Tag Archives: gray whale

Gray whale deaths lead to declaration of ‘unusual mortality event’

As more gray whales wash up dead on beaches in Puget Sound and along the West Coast, NOAA Fisheries has declared an “unusual mortality event” to mobilize additional research into what is killing these massive marine mammals.

Aerial images, such as this one off Central California, help biologists assess the condition of gray whales as part of a declared “unusual mortality event.”
Photo: Southwest Fisheries Science Center and SR3 under federal permits NMFS 19091 and MBNMS 2017-8.

About 70 gray whales have been found dead so far this year along the shorelines of California, Oregon, Washington and Alaska, with another 73 in Mexico and five in Canada. That’s the most since the year 2000, when more than 100 gray whales were stranded along the U.S. West Coast, triggering a previous unusual mortality event, or UME.

Many of the dead whales have shown signs of emaciation, suggesting that they failed to find enough food in the Arctic last summer, a time when they need to build up enough energy reserves to make it through the winter. Each year, the Eastern North Pacific gray whales travel from their feeding grounds in Alaska to their over-wintering areas in Mexico. As they return north at this time of year, they could be exhausting the remainder of their fat reserves, experts say.

A gray whale found dead at Washington state’s Leadbetter Point State Park near Long Beach was examined and found to be unusually thin.
Photo: John Weldon, Northern Oregon/Southern Washington Marine Mammal Stranding Program.

Not all the dead animals are showing signs of malnutrition. Other possible causes of death can include contaminants, environmental conditions, disease and being struck by moving ships. At least three of the animals were killed by ships.

The 70 whales found dead in U.S. waters this year compare to an average of 15 whales found stranded during the same January-through-May time period over the past 18 years. That number is just a fraction of the whales that actually died, however, since only 4 to 13 percent of dead gray whales are ever recovered, according to a study from the last UME.

For Washington state, the migration is about halfway through, while it is just beginning in Alaska, so officials predict that more gray whales will perish before they make it back to their feeding grounds. Of the 70 dead gray whales found on U.S. beaches so far, 37 stranded in California, 25 in Washington, five in Alaska and three in Oregon.

The total population of gray whales along the West Coast is estimated at 27,000, up from about 16,000 following the UME in 2000, when the population dropped by about 5,000 whales, according to Dave Weller, research wildlife biologist with NOAA’s Southwest Fisheries Science Center.

“We know the population can recover, given that all the other parameters remain the same, that the environment remain the same and there is enough food,” Weller said during a telephone news conference this afternoon.

“I would say that the number-one priority is learning as much as we can from the stranded animals,” he added. “Our monitoring will continue, and we will do another abundance estimate … and we’ll also be following calf production. We’ve got our finger on the pulse, and we will continue to monitor it closely.”

The number of calves born this year also appears to be down from average, as it has been in previous unusual mortality events. Whether feeding conditions will be better this year has not yet been determined.

Sue Moore, a biological oceanographer at the University of Washington, said gray whales eat a variety of things, and they can go where food is available. But conditions in the Arctic are changing rapidly, and it isn’t clear yet if they are eating amphipods — tiny shrimplike creatures that normally sustain them — or if they are shifting to other kinds of prey.

The sheer number of gray whales also may be a factor, in that their feeding areas could be reaching “carrying capacity” — although the experts stress that the number of whales that can be supported in the Arctic will vary, depending on environmental conditions that can increase or decrease prey populations.

“Carrying capacity varies by year,” said John Calambokidis, research biologist with Cascadia Research Collective in Olympia. “It certainly plays a role. How I would view it, too, is when animals are closer to the limits of the food supply is when you would start to see a portion of the population that isn’t as fit become more vulnerable.”

John noted that during these high-mortality incidents, more gray whales seem to come into Puget Sound and other busy estuaries, including San Francisco Bay. As a result, they are more likely to be hit by ships or become entangled in fishing nets.

Sue Moore said reports of deaths among other marine mammals, such as sea lions and walruses, will be investigated as part of the effort to understand the gray whale deaths and the overall ecosystem.

“In our investigation, we will bring in experts on gray whales, but we will bring in experts on the larger environment, and that includes other animals,” she said. “We do have some die-offs of birds along the California Coast, so we want to know if what is affecting the birds is different or the same as what is affecting the whales.”

Unusual mortality events can be declared by NOAA Fisheries when there is a significant die-off of any marine mammal species. In this case, the agency cited two of seven possible criteria used to declare a UME:

  • 1. A marked increase in the magnitude or a marked change in the nature of morbidity, mortality or strandings when compared with prior records, and
  • 5. Affected animals exhibit similar or unusual pathologic findings, behavior patterns, clinical signs, or general physical condition (e.g., blubber thickness).

The UME declaration can be used to mobilize a special UME Contingency Fund to reimburse people who officially help with the investigation. People may contribute to the fund or to local stranding networks on the NOAA Fisheries website.

Anyone who sees a dead, injured or stranded marine mammals is asked to call the West Coast Marine Mammal Stranding Network, (866) 767-6114. Only local and state officials and those authorized by NOAA Fisheries may legally handle live or dead marine mammals.

The annual gray whale migration — some 10,000 to 12,000 miles — is said to be the longest migration of any mammal. Adult grays can reach up to 46 feet long.

New reports of whale territory could shape protection strategy

Researchers have listed more than 100 “biologically important areas” for whales and dolphins living in U.S. waters, all reported in a special issue of the journal Aquatic Mammals (PDF 22.9 mb).

Journal

The BIAs may provide useful information, but they are not marine protected areas, and they have no direct regulatory effect, said Sofie Van Parijs, a researcher at NOAA’s Northeast Fisheries Science Center and guest editor of the special report.

“They represent the best available information about the times and areas in which species are likely to be engaged in biologically important activities,” Van Parijs said in a news release. “We encourage anyone planning an activity in the ocean to look at this information and take it into consideration to understand and reduce adverse impacts on marine species.”

Project managers can use information in the report for offshore energy development, military testing and training, shipping, fishing, tourism, and coastal construction. Underwater noise, generated by most human activities in or on the water, can affect large areas of whale territory.

Separate articles were written about seven regions of the country, with three of them in Alaskan waters. The lead author for the West Coast regional report (PDF 4.5 mb) is John Calambokidis of Cascadia Research Collective in Olympia.

The West Coast report identified 29 BIAs covering areas important for blue whales, gray whales, humpback whales and harbor porpoises in Washington, Oregon and California. BIAs for blue whales and humpback whales are “based on high concentration areas of feeding animals observed from small boat surveys, ship surveys and opportunistic sources,” the report says.

BIAs for gray whales focus on their migratory corridor from Mexico to Alaska, along with primary feeding areas for a small resident population known as the Pacific Coast Feeding Group, or PCFG. This group, believed to be genetically distinct from the migratory whales, spend most of their time between Northern California and Canada’s Vancouver Island.

The BIAs for gray whales in Washington are around the northwest tip of Washington, including Neah Bay; in Saratoga Passage east of Whidbey Island; and around Grays Harbor on the coast.

Map

The PCFG could be a key factor in determining whether the Makah Tribe of Neah Bay is granted a permit to hunt for gray whales in Washington state waters and limiting potential limits on any hunts approved. It was interesting that the BIA report came out at almost the same time as an environmental impact statement on the Makah whaling proposal.

The impact statement evaluates alternatives for whaling, including a tribal proposal to hunt up to five whales a year but no more than 24 whales in six years. Various alternatives include plans to limit hunting seasons to reduce the risk of killing a whale from the Pacific Coast Feeding Group and to cease hunting if a quota of these whales is reached.

“This is the first step in a public process of considering this request that could eventually lead to authorization for the tribe to hunt gray whales,” said Donna Darm, NOAA’s associate deputy regional administrator, in a press release. “This is the public’s opportunity to look at the alternatives we’ve developed, and let us know if we have fully and completely analyzed the impacts.”

For details on this issue, including the EIS and instructions for commenting on the document, check out NOAA’s website on the Makah Whale Hunt.

Returning to the study of biologically important areas, no BIAs were established for endangered fin whales, because of discrepancies between sightings and expected feeding areas and uncertainty about their population structure.

The BIA assessment did not cover minke whales, killer whales, beaked whales and sperm whales but the authors recommend that future work cover those animals as well as looking into special breeding areas for all the whales.

A future BIA for killer whales could have some connection to an ongoing analysis by NOAA, which recently announced that it needs more information about Southern Resident killer whales before expanding their critical habitat under the Endangered Species Act. See Water Ways from Feb. 24.

In the overall report, BIAs can be established if they have any of the following characteristics:

  1. Reproductive areas – Areas and times within which a particular species selectively mates, gives birth or is found with neonates or calves,
  2. Feeding areas – Areas and times within which aggregations of a particular species preferentially feed. These either may be persistent in space and time or associated with ephemeral features that are less predictable but are located within a larger area that can be delineated,
  3. Migratory corridors – Areas and times within which a substantial portion of a species is known to migrate; the corridor is spatially restricted.
  4. Small and resident population – Areas and times within which small and resident populations occupy a limited geographic extent.

Gray whale dies on Erlands Point in Bremerton

UPDATE, Wednesday, Aug. 3

The Suquamish Tribe has decided to take the dead gray whale for its skeleton, which will be placed on display at the tribal museum or other educational facility. Tribal officials wrapped the whale in mesh and towed it away by boat this morning. More details will follow. See story in today’s Kitsap Sun.
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UPDATE, Friday, July 29

Another day, another story, more photos and a new video from Thursday. Go to today’s story in the Kitsap Sun.

By the way, I’m not sure where some reporters got the idea that this juvenile whale was a calif or that net marks on his body were of any consequence. There were a variety of healed scratches and “rake marks” from a killer whale as well. The biologists did make note of what appeared to be a bite mark of some kind on the whale’s right side, but whether that played a role in his death won’t be known until the tissue examinations are complete.
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It is often bad news when gray whales come visiting Central and South Puget Sound at this time of year. Most of the annual northward migration is over, and many of these so-called “stragglers” are having a tough time.

A young gray whale is examined Wednesday on Erland's Point in Bremerton.
Kitsap Sun photo by Meeghan Reid

That was the case this morning, when Erlands Point resident Jim Ryan looked out his window and spied a gray whale lying on his beach. The whale was alive at first. Ryan could see it breathing and moving its tail flukes. But within a couple of hours the whale was dead.

Nobody likes to see a dead whale, but researchers found consolation in the fact that fresh tissue samples could advance several research studies into what makes the gray whales tick.

I used the death of the whale in local waters to offer a variety of facts about this animal and about gray whales in general. See the story that will run in tomorrow’s Kitsap Sun. There’s also a video and plenty of photos.

While some people know all about these large marine mammals, plenty of local residents have lots of questions about this whale, so I used the occasion to provide more information than I would have if the whale had been found somewhere outside of Kitsap County.

The last time we had a dead gray whale in local waters was in May of 2005. Check out my first story about that incident on May 5, 2005.

Did ‘Bremerton’s gray whale’ visit Seattle?

More than one person in Bremerton last night saw “our” gray whale, which has been swimming around the Turner Joy the past two weeks. The general feeling was that the whale was headed out of town.

Melissa posted this on Water Ways after seeing the whale while walking her dog about 6:30 last night:

“We paced the whale, who came up for air every 2-3 minutes and was moving quickly out the channel. It hugged the shore. We walked alongside the whale until the 900 block (Bachmann Park). At this park I was able to get a very close view, though it was dark and hard to make out.

“At 6:45 the ferry passed through the channel, and in its lights, reflected on the water, I could make out a perfectly silhouetted fluke. I think he was waving goodbye to Bremerton.”

Then shortly before noon this morning we began to get reports of a gray whale in West Seattle. See the West Seattle Blog.

Other reports came in regarding a gray whale tangled in a fishing net near the Edgewater Inn on Seattle’s waterfront. The net is one operated by members of the Muckelshoot Tribe.

Reporter Christina Siderius of the Seattle Times quoted Brian Gorman of NOAA Fisheries Service as saying individuals aboard the fishing boat believed the animal was dead and started to cut it loose. Then the whale sprang to life. The fishers tried to free the whale, but it swam off with some portion of their gear still attached.

“The whale has skedaddled,” Gorman was quoted as saying. “We don’t know where it is, nor do we know if it is in danger.”

I don’t know if anybody has figured out if there were two gray whales or one in Seattle today or whether the Bremerton whale may still be carrying around a piece of fishing gear. I guess we’ll just wait for more information.

Has this gray whale visited Bremerton in the past?

UPDATE, Thursday, Dec. 11,

Shawn Ultican and Newton Morgan of the Kitsap County Health District were in a boat on Sinclair Inlet yesterday to take some marine water samples when the gray whale surfaced near them. They told me it was a rather delightful surprise.

The whale has now been around at least two weeks, seen by someone practically every day.
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UPDATE, Monday, Dec. 7, 2:30 p.m.

Our gray whale is still hanging around. I just came from the Manette Bridge, where I saw the animal mid-channel off the end of the Turner Joy.
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A gray whale has been observed in Bremerton’s Port Washington Narrows the last two days, and Joanne Jenks of Manette thinks it is the same whale she has seen about this time almost every year.

“This whale is having a love affair with the Turner Joy,” she tells me.

As I write this, folks at the Boatshed restaurant say they have been watching the whale much of the morning.

If past visits are any indication, the animal will stay in the area for at least a week. The Boatshed or shoreline on the Manette side, or off the end of the Turner Joy on the downtown side, would seem like good places to watch when the whale is milling around its favorite location.

The Manette Bridge is another good observation point, though you won’t be able to hear the whale blow if there is traffic on the bridge.

I’ve tried to find out if whale researchers have photos that could tell us if this whale is the same one that has been here before. It requires spotting some unusual markings on the animal, and a picture of the fluke (tail) can be helpful. So far, they’ve been unable to find photos from past years that are good enough for ID.

Here’s the story I prepared for today’s Kitsap Sun:

Continue reading

California urges Congress to protect gray whales

I got word tonight from Sue Arnold of the California Gray Whale Coaltion that the California Assembly and Senate have passed a resolution urging Congress and the President to assess the risks to gray whales that migrate along the West Coast.

The resolution mentions problems along their migration route, their population dynamics, impacts of global warming, Navy sonar and other issues.

If the risks warrant it, then the whale should be placed on the Endangered Species List, according to the resolution. This same Web page gives you access to a 17-page report by the coalition that outlines the various risks to the whale, as seen by the group.