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Gray whale strandings highlight importance of increased ocean protection

Nestled between the Santa Ynez Mountains and the Channel Islands is an incredible place that is home to the largest animals ever to have roamed the earth. Blue, humpback, fin, and even elusive orca whales delight visitors who are lucky enough to hop on a boat and get out into the Santa Barbara Channel. Those who stay closer to the coast may spot gray whales on their migration. These whales often hug the shoreline as they shuttle their calves from the warm winter breeding grounds of Baja California to their summer feeding areas in Alaska and the Arctic. Once hunted near extinction, gray whales have been able to bounce back to more sustainable population numbers. Unfortunately, new threats are emerging that once again concern those of us who love these majestic and charismatic giants.

Gray Whale Strandings Alarm Coastal Communities

In May, 2019, the National Marine Fisheries Service declared an Unusual Mortality Event (“UME”) in response to a high number of gray whale strandings along the West Coast. (A “stranding” is when a whale is discovered deceased, often when it washes up onshore.) As of May 31, 2019, 148 gray whale strandings had been reported from Mexico to Alaska, with that number rising in the weeks since. This number is much higher than in average years and is similar to the last two UMEs in 1999 and 2000. Understandably, concerned locals have been reaching out to the Environmental Defense Center (“EDC”) and other organizations to find out why this is happening and what they can do.

Why are Gray Whales Stranding?

Declaring an UME can be a powerful tool in determining the cause of this type of event, as then more federal resources are put towards research to uncover why these gray whales are struggling. While anticipating the results of that research, we can use what we learned during the 1999 and 2000 events to understand what may be causing the high number of strandings. During that time, stranded whales appeared emaciated and the National Marine Fisheries Service determined that limited food availability was likely the cause. Oceanographic conditions had made it harder for gray whales to find prey. This spring, similar reports of emaciated gray whales indicate that this UME may also be tied to diminished food supply. Some scientists have indicated that the gray whale response to limited prey may indicate a new carrying capacity. As our climate changes, oceans warm, and gray whales struggle to find food, their population may not be able to reach historic numbers. Seabirds, such as tufted puffins and murres, have also had unusually high deaths in the Arctic in recent years, likely due to warming ocean and the resulting lack of prey. 

Ship Strikes on Whales—a Growing Concern

Instead of migrating directly from Baja to their northern feeding grounds, gray whales seem to be looking for food and wandering into harbors and bays. This adds another risk to an already vulnerable animal—ship strikes. For the past 10 years, EDC has been working with many agency and local partners on efforts to reduce the risk of ship strike on blue, humpback, and fin whales by slowing down ships and attempting to move them away from feeding areas. These three whale species are especially vulnerable to strikes because they migrate and feed in and near shipping lanes that run through the Santa Barbara Channel to and from the Ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach. Ship strikes on gray whales have been of less concern because they tend to stay near the coastline, further from large ships. This year, however, gray whales have been closer to harm’s way as they linger in areas like harbors and bays that put them near vessels. The outcome? Multiple ship strikes have been reported in the San Francisco Bay Area. This highlights the importance of our efforts to slow down vessels, as this management approach would protect all whales. Additionally, this year points to a problem that is far from solved. We have a long way to go in protecting these species from ship strikes and other risks.    

©2012 Erin Feinblatt

What Can We Do?

It would be convenient to say that gray whales are harbingers of climate change. Many still seem to view climate change as a large, looming, environmental threat that we will have to deal with in the future. In reality, true harbingers have been present for many years, as we already see the impacts of climate change along the West Coast. Here in the Santa Barbara Channel, we have struggling sea star and kelp populations. We are experiencing an increase in invasive algae, potentially fueled by warming waters. The root of the increase in gray whale strandings may very well be a direct impact of climate change; a result of diminished food supply tied to warming oceans. In order to help these whales, we need to do our part to ensure the long-term preservation of our oceans by reducing our reliance on fossil fuels.

While we may not be able to predict all impacts of climate change and the industrialization of the oceans, we know enough to take actions to protect whales. We can work within our communities to make the switch to renewable energy. We can increase the number and size of marine protected areas to provide refuge to species from ocean noise, ship strikes, and other threats. Marine protected areas also increase the volume of fish necessary to support a complex ecosystem in which the largest animals (whales) often feed on some of the smallest prey (krill). We can also support current strategies that both protect whales and the climate, such as vessel speed reduction. Our efforts to slow down ships along the coast have reduced carbon emissions and increased protection for whales, thereby working to solve two of the great threats to whales.

Want to help?

In Santa Barbara, the love for these creatures runs deep and there are plenty of ways to help support whale conservation efforts. Most immediately, you can write to and ask your assembly member to support California Senate Bill 69, Ocean Resiliency Act, which will create a state-run vessel speed reduction program. You can also volunteer with the Gray Whales Count and look for spouts on the horizon to track their migration. Citizen science programs like this one have proven to be an important tool in tracking species and human activities. If you are interested in continuing to learn about ways you can get involved, be sure to sign up for our Action Alerts on our website (scroll to the bottom of the home page) and through Click My Cause.

If you enjoy whale watching, or simply care about the survival of these amazing creatures, you can take small actions to help protect gray whales. Together, we can make changes that benefit the oceans. Thank you for all you do to support EDC in this work!

Still have questions about the gray whale UME? See this National Marine Fisheries Service Q&A.

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Comments (3)

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    Eric Zimmerman

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    Thanks Kristen for this info on an important topic. I’ve been going down to the Baja for 14 straight years to take a group of whale enthusiasts to witness the magnificence of the majestic Gray whales in their birthing and mating lagoons. A couple weeks ago, when NOAA declared the unusual mortality inciden regarding the high number of Gray Whale deaths, I posted a response on my FB page I thought I would share here:

    The high mortality numbers this year jives with the lower number of sightings of gray whale calves in their traditional birthing lagoons in Baja this past spring. When I was there in March the number of whales I saw was significantly lower than I’ve seen over the past five years (and the official government counts were way down as well). Even the local panga captains were commenting on the smaller numbers.

    I know there’s still much science to be done on the cause of these strandings; but I think it’s becoming clear malnutrition is a major contributor. The bigger question is what’s causing these animals to get less food than in past years? Is it because of the mild El Nino we experienced this past summer across the Pacific or the extremely high air/water temps seen in the Arctic this past year limiting food production? Perhaps the recent population boom over the past decade has pushed gray whale numbers beyond their traditional carrying capacity?

    It will be interesting to see what the scientists conclude over the coming months and years. But as hard as it is to see any whale wash up deceased on our shores, we must remind ourselves nature works in cycles and population corrections have, do, and will continue to occur within the gray whale herd. The good news is that since whaling of these majestic creatures was halted almost 40 years ago their numbers have risen to sufficient levels where they can absorb these losses and continue to survive as a species! – Eric Zimmerman

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  • Protecting Species in a Climate Emergency – Welcome to Byrdwire

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    […] May 2019 the National Marine Fisheries Service declared an “Unusual Mortality Event” in response to high numbers of deceased gray whales washing ashore off our coast. Theories about the causes include lack of food in usual foraging areas. This could […]

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