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.

But it was slow going. Initially, the researchers who ventured out to look at dead whales weren't even distinguishing between whales that died of obvious trauma -- a ship strike -- and those for which no cause of death was readily apparent.

The agency began holding workshops that included Mexican and U.S. scientists, stepping up what Rowles calls "more focused training" as more whales continued to die in 2000.

One problem, notes Rowles, is that many of the people who respond to strandings are simply interested citizens who have agreed to jot down some very basic information about dead whales -- length, general body condition, and whether there is any obvious trauma, for instance. Professional researchers, veterinarians, and scientists often are not available in isolated or rural areas.

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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The workshops have been aimed at the professionals who can do more sophisticated biological and chemical testing. At a minimum, the standard protocol calls for samples of skin, blubber, milk, and liver specimens to be tested for chemical contaminants. NMFS also wants samples of blood, urine, feces, and stomach contents, as well as parts of the liver, kidney, lungs, and gonads so the agency can test for diseases and toxins.

That effort is being applauded by scientists in the field, who have been frustrated with the lack of data that has hurt the scientific community's ability to figure out if there is a serious problem looming for the gray whales.

For instance, Russian scientists have recently found the industrial solvent phenol in gray whales harvested in the Chukotka area. They have shared their concerns with colleagues in the U.S. Yet NMFS officials have not tested gray whale carcasses along the West Coast for phenol. Rowles says the solvent rapidly metabolizes so it might only show up in whales close to the area of exposure, in this case off the Russian coast.

Is phenol, which is known to interfere with the reproductive cycle, part of the problem with the low calf count? No one knows, in part because no one has tested the carcasses of the stranded whales for industrial solvents.

"I'm not condemning [NMFS], I'm just disappointed that they couldn't respond more quickly," says Todd O'Hara, a biologist with the North Slope Borough in Barrow, Alaska. "Now we feel like we're ready if this happens again."

One of the country's leading specialists in chemical contaminants, O'Hara stands in the hallway outside the International Whaling Commission meeting in London in July, his black jeans and soft plaid shirt an oddity in a crowd where not only the international commission members and their staffs but the numerous environmental activists dress smartly in business suits.

O'Hara has been working with aboriginal whalers for years and, most recently, has been helping Siberian whalers examine problems with "stinky" whales -- grays that give off a medicinal or chemical odor and that some worry might be poisoned with industrial solvents.

Barrow whalers, who hunt primarily bowheads, and the Siberians sit together at the IWC, listening somberly, some through translator headphones. Unlike other more conventional spectators, they don't chitchat among themselves or wander in and out of the room as the proceedings drag on over five days. Instead, they seem intent on this discussion of every conceivable aspect of whaling, from computerized management and population modeling to whale-killing methods to whale-watching projects and marine sanctuaries.

For most of the countries gathered at the long tables in this brightly lighted room, the debate over whaling is largely political. But for these residents of the Far North, particularly the Siberians from Chukotka, what the IWC does could very well mean life, provided by the sustenance of whales, or death -- through starvation.

The one thing the IWC doesn't discuss is money. The organization is made up of 40 countries, including the richest in the world, which pay hundreds of thousands of dollars in membership dues. Still, the IWC contends it has no resources for fundamental scientific research. Instead, it relies on the member countries, like the U.S., to pay for studies the IWC needs to make whale management decisions, like setting quotas for aboriginal hunting or putting in place ocean sanctuaries.

That's why the IWC is counting on the U.S., with a little help from Mexico, to return to the IWC in March with comprehensive information on the overall health of the gray whale population, data the group can use to maintain or revise aboriginal harvest quotas for the Russian whalers and the Makah Indian tribe.

Within U.S. scientific circles, there appears to be some fiscal recognition of the strandings and potential problems the deaths may be signaling. Money is finally coming in from two different federal sources.

First, NMFS has budgeted about $400,000 for the coming year for gray whales, although that figure could be substantially cut when the budget is finalized in the next few weeks. Doug DeMaster, of the National Marine Mammal Laboratory, says NMFS, along with every other federal agency, may face cutbacks as federal dollars are siphoned from existing accounts to help pay for the aftermath of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks in New York and Washington, D.C.

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