By Leila Lemos, PhD Candidate in Wildlife Sciences, Fisheries and Wildlife Department / OSU
The avalanche of news on gray whale deaths this year is everywhere. And because my PhD thesis focuses on gray whale health, I’ve been asked multiple times now why this is happening. So, I thought it was a current and important theme to explore in our blog. The first question that comes to (my) mind is: is this a sad and unusual event for the gray whales that raises concern, or is this die-off event expected and simply part of the circle of life?
At least 64 gray whales have washed-up on the West Coast of the US this year, including the states of California, Oregon and Washington. According to John Calambokidis, biologist and founder of the Cascadia Research Collective, the washed-up whales had one thing in common: all were in poor body condition, potentially due to starvation (Calambokidis in: Paris 2019). Other than looking skinny, some of the whale carcasses also presented injuries, apparently caused by ship strikes (CNN 2019).
To give some context, gray whales migrate long distances while they fast for long periods. They are known for performing the longest migration ever seen for a mammal, as they travel up to 20,000 km roundtrip every year from their breeding grounds in Baja California, Mexico, to their feeding grounds in the Bering and Chukchi seas (Calambokidis et al. 2002, Jones and Swartz 2002, Sumich 2014). Thus, a successful feeding season is critical for energy replenishment to recover from the previous migration and fasting periods, and for energy storage to support their metabolic needsduring the migration and fasting periods that follow. An unsuccessful feeding season could likely result in poor body condition, affecting individual performance in the following seasons, a phenomenon known as the carry-over effect(Harrison et al., 2011).
In addition, environmental change, such as climate variations, might impact shifts in prey availability and thus intensify energetic demands on the whales as they need to search harder and longer for food. These whales already fast for months and spend large energy reserves supporting their migrations. When they arrive at their feeding grounds, they need to start feeding. If they don’t have access to predictable food sources, their fitness is affected and they become more vulnerable to anthropogenic threats, including ship strikes, entanglement in fishery gear, and contamination.
For the past three years, I have been using drone-based photogrammetry to assess gray whale body condition along the Oregon coast, as part of my PhD project. Coincident to this current die-off event, I have observed that these whales presented good body condition in 2016, but in the past two years their condition has worsened. But these Oregon whales are feeding on different prey in different areas than the rest of the ENP that heads up to the Bering Sea to feed. So, are all gray whales suffering from the same broad scale environmental impacts? I am currently looking into environmental remote sensing data such as sea surface temperature, chlorophyll-a and upwelling index to explore associations between body condition and environmental anomalies that could be associated.
Trying to answer the question I previously mentioned “is this event worrisome or natural?”, I would estimate that this die-off is mostly due to natural patterns, mainly as a consequence of ecological patterns. This Eastern North Pacific (ENP) gray whale population is now estimated at 27,000 individuals (Calambokidis in: Paris 2019) and it has been suggested that this population is currently at its carrying capacity(K), which is estimated to be between 19,830 and 28,470 individuals (Wade and Perryman, 2002). Prey availability on their primary foraging grounds in the Bering Sea may simply not be enough to sustain this whole population.
The plot below illustrates a population in exponential growth over the years. The population reaches a point (K) that the system can no longer support. Therefore, the population declines and then fluctuates around this K point. This pattern and cycle can result in die-off events like the one we are currently witnessing with the ENP gray whale population.
According to the American biologist Paul Ehrlich: “the idea that we can just keep growing forever on a finite planet is totally imbecilic”. Resources are finite, and so are populations. We should expect die-off events like this.
Right now, we are early on the 2019 feeding season for these giant migrators. Mortality numbers are likely to increase and might even exceed previous die-off events. The last ENP gray whale die-off event occurred in the 1999-2000 season, when a total of 283 stranded whales in 1999 and 368 in 2000 were found displaying emaciated conditions (Gulland et al. 2005). This last die-off event occurred 20 years ago, and thus in my opinion, it is too soon to raise concerns about the long-term impacts on the ENP gray whale population, unless this event continues over multiple years.
Calambokidis, J. et al. 2002. Abundance, range and movements of a feeding aggregation of gray whales (Eschrichtius robustus) from California to southeastern Alaska in 1998. Journal of Cetacean research and Management. 4, 267-276.
Cascadia Research Collective (2019, May 10). Cascadia and other Washington stranding network organizations continue to respond to growing number of dead gray whales along our coast and inside waters. Retrieved from http://www.cascadiaresearch.org/washington-state-stranding-response/cascadia-and-other-washington-stranding-networkorganizations?fbclid=Iw AR1g7zc4EOMWr_wp_x39ertvzpjOnc1zZl7DoMbBcjI1Ic_EbUx2bX8_TBw
Conservation of change (2019, May 31). Limits to Growth: the first law of sustainability. Retrieved from http://www.conservationofchange.org/limits
CNN (2019, May 15). Dead gray whales keep washing ashore in the San Francisco Bay area.Retrieved from https://www.cnn.com/2019/05/15/us/gray-whale-deaths-trnd-sci/index.html
Gulland, F. M. D., H. Pérez-Cortés M., J. Urbán R., L. Rojas-Bracho, G. Ylitalo, J. Weir, S. A. Norman, M. M. Muto, D. J. Rugh, C. Kreuder, and T. Rowles. 2005. Eastern North Pacific gray whale (Eschrichtius robustus) unusual mortality event, 1999-2000. U. S. Dep. Commer., NOAA Tech. Memo. NMFS-AFSC-150, 33 p.
Harrison, X. A., et al., 2011. Carry-over effects as drivers of fitness differences in animals. Journal of Animal Ecology. 80, 4-18.
Jones, M. L., Swartz, S. L., Gray Whale, Eschrichtius robustus. Encyclopedia of Marine Mammals. Academic Press, San Diego, 2002, pp. 524-536.
Paris (2019, May 27). Gray Whales Wash Up On West Coast At Near-Record Levels.Retrieved from https://www.wbur.org/hereandnow/2019/05/27/gray-whales-wash-up-record-levels
Sumich, J. L., 2014. E. robustus: The biology and human history of gray whales. Whale Cove Marine Education.
Wade, P. R., Perryman, W., An assessment of the eastern gray whale population in 2002. IWC, Vol. SC/54/BRG7 Shimonoseki, Japan, 2002, pp. 16.