Conundrum

At the same time hundreds of dead gray whales were washing up on beaches, their birthrate was plunging. Theories abound, but little hard data has been gathered to solve this environmental puzzle.

This year, the mystery of the gray whales deepened. The strandings have virtually stopped. Only 13 dead whales were counted along West Coast beaches during the spring and summer. And whale counters who watched the 2001 migration have reported that the whales appeared fatter and healthier than they have in years.

No one knows why the strandings stopped. More to the point, scientists don't know why so many whales died in the first place. It's an environmental conundrum that government officials now are calling a random event, even though examinations of the dead whales consistently showed the animals were starving.

But the mystery of the strandings should not be left behind so quickly. Whatever the explanation for the low stranding rate this year, birthrates for the grays continue to drop. So the problem is not merely a piece of theoretical jerky to be chewed upon.

The gray whale's primary feeding ground and main migration route are 
within areas that the federal government wants to offer for oil and gas 
leases.
Matt Kania
The gray whale's primary feeding ground and main migration route are within areas that the federal government wants to offer for oil and gas leases.
Matt Kania

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The recovery of the Eastern Pacific gray whale from the brink of extinction is the single greatest turnaround of a marine mammal population, and the whale's myriad connections to human cultural conflicts are no less impressive in their scope.

In New Times' special project "Shades of Gray," reporters from several of our papers have traveled from Siberia to Mexico to tell the complex tale of a creature whose annual migration -- at 12,000 miles round trip -- is the longest by any mammal. The trek joins the competing interests of Indians, scientists, environmentalists, and local residents. In this issue, Patti Epler explores the science, the money, and the politics behind gray whale research. With hundreds of whales mysteriously washing up dead and a plunging calf count coupled with reports of chemical contamination, scientific research has taken on a new urgency.

Visit Shades of Gray
A series documenting the perils, cultural conflicts and global and ecological warnings surrounding the gray whale.

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Significant national and international policy decisions are looming that could affect the gray whale population. In six months, the International Whaling Commission will meet again, this time in Japan, to decide how many Eastern Pacific gray whales can be harvested by aboriginal hunters in Washington state and Russia without harming the overall whale population.

The federal Minerals Management Service, which oversees offshore oil and gas projects, will soon be offering up new oil and gas leases in the Alaska region. Eight of the areas up for grabs include main migration routes and primary feeding grounds for gray whales.

And in Canada, the oil industry is pushing to lift the moratorium that has been preventing oil and gas development off the Canadian west coast -- a main migratory path for the grays.

Some scientists and environmentalists worry that this year's lack of strandings is the random event, that the grays are in the eye of some bigger ecological storm that begins in the far northern feeding grounds of the Bering Sea.

Ten years ago, a University of Alaska-Fairbanks researcher counted amphipods in the Bering Sea and predicted that in about the year 2000 gray whales would be in some trouble. He believed the fast-growing whale population was wiping out the amphipods, which take many years to reproduce.

Now, that same scientist, Ray Highsmith, has been awarded a National Science Foundation grant to return to the Bering Sea. Next summer's feeding grounds study should -- finally -- answer the fundamental question of whether the gray whales have reached carrying capacity or if there is some larger environmental problem at work.

The questions are vital. If the grays' food supply is threatened, oil drilling in gray whale territory or continued hunting on the open seas could have serious long-term consequences.

Today, there is little hard data upon which to make those decisions.


Right now, daylight in the Bering Sea is down to less than eight hours a day and fading at a fairly rapid meteorological clip. Scientists believe it is this shortening of days that signals the gray whales it's time to head south for warmer habitat, the lagoons of Baja California, 6,000 miles away.

By January, the bulk of the migration will be passing along the Northern California coast, in particular a point called Granite Canyon, where trained observers with the National Marine Fisheries Service will count them as they go by.

Scientists have been standing on cliffs counting the whales for more than 100 years. In 1885, the biologist C.H. Townsend watched the whales from the hills at San Simeon, where Hearst Castle now stands, and counted 160 of the leviathans. He had no way of estimating the size of the entire population beyond what he could see.

But Townsend's quasi-official count came a mere three decades after the notorious whaling captain Charles Melville Scammon decimated the gray whale population. Scammon, who is also credited with providing much of the early information on gray whale migration and behavior, discovered the calving lagoons of Baja -- then nearly wiped out the mammals in his zest for whale oil.

Researchers have gotten better since the 19th-century observations of Townsend at extrapolating from a head count to a population size. But this relatively simplistic whale census still remains the basic tool for determining the health of the species.

For more than 30 years, the Granite Canyon station has been the official site for what the NMFS calls "abundance estimates." Individual observers watch the whales through binoculars mounted on a stand and focused on a particular spot in the ocean. Same spot, day after day, year after year. Scientific consistency also calls for the observers to record their numbers by hand on a form that also has remained relatively unchanged for years.

"It's a primitive mechanism," concedes Dave Rugh, an NMFS biologist who oversees the counts, "but it's the same one that was used in the '60s."

That way, changes in technology do not skew the methodology or, hopefully, the results. In recent years, NMFS has added aerial surveys and underwater sensors to the mix as a way to confirm what the onshore watchers are seeing.

The count usually begins in mid-December. By the time it ends in mid- to late February, observers will have spotted more than 3,000 individual whales. Those numbers are run through a computer model that factors in density and other variables, then gives the estimated size of the population.

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