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World 121 gray whales found dead on beaches, cause of death unknown

03:25  20 september  2019
03:25  20 september  2019 Source:   usatoday.com

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Exact cause of death unknown . The first whales washed up on West Coast beaches this spring. So many were dying that at the end of May, the National Oceanic The other major die-off of gray whales began in 1999 and lasted until 2000. Ninety-one whales were found dead in 1999 and 131 in 2000

A dead whale at Ocean Beach in San Francisco in May. More whales have been found washed up than in any other year since 2000. US government scientists have launched an investigation what has caused the deaths of an unusually high number of gray whales found washed up on the west

a group of people walking along a river next to a body of water© Provided by USA TODAY, a division of Gannett Satellite Information Network, Inc.

Something killed 121 gray whales this spring and summer, and scientists are struggling to find out what it was.

The dead giants of the ocean washed up on West Coast beaches as they finished their annual epic migration to their winter feeding grounds between Alaska and Russia. Many were emaciated and appeared to be starving.

The near-final death count, tallied this week, makes this the second-worst year on record for gray whales, which were hunted almost to extinction in the late 1800s. It could represent as much as 10% of the species' total population.

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Cause of death of a whale found on April 30 at Limantour Beach is not known. Biologists have spotted gray whales in bad condition during this year's migration. The body of another dead whale was found stranded in the San Francisco Bay area, officials confirmed on Tuesday, making it the

At least 70 dead or dying gray whales have stranded on the West Coast this year, prompting federal officials to The cause of death appears to be starvation, though that's under investigation. Gray whales make one of the Earth's most epic migrations each year. Filter feeders, they spend late spring

“I wouldn’t be surprised if our team comes across other carcasses,” said Megan Ferguson, a fisheries biologist with the Cetacean Assessment and Ecology Program of the National Marine Fisheries Service.

She and her team are flying aerial surveys out of Deadhorse, Alaska, observing whales in their feeding grounds in the Bering and Chukchi seas.

“We’re taking photographs of the gray whales to assess their body condition,” she said.

Only once before – in 2000 – have scientists seen a larger number of these marine mammals die during their long migration. That year, 131 of the whales washed up on shores from California to Alaska.

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"Unfortunately, nothing stands out as a cause of Experts at the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles said Tuesday that a necropsy on a week-old gray whale found dead near Main Beach on Monday gave no indication of what may have caused its death .

54 dead or dying gray whales have washed up on the West Coast this year. A 13th gray whale was found dead Thursday afternoon at Point Reyes National Seashore, near Limantour Beach . Any discovery during a necropsy may help to conservationists determine the cause of the rising death

Research teams are working to understand why so many have been found dead and what it means for the species as a whole.

“Your immediate tendency is to look at the food supply, because of the fact that so many are emaciated,” said John Calambokidis, a cetacean expert with Cascadia Research in Olympia, Washington, a nonprofit organization that focuses on whale research. "But we don't know enough to be able to say what the cause is yet."

Exact cause of death unknown

The first whales washed up on West Coast beaches this spring. So many were dying that at the end of May, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration declared it an “unusual mortality event” and launched a scientific investigation.

Even after three months of collecting data, doing necropsies on the dead whale corpses and observing the whales as they arrive in the waters off Alaska, only a few things are certain.

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A dead gray whale washed ashore Linda Mar Beach in Pacifica, California, on Tuesday; this the tenth dead whale found on the shores of the Bay Area since The ten whales did not have the same cause of death : four died from malnutrition, while another four died after being struck by passing ships.

The dead whales are often skinny or even emaciated. Living whales have pushed into areas they don’t normally visit as they make their way up the coast, possibly looking for food. And more juvenile whales than usual die during the journey.

The investigation includes dozens of scientists from three countries – Mexico, the USA and Canada – all working to solve the mystery.

The whales’ feeding grounds in the Arctic have been undergoing changes, including warmer water temperatures and as much as a 30% decline in sea ice. That could affect the tiny sea creatures they eat, so it’s possible the whales didn’t get enough food last summer before they began their 5,000-mile migration and starved to death before they made it to areas where they could feed.

“We’re seeing a shift in timing and distribution of where they forage for food,” Ferguson said.

Scientists don't have the data to tie the whale deaths definitively to changes in the waters where the whales and their prey swim, said Calambokidis, a member of the Unusual Mortality Event research subcommittee.

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The gray whale population could be the largest since whaling was ended in the 1940s. It’s possible that there are too many whales for the food that’s available.

It's unknown whether there were similar die-off events before whaling began and whether this is part of a natural population cycle or something new. Scientists have no idea what the original gray whale population was before they began to be hunted for their blubber, which was made into oil for lamps.

Scientists took tissue samples from as many of the dead whales as possible to be studied for toxins, pathogens and illness. There’s no indication any of those are the cause, but the bulk of the past two months was taken up with collecting samples as the whales were dying, meaning thorough analysis is only beginning,  Calambokidis said.

Could climate change be the cause?

Some scientists speculated that climate change could be one of the reasons behind the change in the whale’s food supply.

Temperatures in the Arctic last winter were among the warmest on record because of climate change, and the amount of sea ice in that region is close to its all-time lowest level, federal scientists announced in a report last year.

There are two ocean heat waves happening in the Pacific, the Northeast Pacific Marine Heatwave and another in Alaska.

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“My understanding is that poor forage is one of the leading hypotheses behind the Unusual Mortality Event. This is likely driven by a combination of climate change and a lack of ocean mixing that is resulting in the large and intense marine heat wave,” said Elliott Hazen, a research ecologist with NOAA's Southwest Fisheries Science Center in San Diego.

Higher water temperatures could affect the size, health or location of the whales’ food of choice, small shrimp-like sea animals called amphipods. That’s only a hypothesis.

a group of people walking along a river next to a body of water: Officials examine a decomposing whale that washed ashore, Tuesday, May 28, 2019, in Port Ludlow, Washington.© Mario Rivera, AP Officials examine a decomposing whale that washed ashore, Tuesday, May 28, 2019, in Port Ludlow, Washington.

It happened once before

The other major die-off of gray whales began in 1999 and lasted until 2000. Ninety-one whales were found dead in 1999 and 131 in 2000, according to NOAA.

Those whales, too, were emaciated and starving.

Scientists suspect that a change in the food the whales had access to was related. That still doesn’t answer the question of what the ultimate cause was, Calambokidis said.

The previous die-off is one reason NOAA takes this year's deaths so seriously. The hope is that with more and better data than 20 years ago, an answer can be found.

One hopeful clue from the event almost 20 years ago is that it doesn’t appear to have permanently harmed the whales overall.

“At least we know that it was a two-year event, we know it ended and we know that the population rebounded even past the levels it had been at before,” Calambokidis said.

a person holding a fish: Veterinarian Stefanie Worwag, right, participates in a necropsy on a decomposing whale in front of her home, Monday, June 3, 2019, in Port Hadlock, Washington.© Mario Rivera, AP Veterinarian Stefanie Worwag, right, participates in a necropsy on a decomposing whale in front of her home, Monday, June 3, 2019, in Port Hadlock, Washington.

One of the world’s longest migrations

Gray whales live in the shallow coastal waters in the North Pacific Ocean and make one of the longest migrations of any mammal on Earth – 10,000 miles round trip each year.

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They spend the summer feeding in the seas between Alaska and Russia, building up a thick layer of blubber.

In the fall, the whales migrate south along the coast of North America to spend the winter in their calving areas off the coast of Baja California, Mexico.

Calves are born from early January to mid-February. In February and May, the whales start their migration back up the West Coast to the Arctic, where they begin the cycle over again.

During the three to four months they travel back and forth and while they are in the waters off Mexico, they eat almost nothing, living off the fat they’ve stored up. If they didn't get enough food in Alaska, some don't make it back the next year.

As much as 10% of the whales gone

The 121 gray whales found stranded on the U.S. coast are only part of the picture. Eighty-one dead whales were found along the Mexican coast and at least 10 along the coast of the Canadian province of British Columbia, bringing the total to at least 212 that died this year.

That probably represents only 10% of those that perished; scientists say most whales that die simply sink at sea.

That could mean as many as 2,100 of these animals – which can grow up to 49-feet long and live about 70 years – could have died this year.

The last estimate of the entire gray whale population was 27,000 individuals, Calambokidis said.

“So we are talking about numbers that could represent 10% of the total population. Though you have to be cautious because the population estimates are extrapolations,” he said.

The marine scientists plan to spend at least another year studying the problem, in part to see whether the high death rates continue next spring.

"The key question is was this a one-year blip?" Calambokidis asked. "If the gray whales come back healthy and are doing well next year, that suggests a short-term rather than a longer-term trend."

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