Duat Mai stands atop a dead whale at Ocean Beach in San Francisco on Monday. The Marine Mammal Center plans a necropsy to determine what killed the animal. (Jeff Chiu/The Associated Press)

Duat Mai stands atop a dead whale at Ocean Beach in San Francisco on Monday. The Marine Mammal Center plans a necropsy to determine what killed the animal. (Jeff Chiu/The Associated Press)

Gray whales washing up dead in larger numbers on Northwest beaches

Official: Nutritional stress could be increasing strandings

  • Tuesday, May 7, 2019 2:09pm
  • News

An unusually large number of gray whales is washing up dead on their northbound migration past the Oregon and Washington coasts this year.

The peak stranding time for gray whales in the Pacific Northwest is normally April, May and June. But the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Fisheries sector has already logged nine dead whales washed ashore in Washington and one in Oregon.

That’s on top of 21 strandings on California beaches since the beginning of the year.

There were a total of 25 dead gray whale strandings on the entire West Coast in all of 2018.

One 39-foot-long dead adult whale was found floating in Elliott Bay late last month, right in front of downtown Seattle.

“This is looking like it is going to be a big year for gray whale strandings,” said Jessie Huggins, stranding coordinator for the Olympia-based Cascadia Research Collective.

Since February, Huggins has participated in necropsies of malnourished, mostly adult, gray whales on Whidbey Island and the Key Peninsula to Ocean Shores and Long Beach.

“We’re seeing very thin whales with little to no food in their stomachs,” Huggins said recently. “This is kind of leading us to believe that this is an issue of nutritional stress with a few normal-type strandings mixed in.”

Huggins said these whales probably didn’t get fat enough in their summer feeding grounds in Alaskan waters last year.

Responders in rain gear and elbow-high rubber gloves cut into the massive carcasses to examine the animals’ fat reserves and internal organs.

Multiple whales exhibited dry fibrous blubber.

The responders noted rib cages and vertebra sticking out, measured healed scars and took tissue samples for later analysis for contaminants.

Despite the unusual number of dead whales found, NOAA Fisheries spokesman Michael Milstein said the overall population of gray whales is fine, “probably as big as it’s ever been” in modern times.

Eastern Pacific gray whales were taken off the endangered species list in 1994. The population is now estimated at 27,000, which might be around the carrying capacity of their ocean territory.

“They’ve been coming back strong,” Milstein said by telephone from Portland, Ore., recently.

Gray whale and humpback whale casualties from entanglement in commercial and tribal fishing gear have been a growing concern for federal officials, certain environmental groups and the fishing industry lately. None of dead gray whales found this spring on Oregon and Washington beaches were entangled in fishing or crabbing lines.

Crabbers and fishing boat owners are scheduled to meet with researchers and government representatives when two separate work groups convene this month along the Oregon and Washington coasts to hear updates about entanglement risk reduction strategies.

Sometimes it takes a village to examine and pull samples from a decomposing whale. Huggins said she has worked alongside colleagues this winter and spring from Portland State University, Seattle Pacific University, the nonprofit SR3, Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife and World Vets.

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This story was provided by The Associated Press as part of its Member Exchange.

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