Feds to investigate spike in gray whale deaths on West Coast

California
Dead gray whale washes ashore on Marin County beach

SEATTLE (AP) — U.S. scientists said Friday they will investigate why an unusual number of gray whales are washing up dead on West Coast beaches.

About 70 whales have been found dead so far this year on the coasts of California, Oregon, Washington and Alaska, the most since 2000. About five more have been discovered on British Columbia beaches. That’s a very small fraction of the total number of whales believed to have died, because most simply sink and others wash up in such remote areas they’re not recorded.

NOAA Fisheries on Friday declared the die-off an “unusual mortality event,” providing additional resources to respond to the deaths and triggering the investigation.

“Many of the whales have been skinny and malnourished, and that suggests they may not have gotten enough to eat during their last feeding season in the Arctic,” agency spokesman Michael Milstein told reporters during a conference call.

The eastern North Pacific gray whales were removed from the endangered species list in 1994, after recovering from the whaling era.

The population has grown significantly in the last decade and is now estimated at 27,000 — the highest since surveys began in 1967. That has raised questions about whether their population has reached the limit of what the environment can sustain. Another theory suggests that the loss of Arctic sea ice due to global warming is a culprit.

The whales spend their summers feeding in the Arctic before migrating 10,000 miles (16,000 km) to winter off Mexico. Though they eat all along their route, they are typically thinning by the time they return north along the West Coast each spring.

They eat many things, but especially amphipods, tiny shrimp-like creatures that live in sediment on the ocean floor in the Arctic. For many years, researchers noted that more whales tended to die following years when the ice in the Chukchi Sea, north of the Bering Strait between Alaska and Russia, was late to melt. The whales had less time to feast because they couldn’t access the feeding area, and thus had less blubber to sustain them on their next migration.

In 2018, though, the Artic was warm. The whales weren’t blocked from the feeding area, and yet they’re still dying in unusual numbers this spring. That has scientists wondering if the loss of sea ice has led to a loss of algae that feed the amphipods. Surveys show the amphipod beds moving farther north, said Sue Moore, a biological oceanographer at the University of Washington.

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