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.

Enter Ray Highsmith, who in studying the amphipods may well resolve the essential conundrum over carrying capacity vs. environmental collapse.

The University of Alaska-Fairbanks biologist plans to lead a team of researchers into the northern latitudes of the Bering Sea next June and actually measure the amphipods that have been the subject of so much scientific hand-wringing.

Highsmith will be repeating work he did about 10 years ago, a research project that was also funded by the National Science Foundation, not NMFS. As an aside, Highsmith points out that he doesn't even apply for grants through NMFS because the agency never has the kind of money needed for arctic seafaring expeditions, which run into the hundreds of thousands of dollars.

Wayne Perryman of the National Marine Fisheries Service in La Jolla is 
the government's leading authority on gray whale calf birthrates, which 
have dropped 83 percent in the past five years.
Don Lewis
Wayne Perryman of the National Marine Fisheries Service in La Jolla is the government's leading authority on gray whale calf birthrates, which have dropped 83 percent in the past five years.
Volunteers with the American Cetacean Society count gray whales as 
the mammals journey north near Los Angeles on their way to summer 
feeding grounds in Alaska.
Alisa Schulman-Janiger/Natural History Museum of L
Volunteers with the American Cetacean Society count gray whales as the mammals journey north near Los Angeles on their way to summer feeding grounds in Alaska.

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 previous study, Highsmith identified the gray whales' primary feeding ground as a 47,000-square-kilometer patch of ocean between St. Lawrence Island and the Bering Strait. As many as 3,500 whales were feeding in the area. He believes there is a similar "hot spot" north of the Bering Strait, in Russian waters near Siberia.

In the study area, the large amphipods favored by gray whales were plentiful, about 5,000 per square meter, his study showed.

Those amphipods are about the size of cocktail shrimp and live in the upper few centimeters of the muck on the bottom of the ocean. A feeding gray whale dredges a trench a few meters deep in the upper layer of the bottom, sifting the sand and amphipods through its baleen.

But the same area also contains many smaller types of amphipods, animals that are just too tiny to be trapped by the baleen. It's these smaller creatures that will be key to determining whether the whales are simply overgrazing, as Le Boeuf and his group contend, or whether a more widespread sea change is at work, as Brownell and Weller propose.

Ten years ago, based on the feeding rate of the whales and the reproductive rate of the amphipods, Highsmith predicted that by about the year 2000, the whales would be having a hard time finding enough food. "Lo and behold, about 1999, whales started washing up on the beaches," he says. "The arrows are all starting to point toward the amphipods."

Highsmith applied for the NSF grant about 18 months ago but only got final approval in September. It was too late to do any field work this year; all the research vessels were booked and the weather in the Bering Sea would soon be too rough for bottom-sampling. Now, Highsmith plans to head north in June for 10 days on site, then return next September for a second round of sampling.

Highsmith will repeat the work as closely as possible to the way as he collected samples and analyzed data 10 years ago. That means dropping anchor in the same few spots the team visited before, and using a shipboard system that sends a heavy metal grab bucket over the side. The machine will bring back large samples of the bottom and whatever amphipods might be included. The team also hopes to make use of small, two-person research subs to study the bottom.

And here is where the gray whales' future lies: If only the amphipod species eaten by the gray whales has declined, then scientists can be reasonably certain that the problem is the whales themselves -- the overgrazing or carrying capacity theory. But if all species of amphipods have declined, including those too small to be consumed by whales, then, Highsmith says, it means the amphipods' own food system -- microscopic diatoms that live in the water column -- is in trouble. And that would suggest some larger cause, such as broader climatic change.

Either way, a downturn in amphipods does not bode well for the gray whales. It takes many years for amphipods to reproduce. "If their population is way down, it may not recover for decades," Highsmith says. "In terms of the whales, that's a problem for them."

A widespread environmental change would make sense, given that scientists have been seeing a continuing crash in the Bering Sea's ecosystem for the past several decades. From the smallest organisms to the largest mammals to the physical environment of the region, scientists have noticed changes, some profound. Fisheries have declined, there are fewer and fewer sea birds and other shore creatures, even the permanent ice pack is thinner than it was 30 years ago.

The loss of the whales' primary food supply would have tremendous implications for management of the species. IWC officials, already under attack by some major environmental groups for allowing any killing of grays even by aborigines, would be hard-pressed to defend the harvest. Oil companies would face a much tougher permitting process if the gray whale population is again considered threatened.

"I think one has to be cautious," says Highsmith. "There's a signal occurring, but whether it's a blip or a trend, no one knows. We need to get out and find out."

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