A prominent Monterey marine biologist who specializes in the study of whales is the target of a federal grand jury indictment accusing her of violating various marine mammal protection laws, including two alleged instances in which she fed a killer whale in Monterey Bay's waters.
Nancy Black, whose expertise on killer whales and other species has been featured everywhere from National Geographic to Animal Planet, was charged in San Jose federal court Wednesday with committing the violations in 2004 and 2005 while operating her whale watching business in Monterey Bay.
The four-page indictment alleges that Black twice violated provisions of federal laws barring a host of activities involving protected marine mammals in national marine sanctuaries such as Monterey Bay. Among other things, the indictment alleges that Black violated provisions that bar the feeding, or attempted feeding, of whales, a rare prosecution under the Marine Mammal Protection Act.
Black's lawyers strongly defended her conduct, saying she has taken the position since confronted by the government in 2006 "that she broke no laws."
San Francisco attorney Lawrence Biegel said at the time Black is accused of illegally feeding whales, she had a research permit from the government and was within the law in her research work. Rather than feed whales, Black was using an underwater camera to film the eating habits of killer whales who were feeding off floating pieces of
Black, her lawyers maintain, used that work for a scientific conference in Norway, and conducted the research with the knowledge of other scientists, including some working for the government. She plans to use her case to show her whale research was about science, not a crime.
"We view this indictment as an opportunity for Ms. Black to explain her techniques and methods to a fair-minded jury of her peers," Biegel said.
Scott Kathey, federal regulatory coordinator for the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary, said the charges are the result of an ongoing investigation by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the Justice Department. He referred questions to the Justice Department, which declined to comment on the indictment.
Black is also charged with lying to investigators about altering an October 2005 video of a whale watching expedition involving possible illegal contact with a humpback whale in the bay. Monterey Bay was designated one of 13 federal marine sanctuaries in 1992.
On her Monterey Bay Whale Watch website, Black is identified as a marine biologist of more than 25 years with expertise on killer whales, and her work in the area has been cited in a host of prominent nature shows and media such as the "Today" show.
Black stresses on her whale watch site that her group "carefully respects these animals" and follows "all whale watch guidelines."
There have been occasional federal prosecutions under the act for illegal interactions with whales. Last year, a Boston fisherman was convicted of an incident in which his boat waded into a school of feeding humpback whales in a marine sanctuary off the Massachusetts coast, violating the law's ban on such activity.
Contact Howard Mintz at 408-286-0236.