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.

Instead, money from the endowment went to humpback, right and blue whales this year, populations that are endangered and only small fractions of what they used to be.

The gray whale studies "would be extremely interesting and I would love to be doing it," Mate says. "But could I do it at the sacrifice of those other projects? The answer is no."

While the hundreds of dead whales stranded along the migration route and the continued low calf count are alarming, the grays are also a victim of their own biological success. Keepers of the purse strings believe that with a population of some 26,000, the grays do not merit further expenditures in a scientific world that treats problems on a triage basis. Researchers determined to get to the root of the dilemma are largely on their own.

Volunteers with the American Cetacean Society count gray whales as the whales journey north near Los Angeles on their way to summer feeding grounds in Alaska.
Alisa Schulman-Janiger/Natural History Museum of L
Volunteers with the American Cetacean Society count gray whales as the whales journey north near Los Angeles on their way to summer feeding grounds in Alaska.

NMFS has, for example, been trying to pull together a group of like-minded researchers up and down the West Coast into a sort of emergency stranding network that would respond to beached whales in a more systematic and scientifically consistent fashion.

Teri Rowles, who coordinates marine mammal response and strandings for NMFS out of Silver Spring, Maryland, says since 1999 the agency has collected tissue samples from about 110 dead or dying gray whales -- but that's out of more than 600 that have stranded. And fewer than 10 full necropsies have been done, she says.

Three or four years ago, the agency simply collected numbers -- how many whales died in a given year. When more and more whales started dying, federal scientists knew they needed more and better information.

But it was slow going. Initially, the researchers who ventured out to look at dead whales weren't even distinguishing between whales that died of obvious trauma -- a ship strike -- and those for which no cause of death was readily apparent.

The agency began holding workshops that included Mexican and U.S. scientists, stepping up what Rowles calls "more focused training" as more whales continued to die in 2000.

One problem, notes Rowles, is that many of the people who respond to strandings are simply interested citizens who have agreed to jot down some very basic information about dead whales -- length, general body condition and whether there is any obvious trauma, for instance. Professional researchers, veterinarians and scientists often are not available in isolated or rural areas.

The workshops have been aimed at the professionals who can do more sophisticated biological and chemical testing. At a minimum, the standard protocol calls for samples of skin, blubber, milk and liver specimens to be tested for chemical contaminants. NMFS also wants samples of blood, urine, feces and stomach contents, as well as parts of the liver, kidney, lungs and gonads so the agency can test for diseases and toxins.

That effort is being applauded by scientists in the field, who have been frustrated with the lack of data that has hurt the scientific community's ability to figure out if there is a serious problem looming for the gray whales.

For instance, Russian scientists have recently found the industrial solvent phenol in gray whales harvested in the Chukotka area. They have shared their concerns with colleagues in the U.S. Yet NMFS officials have not tested gray whale carcasses along the West Coast for phenol. Rowles says the solvent rapidly metabolizes so it might only show up in whales close to the area of exposure, in this case off the Russian coast.

Is phenol, which is known to interfere with the reproductive cycle, part of the problem with the low calf count? No one knows, in part because no one has tested the carcasses of the stranded whales for industrial solvents.

"I'm not condemning [NMFS], I'm just disappointed that they couldn't respond more quickly," says Todd O'Hara, a biologist with the North Slope Borough in Barrow, Alaska. "Now we feel like we're ready if this happens again."

One of the country's leading specialists in chemical contaminants, O'Hara stands in the hallway outside the International Whaling Commission meeting in London in July, his black jeans and soft plaid shirt an oddity in a crowd where not only the international commission members and their staffs but the numerous environmental activists dress smartly in business suits.

O'Hara has been working with aboriginal whalers for years and, most recently, has been helping Siberian whalers examine problems with "stinky" whales -- grays that smell of a medicinal or chemical smell that some worry might be poisoned with industrial solvents.

Barrow whalers, who hunt primarily bowheads, and the Siberians sit together at the IWC, listening somberly, some through translator headphones. Unlike other more conventional spectators, they don't chitchat among themselves or wander in and out of the room as the proceedings drag on over five days. Instead, they seem intent on this discussion of every conceivable aspect of whaling, from computerized management and population modeling to whale-killing methods to whale-watching projects and marine sanctuaries.

For most of the countries gathered at the long tables in this brightly lighted room, the debate over whaling is largely political. But for these residents of the Far North, particularly the Siberians from Chukotka, what the IWC does could very well mean life, provided by the sustenance of whales, or death -- through starvation.

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