Gray Whale Population Continues to Fall on US West Coast

by Craig Garrett
Gray Whale Flukes - stock photo

Gray whale numbers in western North America have continued to fall over the past two years, according to a study by U.S. researchers. It’s another decline that resembles previous population fluctuations over the last several decades, AP News reports.

The federal government’s National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Fisheries released its latest population estimates Friday. The data shows a decline of 38% since the peak in 2015-16. Since 1994, when scientists began counting births, these are the fewest calves ever recorded.

The number of whales beaching themselves on West Coast shores caused the fisheries agency to deem it an “unusual mortality event” in 2019. Researchers are still looking into the die-off. However, they believe that climate change and its subsequent effects on sea ice availability as well as prey location could be potential contributing factors. Out of all the whales affected, many were malnourished.

Gray whale populations had been on the mend

Whale populations were beginning to recover after commercial whaling when a similar decline of 40% happened in the late 80s and early 90s. However, gray whales bounce back quickly and were taken off the endangered species list by 1994. The population rose before a series of whale strandings prompted the government to declare another “unusual mortality event” in 1999 and 2000 when the number of whales dropped by a quarter.

Although the current population swing appears to be within typical patterns, experts are concerned. David Weller, director of the Marine Mammal and Turtle Division at the Southwest Fisheries Science Center in San Diego weighed in. “We need to be closely monitoring the population to help understand what may be driving the trend,” Weller explained.

The researchers will count the whales as they go from their summer feeding grounds in the Arctic back to the Baja Peninsula lagoons where they spend winter with their young calves. Usually, the counts are done over two years, but to closely monitor the population, NOAA Fisheries is adding a third year to this current survey. They’ll be counting them as they pass by central California from late December through mid-February 2023.

As the whales travel north to the Artic, their calves are counted. In May, there were 217 calves accounted for which is lower than last year’s number of 383.

Gray whales have been a protected species for decades

Commercial hunting of gray whales has been banned by the International Whaling Commission since 1949. However, small-scale hunting has continued in northeastern Russia’s Chukotka region, where large numbers of gray whales spend their summers. This is allowed under an exception for “aboriginal/subsistence whaling.”

The annual catch numbers increased dramatically during the 1940s. This is when state-run fur farms were being established in the region, according to anti-whaling organizations. They claim that the meat is not for regular native consumption. It is instead fed to animals on government-run fur farms. They point to rising catch figures every year since 1977

The Soviet government publicly denied these allegations up until 1987. However, in recent years the Russian government has confessed to the practice. The Russian IWC delegation stated that the hunt is permitted under the aboriginal/subsistence exemption. This is because the fur farms are a necessary economic foundation for the region’s native population.