The Gray Whale is in Danger - Yet the Killing Continues

A Report by Captain Paul Watson

In 1981, I took my ship the Sea Shepherd II to the coast of Siberia to defend the gray whales from Soviet hunters. Throughout the eighties and nineties, we rescued gray whales from entanglement in nets along the Pacific Coast. In 1998 and 1999, we challenged the harpooners of the Makah Indian tribe and successfully shut down their illegal whale hunt. In 2000, we voyaged to Baja, Mexico to tackle plans by Mitsubishi to build a salt processing plant in the nursery lagoon of the California gray whales.

For thirty years, Sea Shepherd and I have fought to protect this species from hunters and the nets of fishermen, from industries and from agricultural pollution.

And now, once again, these great creatures are under threat.

And despite this, the International Whaling Commission (IWC) still allows the "traditional" slaughter of 1996 gray whales by Soviet and American Inuit peoples.

The gray whale is considered one of the great victories of marine conservation. Gray whales were hunted to the brink of extinction in the 1860s and saved only by the intervention of the Confederate raiders that sank most of the Yankee whaling fleets. They were almost wiped out again in the early part of the 20th Century by the new whaling factory ships. In 1937, they were given partial protection, and in 1946, the commercial killing of gray whales was banned by the IWC.

But for the Atlantic gray whale, once called the scrag, it was too late. They were hunted to extinction. And the Western Pacific gray whale populations still remain around a few hundred survivors. Only the Eastern Pacific populations recovered from less than 1,000 animals to an estimated 26,000 by 1994.

In 1994, under pressure by the Makah Indians, the United States removed the gray whale from the Endangered Species list. The government said that there were now enough gray whales, although 26,000 is not very much when you think of it: With humans, that's considered a small town.

And I did publicly say, in 1994, that it was irresponsible of the government to remove the gray from the list for the simple reason that the ecosystem that the gray lives within was and continues to undergo diminishment from pollution, shipping, seismic blasting, and overfishing.

Those fears are now justified. gray whale numbers have declined to 18,000 and the individuals whales are leaner than they should be.

"I went down to Mexico this winter, and my colleagues and I were finding whales that were starving," says Dr. William Megill, a leading whale expert. "You can tell because the fat has disappeared from the back of their heads. There are these big divots."

And the whales are not breeding normally. Conception usually occurs between November and January. Gray whale females usually are pregnant over a two-year cycle, producing a single calf every other year. "It's pretty obvious when whales are breeding. The penis of a grey whale is about 9-feet long and bright pink. You can't miss it. Usually when tourists come ashore in Mexico they are talking about having seen them. This year there was no talk of it, really. We have a feeling that the animals are looking for food," says Dr. Megill.

Lack of food is killing thousands of gray whales. Between 1998 and 1999, an El Niño weather pattern reduced the population from around 25,000 to 18,000. It warmed up the water, which reduced oxygen levels, resulting in less of the tiny crustaceans that whales eat. "The result was that we had a lot of starving whales and it was a big enough crash in the population to have a lot of people worried," he says.

Eastern Pacific gray whales eat small shrimp called amphipods, which live at the bottom of the Bering Sea. In recent years, however, they appear to have vanished. "Now, when you look there is no mud or amphipods - there's just rock. Our whole ecosystem has disappeared from that part of the Bering Sea. We don't know why the amphipod beds disappeared. It might be to do with global warming or overfishing. "

The gray whales have begun to feed on mysids, a small type of shrimp that live in kelp beds along the shore, but which are a poorer food source. "These mysids may be able to tide them over for a while, but it may not be enough to keep the population indefinitely at its current level," he warned. "Some people are getting really worked up about it. Some whales will starve and some will die and we have to make sure there is enough resilience in the resource of the food they eat that it can recover and thereby the whales also recover."

This summer, Dr. Megill will return to Mexico to monitor the mysids and the whale population. There are currently around 20 groups researching gray whales around the Pacific Rim. "All of us have the same concern in mind," he says. "All we can do is monitor it. Once we have figured out what is going on, if it is a man-made thing we can slow it down.

"We have really big threats in the Bering Sea in the form of oil exploration. Before they even do any drilling, they do seismic testing. They want to do that this summer, right in the middle of the grey whales' feeding time. And there are some real conflicts coming up in terms of the fisheries.

"Whether or not the grey whale numbers are linked to global warming, I couldn't make that claim. But there are a whole series of issues that we really seriously need to understand, so we can make these long-term management plans to make sure we don't lose the species. If I go up this summer and find mysids then I'll heave a sigh of relief. If I don't find any and no whales either, then I'm going to start rattling a lot of cages."

Steven Swartz, an expert in gray whales who monitors them in Baja California in Mexico with the Autonomous University of Baja California Sur, is another scientist who is concerned about the starving creatures. "It could be the early signs of something serious; we're not sure yet. We were able to photograph animals this year that appear to be either malnourished or suffering from disease or a combination of factors and we don't know what is contributing to it," said Dr Swartz, who also works for the fisheries service of America's National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration.

"We know that the primary feeding ground is in the Bering Sea, north of the Gulf of Alaska. We know that has been going through some severe changes associated with climate change, warming of the water and changing of the oceanography. Where the whales used to congregate in large numbers to feed, they don't any more. They may be suffering from not enough food, or they may have become vulnerable to parasites or diseases from having to switch to different food sources. They can survive this for a period of time, but not for ever. The biggest concern is if they are nutrition-stressed, the females may not be able to bring their calves to term or give birth to those that are hardy enough to survive."

The counts of gray whales, especially female-calf pairs, residing within Laguna San Ignacio in Baja California Sur in Mexico, during the past winter season were noticeably lower than in any previous year since 1978. According to Dr Swartz, the falling numbers could either be a reflection of the overall decline in the grey whale population since its peak in 1997-1998, or they have moved elsewhere. Certainly, the plight of the skinny whales needs to be watched closely. "It could be the early signs of something serious," says Dr Swartz.

Considering this situation, the IWC should ban the hunting of all gray whales and the United States should re-list the California gray as endangered once again.

The signs are very clear that the gray whale is in serious trouble and it is imperative that measures be taken to both investigate and address this crisis.