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.

"For a small amount of money, you get a lot of gray whales," says Rugh, "but for a lot of money you may not get many right whale sightings."

Neither grays nor rights, of course, come close to the most politically hot species these days -- the Steller sea lion, a Bering Sea inhabitant whose numbers have dropped dramatically in recent years; many believe that's because of the commercial overfishing of pollock, the sea lions' main food supply. The federal government has devoted more than $50 million to scientific studies, industry bailouts, and community aid relating to Steller sea lions.

The gray whale, however, hasn't run head-on into a commercial crisis or industrial development brouhaha since 1995, when a development consortium proposed building a saltworks near the calving lagoons of Baja. Scientists ultimately determined that the plant would have little effect on the grays inside the lagoons.

Alisa Schulman-Janiger and John Heyning photograph and collect 
samples from a dead gray whale on a beach in Southern California.
David Janiger/Natural History Museum of Los Angele
Alisa Schulman-Janiger and John Heyning photograph and collect samples from a dead gray whale on a beach in Southern California.
Alisa Schulman-Janiger and John Heyning photograph and collect 
samples from a dead gray whale on a beach in Southern California.
David Janiger/Natural History Museum of Los Angele
Alisa Schulman-Janiger and John Heyning photograph and collect samples from a dead gray whale on a beach in Southern California.

Details

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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In the mid-'90s, more attention was focused on gray whales when the Makah Indian tribe in Washington state sought permission from the IWC to hunt whales for cultural reasons. In 1996, NMFS gave the Makahs about $250,000 for environmental studies, cultural assistance, and help with the IWC.

In March 1999, 28 gray whale scientists gathered in Seattle at the National Marine Mammal Laboratory for a confab that, coincidentally, took place as the gray whale body count was just beginning to become apparent. The meeting had been called to review the status of the gray whales' welfare in the five years since the species had been "delisted" -- removed from the federal endangered species list.

"I stood up and said, "You know, I am not comfortable saying these animals are out of the woods,'" says Bruce Mate, an Oregon State University biologist, one of the scientists who was by then pushing for a feeding ground study. "But when it came down to saying they are endangered, no one could say they are endangered or threatened."

A final report of the meeting concluded the stock was "neither in danger of extinction, nor was it likely to become endangered within the foreseeable future."

Without that technical bureaucratic trigger, Mate and others at the meeting say, the best the government could do was put in place a second five-year monitoring program.

"Because of the unusual mortality events, we decided to keep the issue open for another five years," Mate says.

Still, in the past five years, according to NMFS budget figures, the agency has let funding for gray whales fall off, from about $120,000 five years ago to about $64,000 in fiscal year 2001.

"The research environment is so darn competitive and there are so many animals that are in trouble," laments Perryman. His studies "are not that expensive on the standards of marine mammal work, but we're competing against a lot of things. Hard."

Mate helped organize the strandings response effort for Oregon -- without any financial assistance from NMFS, he says. That means veterinarians and others who examined dead and dying whales did so as volunteers, their expenses coming out of their own pockets or from the private institutions and colleges they work for.

Mate is one of several scientists who argues that gray whales could use more funding. He describes a study he would do if he could get a few hundred thousand dollars, involving putting electronic tagging devices on the gray whales and pinpointing where they actually feed in the summer.

In fact, Mate has raised about $6 million from private sources in the last 12 years for an endowment through OSU. The interest from that fund pays for a number of marine mammal studies annually. And even though most of it goes to whales, even Mate can't bring himself to spend any of the hard-earned cash on gray whales.

Instead, money from the endowment went to humpback, right, and blue whales this year, populations that are endangered and only small fractions of what they used to be.

The gray whale studies "would be extremely interesting and I would love to be doing it," Mate says. "But could I do it at the sacrifice of those other projects? The answer is no."

While the hundreds of dead whales stranded along the migration route and the continued low calf count are alarming, the grays are also a victim of their own biological success. Keepers of the purse strings believe that with a population of some 26,000, the grays do not merit further expenditures in a scientific world that treats problems on a triage basis. Researchers determined to get to the root of the dilemma are largely on their own.

NMFS has, for example, been trying to pull together a group of like-minded researchers up and down the West Coast into a sort of emergency stranding network that would respond to beached whales in a more systematic and scientifically consistent fashion.

Teri Rowles, who coordinates marine mammal response and strandings for NMFS out of Silver Spring, Md., says since 1999 the agency has collected tissue samples from about 110 dead or dying gray whales -- but that's out of more than 600 that have stranded. And fewer than 10 full necropsies have been done, she says.

Three or four years ago, the agency simply collected numbers -- how many whales died in a given year. When more and more whales started dying, federal scientists knew they needed more and better information.

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