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Researchers Worry About Declining Gray Whales Off West Coast, Including Oregon, Washington

Published 10/09/22 at 5:34 AM
By Oregon Coast Beach Connection staff

Researchers Worry About Declining Gray Whales Off West Coast, Including Oregon, Washington

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(Portland, Oregon) – Fewer newborn calves and lessening numbers: those statistics on the gray whale population off the Oregon coast and Washington coast are starting to worry experts. (Above: a skinny whale photographed by Oregon's Hatfield Marine Science Center)

Scientists from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's marine life branch, NOAA Fisheries, have found a decline in the numbers of gray whales that migrate off the West Coasts of the U.S. and Canada, finding that they're down 38 percent from its peak in 2015 and 2016. Also dropping in numbers are the number of calves being born, according to another report by the agency.

There could end up being fewer whales to see off the Oregon coast and Washington coast.

NOAA Fisheries said gray whale populations in this part of the North Pacific hit their peaks at 27,000 in 2016, but this year clocking in at 16,550 – some 38 percent less.

Photo Oregon Coast Beach Connection: whale spout off Depoe Bay

Even so, this drop does look like similar fluctuations that have happened in the past. There was a 40 percent drop in the years around 1990 and then the population rebounded to new highs.

This drop, plus a large spike in deceased whale strandings along the coastlines of Oregon, Washington and California, have caused researchers at Southwest Fisheries Science Center to monitor the situation more intensely. Along with declaring an Unusual Mortality Event back in 2019, they're attempting to discover the reasons why.

Population counts are normally done in a 2-year period, but NOAA Fisheries will be adding a third year to this recent push, being done in California waters.

"Given the continuing decline in numbers since 2016, we need to be closely monitoring the population to help understand what may be driving the trend," said Dr. David Weller, Director of the Marine Mammal and Turtle Division at the science center. "We have observed the population changing over time, and we want to stay on top of that."

The 2019 run of strandings produced some alarming numbers: about 600 whale deaths from 2019 to the present seem to have been malnourished to varying degrees. This happened all along the West Coast, including the Oregon coast and Washington coast. Some predation was evident, as well as getting hit by vessels.

The largest spike was in 2019 and then trailed off, which also produced a worrying statistic. This was evidence the entire population had begun to shrink. Less whales in general meant less of them to wash up onshore.

There were other spikes in gray whale deaths in previous years, including 1999 and 2000, which also produced a UME declaration. After that, the population began a steady climb to the peaks of 2015 – 16. .

Deborah Fauquier, Veterinary Medical Officer in NOAA Fisheries' Marine Mammal Health and Stranding Response Program, said there is no one thing that seems to be causing the increase in mortality.

"There appears to be multiple factors that we are still working to understand,” she said.

Scientists say one element can be the big migrations themselves, when they move past the Oregon and Washington coastlines in great numbers twice a year. This 10,000-mile round trip can leave them exposed to many stressors along the journey.

However, investigations after the UME declarations have revealed some likely causes, including ecological changes in areas like the Arctic that have affected their food sources. See 'Skinny Whales' Remain Issue on Washington / Oregon Coast, But May Be Lessening

Also a cause of worry is the decrease in newborn gray whale calves, where the most recent counts showed about 217 new calves, down from 383 the previous year. These were the lowest since counting began in 1994. While these numbers also fluctuate over the years, NOAA Fisheries said there is evidence these drops are coinciding with the UME's and declines in population.

Aerial photographs of whales - especially in the Baja, Mexico area where the whale give birth – have shown declines in the body conditions of the grays. This, researchers said, could be a sign they're having difficulty producing young.

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Photo Seaside Aquarium: deceased whale washes up in Arch Cape

Photo Seaside Aquarium: whale carcass in Long Beach, Washington

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