Troubled Waters for Gray Whales

A new report compiled by the California Gray Whale Coalition paints a disturbing picture of what’s happening to the “friendly” whales that migrate annually from Arctic feeding grounds to the warm lagoon birthing areas of Mexico’s Baja peninsula.

As I described in my 2001 book, Eye of the Whale, gray whales require a healthy supply of tiny crustaceans called amphipods to fuel a round-trip journey as long as 11,000 miles. Amphipods need cold, nutrient-rich waters in which to thrive and, with the warming of the Arctic seas, scientists have seen their numbers decline steadily. The National Research Council has recently noted “a cascading and possibly irreversible sequence of changes in the Bering Sea ecosystem.”

The new report (“Current Threats to the Eastern North Pacific Gray Whale”) cites research by marine scientist Steven Swartz that the reproductive rate of the whales “has decreased from one calf every 2.4 years to one every 3 – 4 years.” The year 2007 saw the lowest calf count in thirty years, and the calves are smaller than before. Lagoon fishermen have observed thinner adult whales trying to feed on the lagoon bottom, implying that they aren’t getting enough to eat before making the migration.

There has been a considerable drop in numbers of gray whales coming into the lagoons as well. Usually there are about 2,000 at Guerrero Negro, but at the midway point of the 2008 calving season, there were only some 600. The count at Laguna San Ignacio, customarily around 300, was only 120.

As a changing climate brings more temperate weather to Baja, water temperature is now two degrees cooler in the lagoons. Experts believe that’s one reason for the decline in numbers, as gray whales are increasingly seen coming up in the Sea of Cortez and other southern areas where they haven’t customarily journeyed.

The new report also raises questions about the accuracy of the latest “field report” undertaken by the National Marine Fisheries Service, which estimated the gray whale population to have remained at approximately the same level as its last published estimate of 18,000-plus in 2001. At the International Whaling Commission meeting in 2007, the U.S. delegation said the population was at 17,000. These figures are already considerably below the approximately 23,000 estimated whales at the time grays were taken off the Endangered Species List in 1994.

Climate change may be the biggest threat to the gray whale population, but it is far from the only one. “The Federal Government has recently sold 29.4 million acres in the Chukchi Sea for oil lease sales,” in the midst of the gray whales’ critical feeding habitat. With the Minerals Management Service’s Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) estimating a 33 to 50 percent chance of a 1,000-barrel oil spill in the area, clearly the impact on the whales would be huge.

Thirteen Liquid Natural Gas (LNG) terminals have also been proposed, along the gray whales’ near-shore migration route encompassing California, Oregon, Washington, Western Canada, and the Baja. Construction and operation of these terminals would cause underwater noise disruptive to the whales’ migration patterns.

Meanwhile, the Navy – blocked by the California courts from testing its sonar off the California coast for failure to adequately consider the impact on whales and other marine life – is now courting Alaska. Plans are afoot for the Navy to do sonar testing in the Gulf of Alaska in May, just when the gray whales are passing along the coast. The Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), the environmental group that’s taken the lead in successful legal actions against the Navy, stated in a recent letter: “We urge the Navy, in preparing its EIS for the Gulf of Alaska, to substantially alter the approach it has taken thus far.”

The mass mortalities of whales stranding in the vicinity of Navy sonar, according to the NRDC, “are likely only the tip of the iceberg of sonar’s harmful effects. Marine mammals are believed to depend on sound to navigate, find food, locate mates, avoid predators, and communicate with each other. Flooding their habitat with man-made, high-intensity noise interferes with these and other functions.”

In response to all this, early in April California Assemblyman Pedro Nava called upon the U.S. Congress and the President to urge the NMFS “to undertake an immediate and comprehensive assessment of the California gray whale,” and also requested the California Fish and Game Commission “to change the status of the gray whale to endangered.”

Thirty years ago, gray whales first began approaching boatloads of visitors to Laguna San Ignacio, soon becoming known as the “friendly whales.” As I wrote in my book, perhaps they have been trying to tell us something: “What is hurting them is hurting us. As the oceans go, so go we. Can we survive global warming? Noise pollution? The wanton carelessness about our habitats? Can we pretend to endure anything that the whales cannot? Can we come to grips with the suicidal tendency to destroy what sustains us? Is this what the gray whales are reaching out to communicate?”