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Biologist pleads guilty to feeding killer whales in Monterey Bay

A prominent marine biologist was fined $12,500 and placed on three years probation for feeding killer whales in the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary.

In exchange, Nancy Black -- whose work has appeared on PBS, National Geographic and Animal Planet -- pleaded guilty to one misdemeanor violation of the Marine Mammal Protection Act and agreed to serve 300 hours of community service. Federal prosecutors accused her of using chunks of gray whale blubber to draw orcas closer to her research vessel for filming in 2004 and 2005.

Black had faced a maximum $100,000 fine and one year in prison, according to her plea agreement, in which she admitted to offering food to the orcas, "specifically chunks of gray whale blubber."

Investigators built their case on footage shot by famed oceanographer Jean-Michel Cousteau, whose crew also attempted to lure the orcas during the feeding in April 2004. Federal prosecutors forced him to forfeit his vessel, the Manfish, alleging that, like Black, his crew also threaded gray whale blubber on ropes to draw the orcas closer.

In their criminal complaint, prosecutors said the orcas tried to submerge and steer the gray whale carcass away from the Manfish multiple times over the course of two hours, but the crew repeatedly interfered, at one point even backing up over the carcass while the orcas were still feeding on it.

Unlike Cousteau, Black was not forced to forfeit her research vessel, but supporters argued it was unfair that she was the only one charged in the whale interaction. They also argued that attaching a rope to a piece of blubber from a gray whale that had already been killed by orcas was not akin to "chumming" the water.

Black, a researcher and co-owner of Monterey Bay Whale Watch, told the Monterey County Herald that the case was the "worst nightmare I could ever imagine" and looked "forward to returning to my passion of studying marine mammals without the distractions that I have had during this case."

Her supporters said the case would have a chilling effect on other researchers who try to work with animals in the wild. But U.S. District Judge Edward Davila said feeding wild animals erodes their wariness of humans, which can be dangerous for both parties.

The judge also ordered Black to stay 100 yards from the whales -- a punishment her attorneys warned could be used against her by her whale-watching business competitors if a whale swims close by on its own.

Black had faced a 27-year prison term and $700,000 fine after she was initially charged with multiple felony and misdemeanor counts in 2012.

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jason.wells@latimes.com

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