Three years ago, the California Gray Whale Coalition was created with one specific goal: to relist gray whales under the Endangered Species Act.
In 1994, gray whales were delisted. Although the population at that time appeared healthy and was increasing, five years later a major crash saw over a third of the whales die of starvation. The reasons for the huge collapse were widely debated but a research report co-authored by Burney Le Boeuf, then-interim vice chancellor of UC Santa Cruz, supported the contention that lack of adequate prey caused by a regime shift was the most likely cause.
As specialist feeders, the whales are dependent primarily on benthic amphipods in the Bering and Chukchi seas. These tiny crustacea provide sufficient energy for reproduction and one of the longest migrations by any baleen whale — from the sub-Arctic to the Baja lagoons.
More recently, climate change has had a major impact on the primary feeding grounds. Warming seawater temperatures create conditions that do not favor amphipod reproduction, causing grief to the whales. This season, whale watching organizations and the National Marine Fisheries Service NMFS reported the fourth consecutive year of very low cow/calf counts, many emaciated whales and a large number of whales dying of starvation, their pitifully thin bodies washing ashore along the West Coast.
As a result of lobbying efforts by the coalition, members of the California Assembly and Senate passed a joint resolution that called on Congress to ensure funding for NMFS to undertake badly needed research on gray whales, and, if warranted, to relist the species under the Endangered Species Act. Many West Coast city councils passed similar resolutions.
Representatives of the coalition have lobbied in Washington, D.C., and recently submitted a comprehensive scientific petition to NMFS requesting the whales be upgraded to depleted status under the Marine Mammal Protection Act. NMFS has 60 days to respond to this petition.
The agency can either agree to conduct a status review or upgrade the whales, currently listed as a stock of least concern, to depleted status, ensuring greater attention to the species — including habitat protection. If NMFS denies the petition, the coalition can legally challenge the decision and will certainly take that action if necessary.
In the early 2000s, the founding group of the coalition organized a scientific workshop using the gray whale as an indicator species of the Bering Sea. The workshop brought together specialist scientists from Mexico, Canada, Australia and the US. Professor Le Boeuf was instrumental in pulling together many of the experts. After two days of discussion, it was clear gray whales were facing major threats from many sources.
Another scientific workshop is urgently needed as the threat of ocean acidification, warming seawater temperatures and melting sea ice impact their feeding grounds. Oil and gas leases also cover these primary habitats, and transient orcas are taking large numbers of calves and juveniles as they migrate back to the sub-Arctic waters.
These whales are our ocean neighbors. The loss of gray whale tourism would have a major impact on many coastal communities that rely on the millions of dollars generated by whale watching and the flow-on effect.
The California Gray Whale Coalition believes raising awareness and public concern over the plight of the whales is an essential step in their protection.
Sue Arnold is CEO of the California Gray Whale Coalition.