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Formerly endangered gray whale population along West Coast plunges

  • Author: Lynda V. Mapes, The Seattle Times
  • Updated: January 20
  • Published January 20

In this file photo taken May 24, 2019, the carcass of a gray whale lies where it washed up on the coast of Washington's Olympic Peninsula, just north of Kalaloch Campground in Olympic National Park. Researchers say the population of gray whales off the West Coast of the United States has fallen by nearly one-quarter since 2016, resembling a similar die-off two decades ago. (AP Photo/Gene Johnson, File)

The gray whale population has plunged 24% along the West Coast since the last estimate in 2016, estimates released Tuesday show.

The population of eastern north Pacific gray whales decreased by more than 6,000 whales, from 26,960 in 2016 to 20,580 estimated from counts made during the whales’ southbound migration in the winter of 2019-20, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Southwest Fisheries Science Center in San Diego.

The population has been increasing overall since counting began in 1967, when only 13,426 of the mighty grays were counted.

The eastern north Pacific gray whale undertakes one of the longest migrations of any mammal, traveling 10,000 miles from its feeding grounds in cold arctic seas to calving lagoons in Mexico.

The whales are a conservation success story, surging back in numbers after the enactment of federal protection under the Marine Mammal Protection Act in 1972. Gray whales neared extinction in the 1950s after excessive commercial hunting, and were listed as an endangered species. The whales were removed from the endangered species list in 1994.

Commercial hunts remain illegal.

The cause of the most recent die-off in the population, called an “unusual mortality event” by NOAA, is not known. It is possible the population reached carrying capacity. Another possible cause is disruption of the ocean food web caused by climate change.

The whales have rebounded from an “unusual mortality event” before, weathering a decline of nearly the same size, from 1999-2000.

That die-off reported 651 dead gray whales in 1999 and 368 in 2000 along the West Coasts of the U.S., Mexico and Canada.

The cause was not determined but some stranded whales were in poor body condition, leading to the question of whether the population had reached carrying capacity at 21,000 grays estimated in the eastern Pacific.

But the population rebuilt to even stronger numbers by 2016 — only to decline again.

Big fluctuations for these big whales are not rare, and short-term declines have not resulted in any detectable longer-term impacts on the population of the species, according to the technical memorandum reporting the population estimates.

The new population estimate is based on counts of eastern north Pacific gray whales migrating southward off the Central California coast between December 2019 and February 2020. The counts were made from a shore-based watch station south of Carmel by 21 trained observers over 48 survey days. The highest daily count of whales was 169 grays on Jan. 17, 2020.