen O. Tauscher and Cal Dooley.

The bill has drawn support from industries like Witco, as well as from environmentalists and the White House.

"We believe this legislation is a critical step in developing the means to substantially simplify and refocus the current regulatory process on the one thing that counts: results," said Lloyd N. Moon, Witco's vice president for industry and government relations.

Under the legislation, companies would be able to develop their own programs rather than merely follow federal regulations if the alternative eliminates more pollution and local communities agree.

"The combination of a demand for a cleaner environment, advances in technology and an emphasis on curtailing pollution before it occurs, now often make it possible to do more with less," Lieberman said.

EPA Administrator Carol Browner said the idea behind her agency's program was to encourage companies to offer innovative, cost-saving ways to improve the environment.

Congress bans large trawlers off New England coast

With cod, haddock and flounder stocks already depleted from too much fishing, Congress passed legislation to protect two of the last healthy fish stocks off New England - herring and mackerel - by temporarily banning large factory trawlers.

The bill bans vessels of more than 165 feet, 3,000 horsepower or 750 tons from operating off New England's coast through Sept. 30, 1998. Previous-ly issued permits are to be revoked, lawmakers said.

During the ban, the New England Fisheries Management Council is to develop a management and conservation plan for herring and mackerel. The provision also bans trawlers over a certain size now operating in foreign waters from moving into any U.S. waters over the next year.

The moratorium was proposed by Massachusetts Sens. John Kerry and Edward Kennedy, both Democrats, Sen. John Chafee, R-RI, and Sen. Olympia Snowe, R-ME.

"For generations, fishermen from Gloucester and all of New England have used traditional methods to catch herring, but the introduction of these enormous vessels into our waters threatens to end their livelihood," Kerry said.

Lawmakers became concerned about the reintroduction of factory trawlers in New England waters after a business consortium unveiled plans to bring a 369-foot trawler, the Atlantic Star, to the coast. Processed fish was to be packaged at a new plant in Gloucester, MA.

The Atlantic Star is more than twice the size of any other fishing boat in New England and can harvest 50,000 tons of fish each year, Chafee said.

"These huge vessels would pose a dangerous triple threat - a threat to jobs, a threat to conservation and a threat to our environment," he said.

Trawlers, some as big as football fields, can haul up hundreds of tons of fish in a single netting. The fish is processed, frozen and stored while the vessel deploys its net for the next batch.

"Factory trawlers decimated our herring and mackerel stocks 20 years ago," said Sen. Jack Reed, D-RI, who proposed a trawler ban earlier this year.

Niaz Dorry, a fisheries campaigner with Greenpeace, said the law's passage bodes well for the enactment of a broader ban on trawlers proposed by Sen.

Ted Stevens, R-AK, that would eventually phase out factory trawlers in U.S. fisheries.

EPA toughens rules on paper mill emissions

The EPA in November moved to de-crease the poisonous chemicals and foul odors coming from pulp and paper mills.

The agency announced the tougher air and water pollution controls after nearly five years of discussions aimed at getting the industry to reduce its use of chlorine in the bleaching process.

"Today, we are taking significant steps to protect the health of millions of Americans families from contaminated air and water from pulp and paper mills," said EPA Administrator Carol Browner.

In anticipation of the new requirements, many paper mills have already shifted to the less-polluting bleaching method, although not abandoning chlorine use altogether as some environmental groups have sought.

Chlorine can produce dioxins, a family of chemicals that cause cancer and a variety of neurological and other medical problems in humans once they enter the food chain. Scientists have found significant levels of dioxins in fish near pulp and paper mills.

The new regulations call on the industry to replace the use of elemental chlorine with chlorine dioxide for bleaching, reducing dioxin discharges into waterways by 96 percent, according to EPA sources involved in writing the regulation.

The new regulations will also require pulp mills to install new equipment over the next three years that will cut the amount of other chemicals released into the air, including sulfur, organic compounds and fine dust.

Sulfur, which causes the foul odor near pulp plants, will have to be cut in half.

But a number of environmental groups complained that the EPA was backtracking from a more stringent chlorine proposal offered in 1993 in favor of a compromise that critics contend was largely fashioned by the industry.

"These new standards would reflect what most mills are doing anyway. It doesn't push the industry forward," added Todd Robins of the U.S. Public Interest Research Group. The 1993 proposal would have required mills to abandon chlorine altogether and use oxygenation and other procedures for bleaching, a process already used in Europe.

The American Forest and Paper Association and several major paper companies have argued the use of chlorine dioxide will cut dioxin discharges to nonmeasurable levels at far less cost.

In justifying its rejection of the 1993 proposal, the EPA argued that the shift from elemental chlorine to chlorine dioxide will cost $1.9 billion while cutting dioxin discharges by 96 percent. The totally chlorine-free bleaching process would cost $2.9 billion in capital costs and reduce dioxin releases only an additional 1 percentage point, or 97 percent.

Environmentalists dispute the EPA's cost comparison, saying they consider only capital expenses and not the lower cost of operating a chlorine-free mill. If both capital and operating costs are taken into account, the overall long-term costs to the industry would be similar, they argue.

A number of large U.S. paper companies, including Georgia Pacific and International Paper, already use chlorine dioxide for bleaching, as do many mills in Europe. However, many mills still use elemental chlorine, which produces much higher levels of dioxin.

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