Feds Plan to Investigate Spike in Gray Whale Deaths on West Coast, Declaring 'Unusual Mortality Event'

The Marine Mammal Center has responded to 13 gray whales in the San Francisco Bay Area since March. Malnutrition, blunt force trauma from ship strikes and entanglements are the most common causes of death. (Cara Field/The Marine Mammal Center)

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. In the San Francisco Bay Area alone, 13 dead whales have washed ashore. 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 remote areas where 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.

Scientists from The Marine Mammal Center and California Academy of Sciences start an investigation into a dead gray whale stranding at Ocean Beach in San Francisco. (Katie D'Innocenzo/The Marine Mammal Center)

"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.

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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 major culprit.

"The whales that have stranded here in the San Francisco Bay, a majority of them have been very malnourished," said Shawn Johnson, Director of Veterinary Science at The Marine Mammal Center in Sausalito. "They basically were starving to death. And that means that they didn't feed enough last summer in their feeding grounds up in the Arctic."

Johnson has performed necropsies (animal autopsies) on 12 of the whales that have washed ashore in the Bay Area since March. He said it's obvious there was a major disruption in the ocean ecosystem last summer, especially in the Arctic, that made them ill-equipped to survive their long and complicated annual migration patterns.

"I'm not exactly sure why they didn't get enough food," Johnson said. "But the ocean temperatures in the Arctic are increasing extremely rapidly and the ice is melting very quickly, and that's disrupting the food web that's impacting these large whales."

The whales spend their summers feeding in the Arctic before migrating some 10,000 miles 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.

Experts from The Marine Mammal Center and the California Academy of Sciences on March 12, 2019 examine a one-year-old gray whale that washed ashore at Angel Island State Park after dying of malnutrition. (Cara Field/The Marine Mammal Center)

In 2018, though, the Arctic was warm and whales weren't blocked from the feeding area but were 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.

"The sea ice has been changing very quickly over the last decade or so," she said. "The whales may have to shift to other prey, such as krill or other things they eat."

In an average year, about 35 whales wash up in the U.S.

In 2000, more than 100 did, prompting NOAA to declare an "unusual mortality event" then as well. The resulting investigation failed to identify a cause. The die-off followed strong changes in ocean conditions in the mid-1990s, suggesting that warmer water patterns affected the availability of prey, but scientists were often unable to perform necropsies, Moore said.

"It's sometimes very difficult to get to these whales in a timely fashion," she said. "You can't always get the kind of samples you would need for diagnostic reasons."

Since then, researchers have built up an improved network of volunteers and have better educated the public to help report and respond to whale deaths, said Deborah Fauquier, veterinary medical officer at NOAA's Office of Protected Resources. This time around, scientists have been able to perform necropsies on 20 of the whales, she said.

John Calambokidis, a research biologist with the Cascadia Research Collective, noted that as the whales search farther afield for food, they've entered areas where they're not normally seen as often, including the San Francisco Bay and Puget Sound. That puts them at higher risk of being struck by ships or entangled in fishing gear.

Five of the 13 whales found dead near San Francisco this year were struck by ships, and a number of shipping companies have slowed their vessels in the area to avoid collisions.

Matthew Green contributed reporting to this article.