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.

The one thing the IWC doesn't discuss is money. The organization is made up of 40 countries, including the richest in the world, which pay hundreds of thousands of dollars in membership dues. Still, the IWC contends it has no resources for fundamental scientific research. Instead, it relies on the member countries, like the U.S., to pay for studies the IWC needs to make whale management decisions, like setting quotas for aboriginal hunting or putting in place ocean sanctuaries.

That's why the IWC is counting on the U.S., with a little help from Mexico, to return to the IWC in March with comprehensive information on the overall health of the gray whale population, data the group can use to maintain or revise aboriginal harvest quotas for the Russian whalers and the Makah Indian tribe.

Within U.S. scientific circles, there appears to be some fiscal recognition of the strandings and potential problems the deaths may be signaling. Money is finally coming in from two different federal sources.

A badly decomposed gray whale on a Southern California beach.
Alisa Schulman-Janiger/Natural History Museum of L
A badly decomposed gray whale on a Southern California beach.

First, NMFS has budgeted about $400,000 for the coming year for gray whales, although that figure could be substantially cut when the budget is finalized in the next few weeks. Doug DeMaster, of the National Marine Mammal Laboratory, says NMFS, along with every other federal agency, may face cutbacks as federal dollars are siphoned from existing accounts to help pay for the aftermath of the September 11 terrorist attacks in New York and Washington, D.C.

But right now, NMFS hopes to pay for the usual Granite Canyon southbound count, the northbound calf production survey, a photo identification project of gray whales in the Makah hunting area and to continue veterinary exams and laboratory analyses of any further strandings. Some money also is being set aside for scientists who are studying the Western Pacific gray whale and how oil development off Sakhalin Island in Russia is affecting the whales.

While NMFS still has no plans to fund research on particular theories, like Wayne Perryman's speculation over the role late ice plays in the feeding grounds, NMFS is finally planning habitat-related work in the Bering Sea. DeMaster says the agency hopes to send a researcher to the Chirikov Basin in the Bering Sea to look at amphipod production.

DeMaster is keeping his fingers crossed that the budget comes in as planned. If not, the Bering Sea study will likely be the first thing to get cut because vessel-based work is the most expensive.

But even if that happens, at least one project appears poised to be able to answer questions about the grays' food supply. The National Science Foundation last month awarded a $500,000 grant to Ray Highsmith of the University of Alaska-Fairbanks to spend several weeks in the Bering Sea studying the amphipod population. When the cost of the research vessel is tagged on, the money devoted by NSF to the amphipod work will likely exceed $1 million, Highsmith says.

Still, it will be at least two years before Highsmith and his team will have data ready to share with the rest of the scientific community, certainly not in time for the upcoming IWC quota meeting.

And the lack of communication among scientists interested in the same subject is surprising, especially in a bureaucracy that is short on cash and could benefit from shared efforts. NMFS scientists had no idea Highsmith was even doing an amphipod study until told so by a reporter.

NMFS is primarily a regulatory agency with responsibility for fisheries and marine mammals; it pays for research to help it do its job. The NSF, on the other hand, has a direct charter through Congress to carry out basic scientific research in many areas, both onshore and off. The two entities coordinate on some studies but have no official communication policy in place to consistently let one know what the other is doing.

"The only way they would know that would be if Ray told them or they looked at our Web site," says Neil Swanberg, who oversees polar research programs for the NSF. (Apparently no one thought to do the obvious.) "It's not an unwillingness to cooperate; it's just there is so much going on."

Even without the amphipod results, DeMaster says he's confident that scientists will have enough information by spring to make sound quota recommendations to IWC. He notes that scientists have years of abundance estimates, calf counts and other measures of the general health of the population to rely on. Any decision relating to management of the stock, including quotas, can be adjusted if new information comes to light later that the whales are in trouble, he says.

"If there has been a change, we won't fully understand what's causing it, but at least we'll have research under way," he says.

In early 1999, just as gray whales started turning up dead on Mexican beaches, some of the world's leading marine mammal scientists happened to be gathered at a conference in Mexico. Dead whales became dinner-table conversation.

Burney Le Boeuf, a University of California at Santa Cruz faculty member whose specialty is actually elephant seals, volunteered to write a paper putting forth the theory that skinny dead whales on Mexican beaches could be linked to serious shortages in the Bering Sea food supply.

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