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'Skinny Whales' Remain Issue on Washington / Oregon Coast, But May Be Lessening

Published 03/24/22 at 11:05 PM PST
By Oregon Coast Beach Connection staff

'Skinny Whales' Remain Issue on Washington / Oregon Coast, But May Be Lessening

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(Manzanita, Oregon) – For about half a decade, a new and puzzling environmental issue has been plaguing the offshore waters of the Oregon coast and Washington coast. Something has been wrong with the food sources of gray whales in the region, and it started to manifest itself with whales that were noticeably underweight. (Photo above courtesy Hatfield Marine Science Center)

Skinny whales were now something that was on the radar of scientists on the West Coast, especially along the Washington coast and Oregon coast, as a record number of deceased whales started washing ashore on Pacific Northwest beaches in 2019. Many of them were visibly undernourished.

All this was being looked into from Brookings through to the Strait of Juan de Fuca and into Everett. Now, scientists believe it could be improving - but that's a complex declaration.

On the Oregon coast, Oregon State University / Hatfield Marine Science Center scientist Leigh Torres has been at the forefront of this research for years now. Back in 2020, the Hatfield and OSU released data collected by her and others at the Geospatial Ecology of Marine Megafauna Laboratory at OSU’s Marine Mammal Institute, where they followed nearly 200 whales by drone for three years. They found many whales in worsening condition, primarily that they were skinnier in many cases. This coincided with many whale stranding finds along the Pacific Northwest where the deceased whales were poor in weight.

Torres and her colleagues said the health of whales were in decline not long after periods of poor upwellings – that ocean process that brings, colder water to the surface and contains the nutrients whales consume.

“What we see is this compelling relationship between the oceanographic processes that control the quality and quantity of available prey and whale health,” Torres said in 2020. “This research gives us an inclination that changes in ocean conditions might be causing skinny whales.”

Two years later, it still seems to be a problem. She told Oregon Coast Beach Connection it has been getting a little better – but there's a caveat.

“Yes, there was some improvement, but fewer whales in the last couple years than previously,” Torres said.

Still, even that may not be a bad thing. As NOAA Fisheries officials postulated back in 2019, the numbers of whales off the Washington coast and Oregon coast were higher then, so it made sense that the number of dead whales washing up would increase as well. The more whales you have, the more of them out there to die off.

Torres said she couldn't be sure the weight problem existed off the Washington coast since she only studies the Oregon coast waters, but she felt it was likely because the whales she studies share that habitat up north as well.

Back in 2019, whale experts up and down the northwest were a bit alarmed by the sharp rise in gray whale strandings, however. Over 200 had died and come ashore between Mexico and Alaska. Six happened on Oregon's coast.

Below, graphic from OSU / Torres showing weight difference in whales over time

At the time, Torres and other OSU researchers felt a lack of food sources – resulting in thinner whales – could be part of that explanation. Whales off the Oregon coast mostly consume mysid shrimp, which hide in kelp forests along these offshore areas. This week she told Oregon Coast Beach Connection not much of that possible explanation about their body area measurement has changed. But she seems to have broadened it a bit.

“The gray whales eat mainly mysids while here off Oregon, so we are guessing that food supply might be reduced,” Torres said. “We are not sure of the cause: could be related to climate change, decline in kelp, reduced upwelling, disturbance from human activities.”

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Photo above: courtesy Oregon State Parks

Whale washed up at Tierra Del Mar, courtesy Tillamook County Sheriff's

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