Conundrum

At the same time hundreds of dead gray whales were washing up on beaches, their birthrate was plunging. Theories abound, but little hard data has been gathered to solve this environmental puzzle.

A widespread environmental change would make sense, given that scientists have been seeing a continuing crash in the Bering Sea's ecosystem for the past several decades. From the smallest organisms to the largest mammals to the physical environment of the region, scientists have noticed changes, some profound. Fisheries have declined, there are fewer and fewer sea birds and other shore creatures, even the permanent ice pack is thinner than it was 30 years ago.

The loss of the whales' primary food supply would have tremendous implications for management of the species. IWC officials, already under attack by some major environmental groups for allowing any killing of grays even for aboriginal purposes, would be hard-pressed to defend the harvest. Oil companies would face a much tougher permitting process if the gray whale population is again considered threatened.

"I think one has to be cautious," says Highsmith. "There's a signal occurring, but whether it's a blip or a trend, no one knows. We need to get out and find out."

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