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.

Until the strandings, researchers have been hard-pressed to argue that the grays need more money. The population has been growing in number and it's been fairly easy -- and cheap, thanks in part to the dedication of researchers like Perryman -- to keep tabs on the whales. After all, they swim within sight of shore and have become a major attraction for eco-tourism companies. The semiannual Granite Canyon count, the calf production survey and the photogrammetry work have been enough to appease NMFS when it comes to gray whales.

"The gray whales are very abundant, so, on the one hand, why worry about them?" says Dave Rugh, the NMFS biologist in Seattle who is in charge of the southbound counts. "But they are very visible and they have a lot of media and popular visibility. So we have to push to get out there and keep the counts going."

Other species of marine mammals present a much more compelling budgetary plea.

Aerial photos taken with special high-tech camera gear show migrating gray whales.
Aerial photos taken with special high-tech camera gear show migrating gray whales.
Wayne Perryman of the National Marine Fisheries Service in La Jolla is the government's leading authority on gray whale calf birthrates, which have dropped 83 percent in the past five years.
Don Lewis
Wayne Perryman of the National Marine Fisheries Service in La Jolla is the government's leading authority on gray whale calf birthrates, which have dropped 83 percent in the past five years.

Consider the numbers: In the past five years, NMFS has spent a mere $500,000 on gray whale studies.

Compare that to about $12 million spent in the same period for the North Atlantic right whale, a species that is down to fewer than 300 and falling. The right whale money is split between grants for scientific research and cash to help coastal communities with conservation efforts. The government also has imposed special restrictions on the fishing and boating industries to protect right whales.

"For a small amount of money, you get a lot of gray whales," says Rugh, "but for a lot of money you may not get many right whale sightings."

Neither grays nor rights, of course, come close to the most politically hot species these days -- the Steller sea lion, a Bering Sea inhabitant whose numbers have dropped dramatically in recent years; many believe that's because of the commercial over-fishing of pollock, the sea lions' main food supply. The federal government has devoted more than $50 million to scientific studies, industry bailouts and community aid relating to Steller sea lions.

The gray whale, however, hasn't run head-on into a commercial crisis or industrial development brouhaha since 1995, when a development consortium proposed building a saltworks near the calving lagoons of Baja. Scientists ultimately determined that the plant would have little effect on the grays inside the lagoons.

In the mid-'90s, more attention was focused on gray whales when the Makah Indian tribe in Washington state sought permission from the IWC to hunt whales for cultural reasons. In 1996, NMFS gave the Makahs about $250,000 for environmental studies, cultural assistance and help with the IWC.

In March 1999, 28 gray whale scientists gathered in Seattle at the National Marine Mammal Laboratory for a confab that, coincidentally, took place as the gray whale body count was just beginning to become apparent. The meeting had been called to review the status of the gray whales' welfare in the five years since the species had been "delisted" -- removed from the federal endangered species list.

"I stood up and said, 'You know, I am not comfortable saying these animals are out of the woods,'" says Bruce Mate, an Oregon State University biologist, one of the scientists who was by then pushing for a feeding ground study. "But when it came down to saying they are endangered, no one could say they are endangered or threatened."

A final report of the meeting concluded the stock was "neither in danger of extinction, nor was it likely to become endangered within the foreseeable future."

Without that technical bureaucratic trigger, Mate and others at the meeting say, the best the government could do was put in place a second five-year monitoring program.

"Because of the unusual mortality events, we decided to keep the issue open for another five years," Mate says.

Still, in the past five years, according to NMFS budget figures, the agency has let funding for gray whales fall off, from about $120,000 five years ago to about $64,000 in fiscal year 2001.

"The research environment is so darn competitive and there are so many animals that are in trouble," laments Perryman. His studies "are not that expensive on the standards of marine mammal work, but we're competing against a lot of things. Hard."

Mate helped organize the strandings response effort for Oregon -- without any financial assistance from NMFS, he says. That means veterinarians and others who examined dead and dying whales did so as volunteers, their expenses coming out of their own pockets or from the private institutions and colleges they work for.

Mate is one of several scientists who argues that gray whales could use more funding. He describes a study he would do if he could get a few hundred thousand dollars, involving putting electronic tagging devices on the gray whales and pinpointing where they actually feed in the summer.

In fact, Mate has raised about $6 million from private sources in the last 12 years for an endowment through OSU. The interest from that fund pays for a number of marine mammal studies annually. And even though most of it goes to whales, even Mate can't bring himself to spend any of the hard-earned cash on gray whales.

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