The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) declared an “Unusual Mortality Event” in response to recent massive Gray Whale deaths on the U.S. West Coast. By Karisa Boyce
While this emergency declaration sounds like scary news it is good news for our Gray Whale friends who have been perishing at an alarming rate. Now that the feds are calling an emergency for these mysterious whale deaths, researchers will be able to dive deep into the root cause of the mortalities.
With 70 Gray Whales washing up on the beaches of Alaska, Washington, Oregon, and California, we are witnessing the highest number of deaths in almost 20 years. Considering that they will usually sink to the ocean floor, the 70 who have washed up account for only a 10 percent fraction of the total number of emaciated whales.
Typically, we will see an average of 15 deaths within the first 5 months of the year. The current hypothesis of the cause of whale die-off is that warming oceans are leading to a shortage in food supply.
Not only are juvenile, male, and female whales dying in unusually large numbers, emaciated whales are being found in parts of the ocean where they are not typically found. Scientists believe that the whales are wandering in search of food.
Another theory is based on the idea that we’re seeing more whales washing up simply because there are more whales now than there have been in years past. With higher population, it would make sense that there would be a higher number of dead whales.
The 50 foot long mammals can weigh up to 70,000 pounds and live for 70 years. Whaling ships hunted the iconic creatures in the 1800s until their numbers dwindled to roughly 1,000 to 2,000.
It was not until 1972 that Gray Whales became protected under the Marine Mammal Protection Act signed by U.S. President Richard Nixon. Prior to that, harpooned whales were made into dog food in the U.S.
The protection that was put in place in 1972 has helped Gray Whales make a comeback to approximately 27,000. Despite the logic behind the second theory, we also need to keep in mind that other species are experiencing mass die-off.
Large flocks of Common Murres recently washed up on the Mendocino coastline in northern California. We do not know if there is a relation between the deaths of the two West Coast species, though we hope that researchers take this factor into consideration while looking into Gray Whale deaths.
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