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 right now, NMFS hopes to pay for the usual Granite Canyon southbound count, the northbound calf production survey, and a photo identification project of gray whales in the Makah hunting area, and to continue veterinary exams and laboratory analyses of any further strandings. Some money also is being set aside for scientists who are studying the Western Pacific gray whale and how oil development off Sakhalin Island in Russia is affecting the whales.

While NMFS still has no plans to fund research on particular theories, like Wayne Perryman's speculation over the role late ice plays in the feeding grounds, NMFS is finally planning habitat-related work in the Bering Sea. DeMaster says the agency hopes to send a researcher to the Chirikov Basin in the Bering Sea to look at amphipod production.

DeMaster is keeping his fingers crossed that the budget comes in as planned. If not, the Bering Sea study will likely be the first thing to get cut, because vessel-based work is the most expensive.

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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But even if that happens, at least one project appears poised to be able to answer questions about the grays' food supply. The National Science Foundation last month awarded a $500,000 grant to Ray Highsmith of the University of Alaska-Fairbanks to spend several weeks in the Bering Sea studying the amphipod population. When the cost of the research vessel is tagged on, the money devoted by NSF to the amphipod work will likely exceed $1 million, Highsmith says.

Still, it will be at least two years before Highsmith and his team will have data ready to share with the rest of the scientific community, certainly not in time for the upcoming IWC quota meeting.

And the lack of communication among scientists interested in the same subject is surprising, especially in a bureaucracy that is short on cash and could benefit from shared efforts. NMFS scientists had no idea Highsmith was even doing an amphipod study until told so by a reporter.

NMFS is primarily a regulatory agency with responsibility for fisheries and marine mammals; it pays for research to help it do its job. The NSF, on the other hand, has a direct charter through Congress to carry out basic scientific research in many areas, both onshore and off. The two entities coordinate on some studies but have no official communication policy in place to consistently let one know what the other is doing.

"The only way they would know that would be if Ray told them or they looked at our Web site," says Neil Swanberg, who oversees polar research programs for the NSF. (Apparently no one thought to do the obvious.) "It's not an unwillingness to cooperate; it's just there is so much going on."

Even without the amphipod results, DeMaster says he's confident that scientists will have enough information by spring to make sound quota recommendations to IWC. He notes that scientists have years of abundance estimates, calf counts, and other measures of the general health of the population to rely on. Any decision relating to management of the stock, including quotas, can be adjusted if new information comes to light later that the whales are in trouble, he says.

"If there has been a change, we won't fully understand what's causing it, but at least we'll have research under way," he says.


In early 1999, just as gray whales started turning up dead on Mexican beaches, some of the world's leading marine mammal scientists happened to be gathered at a conference in Mexico. Dead whales became dinner-table conversation.

Burney Le Boeuf, a University of California at Santa Cruz faculty member whose specialty is actually elephant seals, volunteered to write a paper putting forth the theory that skinny dead whales on Mexican beaches could be linked to serious shortages in the Bering Sea food supply.

"I think with the government what happens is they respond to crisis," he says. "They don't get much money unless there's a crisis and the politicians lean on them and they produce a product."

So Le Boeuf, Bruce Mate from Oregon State University, and several noted Mexican whale scientists decided to sidestep government red tape and collaborate on a paper. They had no intention of actually studying the feeding grounds or even applying for any grants.

"I think what you hope is that your paper presents an idea which stimulates further research," Le Boeuf says. "You don't necessarily have to do it yourself. You're moving things forward. I would hope that it would serve as a boot in the butt to the government."

In fact, their paper has gotten wide circulation in the small world of whale research. The 12-page paper has been the catalyst for a growing debate on whether there are just too many gray whales for the environment to support.

The scientists relied on existing data of various kinds surrounding the 1999 strandings: the locations of the strandings, how often they occurred, the sex and age of the dead whales, their physical condition, reports of whales feeding in new spots, especially along the migration route.

They found that most of the dead whales were female adults, not the usual calves and yearlings. Tests of dead whale tissue samples, although limited, showed thin blubber and low levels of oil and fat, which suggested low energy reserves.

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