CEO California Gray Whale Coalition
Gray whales intrigue researchers and captivate the public in ways that few species enjoy.
Their willingness to engage with humanity is unique. The whales are also highly controversial.
Population estimates have been a source of major debate as the methodology developed by National Marine and Fisheries Service scientists has constantly changed, making estimates more in line with guesstimates.
Without a good handle on the numbers, the quota of 140 whales annually, which the International Whaling Commission grants to the Russian Federation, can have a detrimental impact on the population.
Over a decade, numbers have fluctuated dramatically. This year, NMFS scientists are, for the first time, using thermography, which runs 24 hours a day providing irrefutable evidence of whale numbers. Baseline data using this technology will determine the real size and status of the population.
As noted in a recent Press Democrat story, this year’s migration was spectacular (“Whales make comeback off Sonoma Coast,” May 2). With the increase in calves comes an increase in transient orca predation, which can be as high as 30 percent. This figure doesn’t include predation rates in the Russian Federation nor has research on the status of predation on the migratory route received funding in recent years.
The Makah tribe is seeking a waiver under the Marine Mammal Protection Act to kill whales on the grounds that killing will renew cultural life. With the exception of a single gray whale killed in 1999 and another whale killed illegally in 2007, the Makah have not hunted whales for nearly 90 years. Consequently, the tribe cannot demonstrate a subsistence or nutritional need for whaling or whale products. This need is a requirement to secure approval from the International Whaling Commission to engage in aboriginal subsistence whaling and should be a prerequisite for NMFS approval of the hunt.
Despite the absence of this need, this is the fourth attempt by the Marine and Fisheries Service to authorize Makah whaling since 1997. Previous efforts have been scuttled by court rulings.
If a waiver is granted, the potential for cultural killing becoming a new category at the International Whaling Commission is a reality, setting a precedent which could see New Zealand Maoris, Australian Aborigines and other indigenous people seek similar quotas.
The proposed hunt could jeopardize two at-risk populations of gray whales: the resident Pacific Coast feeding aggregation and the Western North Pacific, which number 209 and 140, respectively.
There’s no way a whaler could differentiate between these imperiled populations and Eastern grays. As increasing numbers of Western Pacific grays migrate across the Pacific to the Easterns’ migratory route — even as far down as the Baja Lagunas, efforts are being made to designate eastern and western pacific grays as one population. This would be disastrous for western grays, as well as potentially increasing the Russian federation’s quota and supporting the Makah waiver.
The recent decision by President Barack Obama allowing Shell to resume oil exploration in the Arctic may drive the whales from their primary feeding grounds as a result of underwater noise.
Gray whales future survival is not secure.
Sue Arnold is chief executive officer for the California Gray Whale Coalition.