Monterey Bay marine biologist Nancy Black faces up to 25 years in prison and half a million dollars in fines under charges that she violated the Marine Mammal Protection Act.


The charges stem from a 2004 photo allegedly showing Black — co-owner of Monterey Bay Whale Watch and an occasional television host — offering gray whale blubber to orcas (also known as killer whales) as she tried to get video of the whales feeding.


Black has pled "not guilty" to the charges, saying she was not feeding the killer whales. She says the orcas in 2004 had already killed the gray whale and she was merely trying to film them feeding.


As the Monterey County Herald reported, Black "poked a line through the thin, torn edge of a piece of blubber to keep it floating nearby. With a video camera on the end of a pole, she captured the underwater feeding when an orca snatched the food and shared it with others in the pod." She says it was the first time that any scientist had captured footage of killer whales feeding underwater, and that she never profited from the footage.


The U.S. Justice Department charges that by using a line and pole, Black potentially changed the orcas' natural behavior, a violation of the Marine Mammals Protection Act.


Ironically, orcas are protected under the MMPA in no small part due to the efforts of Black. While working as an investigator for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) in 2000, she discovered that orcas in the Pacific Northwest were probably migrating to Monterey Bay because the northern Chinook salmon they feed on were disappearing.


More serious than the orca-feeding charges are allegations that Black "harassed" a humpback whale in 2005 by taking her boat too close to the animal. Federal investigators asked for and received Black's footage from that day, but allege it was edited prior to their receiving it. Black told the Herald that the only changes were the removal of "dead water shots" that showed no whales. She says this is a common practice for her videos, which she sells to her whale-watching customers after their trips.


Black's attorney Lawrence Biegel described the humpback encounter to the Daily Mail in January: "She was out whale-watching with a full complement of passengers and spotted a humpback whale. It was a friendly whale, which loves to come up close to a boat and breach and frolic. There's video of this, which she turned over, of this whale doing exactly that, literally going from one side of the boat to another."


A site set up by friend Jim Scarff seeks donations for Black's legal defense, which she told him are costing her "life's savings."


Monterey Bay is one of 13 national marine sanctuaries in the United States.

Marine biologist Nancy Black pleads not guilty to illegally feeding killer whales
Government alleges she offered gray whale blubber to orcas in Monterey Bay and lied to prosecutors about a humpback whale encounter.