June 23, 2019
Why We’re Seeing More Beached Gray Whales
Gray Whale swimming through the oceanEschrichtius robustus | Wikimedia Commons
Gray whales are a speckled, 45-foot, 1,500-pound marine mammal that are native to the Pacific Ocean, according to the Marine Mammal Center.
This year, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) declared an Unusual Mortality Event due to the increase in strandings, so we reached out to the NOAA to dive further into the issue.
A Bit of Context…
The difference between killer whales and gray whalesSource: Killer Whales vs. Gray Whales – National Geographic | National Geographic
“The NOAA is a big part of government and one of the bureaus is the Fisheries department,” said Michael Milstein, the Public Affairs Officer for the NOAA. “We’re the agency that focuses on marine resources, wildlife, and fish.”
Milstein said the Fisheries department protects marine mammals including whales, dolphins, and sea turtles.
“We also do a lot of work on Fisheries, which has to do with managing fishing for various commercial fish,” Milstein explained. “That includes everything from salmon to tuna to many other species. We monitor their populations and work with regional councils to set fishing seasons.”
The Increase in Gray Whale Strandings
“We’ve had a lot more strandings of gray whales on the west coast this year than we had in the last several years,” Milstein said.
Since January, the US has seen 81 gray whale strandings, the NOAA reports. That number jumps to 167 total when you include the strandings in Canada and Mexico, as well.
During the whaling era (17th century to 1986), Milstein said their population was pushed to the edge of extinction. Since the International Whaling Commission (IWC) prohibited commercial whaling in 1986, the gray whale population has recovered.
“They’ve bounced back very strongly,” Milstein said. “They’re a resilient species that can recover and rebuild itself, if given the chance.”
The Tipping Point
Tail of a gray whale peaking out of the waterGray Whale Fluke | flickr
Although the gray whale population has recovered as a whole, they’re washing ashore at rates we haven’t seen in two decades.
“There was a similar spike in strandings in 1999 and 2000, which we investigated” Milstein began. “[The researchers] didn’t identify a specific cause, but they did note that many of the whales at that time, similar to what we’re seeing now, were skinny and underweight. That’s really been the common thread between the whales that have stranded this year.”
Gray whales feed in the Arctic during the summer, which lasts them through the rest of the year, Milstein added.
“They don’t eat much during the winter or migration, so they really need to consume a lot to pack on the weight during the summer in order to keep themselves going through the rest of the year,” he said. “For some reason, these animals [that have stranded] didn’t get enough to eat last summer. When they arrived in Mexico during the winter, they were skinny.”
Gray whales have the longest known migration of any mammal, Milstein continued. Their route is about 10,000 to 12,000 miles round trip, according to Journey North’s interactive map.
The species’ diet primarily consists of arthropods, shrimp-like creatures that live on the ocean floor, according to Milstein.
“They consume huge amounts of arthropods to put on the weight and grow to the size that they do,” he said. “There are a number of things that may have happened.”
Their food supply may be lower, or it could have moved, which Milstein said would also contribute to the issue.
“It could be that there are so many more whales they are running up against the limit of the environment to sustain them – at least, that’s one of the theories,” he added. “That’s what scientists are going to be investigating very carefully.”
How the Gray Whale Strandings Are Handled
The NOAA asks that people use the stranding hotline, 1-866-767-6114, which alerts the West Coast Marine Mammal Stranding Network.
The network was established in the early 80’s under the MMPA, according to their website. Milstein said it consists of aquariums, universities, and nonprofits along the west coast.
“They’re the first ones that go out and try to document the stranding; find out what species it is, whether it’s dead or alive,” Milstein continued. “That sets in motion the following steps, such as a necropsy by someone with the skill and expertise. They’ll look at the whales, their body condition, check their stomach contents (if they can), and take some samples.”
When a stranding has been reported of a deceased whale, Milstein explained they are towed away to an area where the necropsy can be performed and the carcass can decompose.
Recently, the unusual increase in gray whale strandings has made headlines as waterfront property owners along the west coast have been asked by the NOAA to allow the mammals to decompose on their land.
“Until now, we’ve mainly focused on using state or publicly owned land that’s remote,” Milstein said. “But there aren’t a lot of places you can put a 40-foot whale that isn’t in somebody’s front or backyard.”
The NOAA hasn’t asked a specific number of people, rather, Milstein said they’ve let the public know they’re looking for volunteers.
“So far we’ve gotten about 15 or so people who have responded that are interested and willing to [let the whale carcasses decompose on their property], mainly in the Puget Sound and Salish Sea area of Washington,” he added. “It’s an area in which the shorelines are pretty heavily populated with people. We’d like to identify folks who are willing to volunteer, which gives us more options if a whale shows up in a place where it can’t really stay.”
Milstein made note of the smell and other potential impacts the decomposition could have, but he said there are still people who would find that intriguing and educational.
As it currently stands, there’s only been one couple who have a gray whale on their property, according to Milstein.
“The woman is actually veterinarian who is assisting with the necropsy,” he added.
The necropsy is a postmortem inspection of the deceased marine mammals that wash ashore, which give marine biologists and veterinarians alike a clearer picture as to why these strandings are happening.
“When they get that way, their blubber becomes tough and fibrous,” he said. “There are tell-tale signs that the biologists and veterinarians look for.”
Milstein then said there were other marine species that strand from time to time, such as sea lions and dolphins.
“However, right now the gray whales are the primary species we’re focused on because the numbers have been so much greater than usual,” he added.
Protecting Marine Life
Gray whale jumping out of the waterAnim1723 – Flickr – NOAA Photo Library | Wikimedia Commons
NOAA participates in a wide variety of programs to protect gray whales and other marine life, in addition to the MMPA and Endangered Species Act.
“We’re doing a lot of different things [to protect marine life],” Milstein said. “For example, we’re also concerned about ship strikes with whales. By looking at the environmental conditions of the ocean, we can sort of predict where the whales are most likely to be and warn ships.”
How You Can Help
Gray whale peaking out of the waterGray Whale (Eschrichtius robustus) | flickr
Protecting marine life is a group effort. It’s not up to the NOAA and other organizations to do all the work – we have to do our part, too.
“Whenever you’re at the coast, keep an eye out for any stranded marine mammals and report them to our stranding hotline so that we can respond and learn about the animal as well as what caused its death,” Milstein said.
He also mentioned the restoration projects along the coast that will create sanctuaries and habitats for fish as well as other wildlife.
“In the tidal zone, for instance, we’re doing a lot of work on restoring habitats for salmon in the northwest,” Milstein continued. “Salmon move between the ocean and freshwater in the rivers, so they need a habitat in both places.”
You can get involved in these restoration projects and learn more about marine life through local groups and aquariums.
“It’s important for people to think about this in the big picture sense,” Milstein said as we wrapped up our discussion. “The gray whales are strong and doing well as a whole. They’ve also shown themselves to be resilient in the past. The population had dropped quite a bit at one point, but rebounded and grew larger in numbers than they were before in just a few years.”
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