By Monica Alonzo
By Stephen Lemons
By Jason P. Woodbury
By Dulce Paloma Baltazar Pedraza
By Ray Stern
By Pete Kotz
By Monica Alonzo
By New Times
|The recovery of the Eastern Pacific gray whale from the brink of extinction is the single greatest turnaround of a marine mammal population, and the whale's myriad connections to human cultural conflicts are no less impressive in their scope.
In New Times' special project "Shades of Gray," reporters from several of our papers have traveled from Siberia to Mexico to tell the complex tale of a creature whose annual migration -- at 12,000 miles round trip -- is the longest by any mammal. The trek joins the competing interests of Indians, scientists, environmentalists and local residents. In this issue, Patti Epler explores the science, the money and the politics behind gray whale research. With hundreds of whales mysteriously washing up dead and a plunging calf count coupled with reports of chemical contamination, scientific research has taken on a new urgency.
On a late spring day two years ago, veterinarian Frances Gulland perched precariously atop a large and very dead gray whale floating in San Francisco Bay. The doctor's grim task of slicing blubber from the thick skin of the 40-foot-long mammal was not made any easier by the cold chop rolling in under the Golden Gate Bridge.
The position was certainly not a new one for Gulland, a staff veterinarian at the Marine Mammal Center in Sausalito. In 1999 and 2000, hundreds of gray whales washed up on Pacific Coast beaches from Bahia de Banderas in Mexico to the mouth of the Yukon River in Alaska. Vets from the Sausalito center alone examined more than two dozen of the emaciated creatures, some still floating in nearshore waters, but many more decomposing on mudflats, beaches and rocky shorelines.
Scientists and others who tracked these unusual mortalities referred to the events as "strandings."
So many gray whales died those two years along the grays' migratory route that locals say there was good money to be made if you were an enterprising boat owner willing to tug stinking whale carcasses off the beaches and out of the bays to deeper water for disposal.
The spike in strandings happened during a cycle that saw the gray whale birthrate plummet; this year, scientists counted fewer gray whale calves than ever before. Calf production is down 83 percent from five years ago.
And there are other signs the gray whales may be in serious trouble. For the past couple of years, Siberian whalers have been reporting "stinky" whales -- grays that give off a strong medicinal odor that some scientists believe may signal chemical contamination.
While high strandings and low calf counts are besetting the Eastern Pacific gray whale -- the leviathan that hugs the coast of North America on its annual migration to and from the calving lagoons of Mexico -- scientists are also documenting problems with the Western Pacific gray whale, a second group belonging to the same species that populates the opposite side of the ocean.
The Western grays, found off the Russian coast near Sakhalin Island, have dwindled to fewer than 100. They have been deemed "critically endangered" by marine mammal officials. Scientists and environmentalists are urging an oil drilling consortium at work in the area to stop seismic exploration activity and take care not to disturb the whales that feed in the lagoon in summer.
The Eastern Pacific gray whale, on the other hand, had been an environmental success story. Once hunted nearly to extinction, an international ban on commercial hunting sparked a turnaround that led to its removal from the U.S. Endangered Species list. Having rebounded to historic levels -- roughly 26,000 grays by most estimates -- the whales' mortality rate and plunging calf count have scientists groping for answers.
What's going wrong?
Most explanations point to theories about potential problems with the whales' food supply, primarily in the Bering Sea. In summer, the giant whales must ingest huge amounts of tiny creatures called amphipods to sustain them on their migration down to Mexico and back up to Alaska again the next summer.
But no one knows what, if anything, is amiss with the amphipods. Some scientists believe a short-term "warm water event" like El Niño killed off the food supply for just a couple years. Some think recent severe winters in the far northern seas have left an ice cover over the feeding grounds for too long, so the whales didn't have enough time to eat. Several scientists are proposing that some sort of widespread environmental change is afoot -- like global warming wreaking havoc with the ecosystem in the Bering Sea. Still others say the whales may have reached their "carrying capacity," that there are just so many gray whales now that the environment can't sustain them.
But not one of these theories has been investigated.
Because there are thousands of Eastern Pacific gray whales, there is little money available for significant field studies. Limited government funding goes to marine mammals that are obviously on the verge of extinction.
Since dead gray whales started washing ashore in record numbers more than two years ago, no government or private researchers have been dispatched to the Bering Sea to examine the gray whale food supply.
Three years after the first stinky whale was discovered by whaling crews from Chukotka in the Russian Far East, U.S. scientists have yet to perform analyses on tissue and blubber samples of the smelly whales. In fact, this summer the Russian government turned away a scientific team from Alaska that was endorsed by the International Whaling Commission to help the Siberians.
The only research on the plight of the Western Pacific gray whales has been paid for by the very oil companies that are working in the area. The scientists say their findings have been compromised and in some instances suppressed, leading the IWC, at its annual meeting in July, to call for an independent review of findings by scientists not on the payroll of industry.
And even examination of the stranded whales themselves has been lacking. Although more than 600 whales died on beaches and in nearshore waters, only about 100 of them were tested for chemical contamination or other unseen problems. Fewer than 10 full necropsies were performed, and, until recently, veterinarians like Gulland, from Mexico to Alaska to Russia, had no standard protocol to follow to ensure that all researchers were collecting scientifically consistent information.
This year, the mystery of the gray whales deepened. The strandings have virtually stopped. Only 13 dead whales were counted along West Coast beaches during the spring and summer. And whale counters who watched the 2001 migration have reported that the whales appeared fatter and healthier than they have in years.
No one knows why the strandings stopped. More to the point, scientists don't know why so many whales died in the first place. It's an environmental conundrum that government officials now are calling a random event, even though examinations of the dead whales consistently showed the animals were starving.
But the mystery of the strandings should not be left behind so quickly. Whatever the explanation for the low stranding rate this year, birthrates for the grays continue to drop. So the problem is not merely a piece of theoretical jerky to be chewed upon.
Significant national and international policy decisions are looming that could affect the gray whale population. In six months, the International Whaling Commission will meet again, this time in Japan, to decide how many Eastern Pacific gray whales can be harvested by aboriginal hunters in Washington state and Russia without harming the overall whale population.
The federal Minerals Management Service, which oversees offshore oil and gas projects, will soon be offering up new oil and gas leases in the Alaska region. Eight of the areas up for grabs include main migration routes and primary feeding grounds for gray whales.
And in Canada, the oil industry is pushing to lift the moratorium that has been preventing oil and gas development off the Canadian west coast -- a main migratory path for the grays.
Some scientists and environmentalists worry that this year's lack of strandings is the random event, that the grays are in the eye of some bigger ecological storm that begins in the far northern feeding grounds of the Bering Sea.
Ten years ago, a University of Alaska-Fairbanks researcher counted amphipods in the Bering Sea and predicted that in about the year 2000 gray whales would be in some trouble. He believed the fast-growing whale population was wiping out the amphipods, which take many years to reproduce.
Now, that same scientist, Ray Highsmith, has been awarded a National Science Foundation grant to return to the Bering Sea. Next summer's feeding grounds study should -- finally -- answer the fundamental question of whether the gray whales have reached carrying capacity or if there is some larger environmental problem at work.
The questions are vital. If the grays' food supply is threatened, oil drilling in gray whale territory or continued hunting on the open seas could have serious long-term consequences.
Today, there is little hard data upon which to make those decisions.
Right now, daylight in the Bering Sea is down to less than eight hours a day and fading at a fairly rapid meteorological clip. Scientists believe it is this shortening of days that signals the gray whales it's time to head south for warmer habitat, the lagoons of Baja California, 6,000 miles away.
By January, the bulk of the migration will be passing along the northern California coast, in particular a point called Granite Canyon where trained observers with the National Marine Fisheries Service will count them as they go by.
Scientists have been standing on cliffs counting the whales for more than 100 years. In 1885, the biologist C.H. Townsend watched the whales from the hills at San Simeon, where Hearst Castle now stands, and counted 160 of the leviathans. He had no way of estimating the size of the entire population beyond what he could see.
But Townsend's quasi-official count came a mere three decades after the notorious whaling captain Charles Melville Scammon decimated the gray whale population. Scammon, who is also credited with providing much of the early information on gray whale migration and behavior, discovered the calving lagoons of Baja -- then nearly wiped out the mammals in his zest for whale oil.
Researchers have gotten better since the 19th-century observations of Townsend at extrapolating from a head count to a population size. But this relatively simplistic whale census still remains the basic tool for determining the health of the species.
For more than 30 years, the Granite Canyon station has been the official site for what NMFS calls "abundance estimates." Individual observers watch the whales through binoculars mounted on a stand and focused on a particular spot in the ocean. Same spot, day after day, year after year. Scientific consistency also calls for the observers to record their numbers by hand on a form that also has remained relatively unchanged for years.
"It's a primitive mechanism," concedes Dave Rugh, an NMFS biologist who oversees the counts, "but it's the same one that was used in the '60s."
That way, changes in technology do not skew the methodology or, hopefully, the results. In recent years, NMFS has added aerial surveys and underwater sensors to the mix as a way to confirm what the onshore watchers are seeing.
The count usually begins in mid-December. By the time it ends in mid- to late February, observers will have spotted more than 3,000 individual whales. Those numbers are run through a computer model that factors in density and other variables, then gives the estimated size of the population.
The latest report continues to put the total number of Eastern Pacific gray whales at more than 26,000, an ecological success story considering that in the 1930s the population had dropped to fewer than 8,000, and the whales were put on the U.S. Endangered Species list in 1970.
In 1937, the gray whales were protected from commercial hunting by international agreement, a ban that was formalized in 1946 with the advent of the International Whaling Commission. U.S. monitoring of gray whales has been going on since the 1950s.
By 1994, the Eastern Pacific gray whales had rebounded significantly and were removed from the list. (The Western Pacific gray whale continues to be listed as a "critically endangered" species.)
Earlier this year, volunteers who staff a whale-watching station in Southern California reported that the 2001 migration has been a healthy one.
"I saw some of the biggest, fattest whales I'd seen in quite a while this year," says Alisa Schulman-Janiger, a high school marine biology teacher from San Pedro, California, who oversees the volunteer count as head of the Los Angeles chapter of the American Cetacean Society.
From December through May, volunteers peer out to sea from atop a 125-foot-high cliff near Point Vicente, just south of L.A. They use binoculars and spotting scopes to capture a view of passing marine mammals and other sea creatures. They rely on years of experience and training to be able to spot a hump in the water hundreds of yards out, and then figure out if it's male or female, young or old, fat or skinny.
The whales head north in two pulses, according to Schulman-Janiger. The first includes animals without calves and, about six weeks later, the watchers begin to document mothers with calves.
The volunteers had been dreading this season, anticipating a third year of starving whales.
Instead, Schulman-Janiger's final report calls the spring 2001 migration an "exotic season." Volunteers documented a large number of marine mammal species, including humpback, blue, minke and killer whales, two very rare sei whales, sea lions, seals, sea otters and numerous species of dolphins. One "megapod" contained more than 10,000 dolphins, she reported.
Schulman-Janiger doesn't think there will be a lot of strandings during the coming migration. She expects to see more calves and an overall healthy look to the whales that would suggest they're feeding well and perhaps expending their feeding ranges to other areas. "I would predict the whales will continue to look fat and sassy," she says.
"Next year is going to be extremely telling."
Over the years, scientists have become comfortable with a gray whale population that appeared to be growing at the rate of about 2.5 percent per year, measured from the 1960s through the 1990s.
But several years ago, something went seriously awry. By the end of the 1999 migration, at least 263 gray whales had stranded, compared with 52 the year before and even fewer than that per year for many years prior.
The 2000 migration was even worse -- more than 350 gray whales turned up dead.
And those were just the ones that came ashore or were found floating in nearshore waters. No one knows how many grays perished and vanished in deeper waters.
One thing was clear, even as the first few dozen whales began to litter the beaches of Baja early in 1999 -- the whales were starving. Reports of emaciated whales began to flow in with what seemed like every new tide.
Some researchers began calling for serious efforts to determine why the whales appeared to be undernourished. Logically, they reasoned, that would mean looking at the whales' primary food supply -- the shrimplike amphipods that live in the mud on the bottom of the Bering and Chukchi seas, off the coasts of Alaska and Russia. The whales eat only in the summer, sucking in large amounts of muck and screening the amphipods through their baleen.
It's not hard to imagine the huge amount of tiny creatures these giant animals need to sustain them through a round-trip journey that takes about eight months and covers 12,000 miles. So, scientists postulated, starving whales in the spring of 1999 must mean they didn't eat very well in the summer of 1998.
Equally alarming, the birthrate of gray whale calves also has been abnormally low over the last few years. The number of calves counted by scientists during the spring -- when the small whales are still with their mothers on the journey north -- has dropped from about 1,400 in 1997 to about 250 in 2001.
In fact, calf production this year is the lowest recorded in eight years of monitoring, says Wayne Perryman, an NMFS biologist based in La Jolla, California, and the government's main specialist on calf birthrates.
That, too, is probably related to the food supply in the Bering Sea, he says. For the last few years, northern winters have been "very, very severe," Perryman says. Seasonal ice that covers the northern seas in winter has been slow to recede, and whales arrive to find their main feeding grounds still blocked or inaccessible. Perryman says the Bering and Chukchi seas have seen abnormally heavy seasonal ice in recent years.
That's made for a much shorter feeding time for gray whales. Pregnant whales "have to get fat in a short period of time," Perryman says. "Then they have to support the fetus, give birth and then lactate and feed a calf. It's really a very big deal."
He thinks the whales haven't been able to eat enough to sustain that incredible biological process. So when a pregnant whale realizes she's not getting fat, "she buys out of the pregnancy early on rather than when she has a big investment in it," he says, in essence miscarrying the fetus.
One reason Perryman is convinced the calf problem is centered on the female simply not carrying the fetus to term is because scientists have not seen a large number of dead calves in the lagoons or along the beaches, as they would if the babies were being born and then died for some other reason.
In recent years, Perryman has focused his research on female gray whales, believing that the condition of the females may tip scientists to future problems with the entire population.
So on the last couple of days in December and for a few days in January, Perryman will load high-tech camera gear on a twin-engine plane -- both of which he often borrows from pals in the military -- and fly over southbound gray whales as they pass the coast of northern California, near San Simeon. At an altitude of about 600 feet, the "photogrammetry" technique is capable of capturing snapshots of migrating whales as if they were lying still.
Length, width and shape of the whales is telling, and Perryman makes careful measurements from his photos. "As gray whales lose weight, the relationship between their length and width changes," he says. "They're shaped differently if they're pregnant, and near-term females are much wider."
Perryman says he has seen a change in the condition of the whales in the last three years -- a change for the worse because the whales are substantially skinnier. He is at work on a new scientific paper that moves beyond the increasing distinctions between fat and skinny whales, and looks at how skinny whales may be linked to calf production and ice conditions from 1997 to 2002. He concedes his ice-cover theory is just that -- a theory -- and hopes that someday various pieces of the puzzle will finally be thoroughly studied and the puzzle solved.
Perryman's work is a good example of the larger quandary facing scientists. The existing data suggests a serious problem, but the field research that would nail down the answer is still beyond their financial grasp.
"There is a very complex answer," he says. "I think we'll have enough information next year [before the IWC meeting] to have a good idea what's going on in the population. As far as having the entire picture wrapped up by next April, it's not going to happen."
Wayne Perryman's photogrammetry work has become one of the main components of NMFS' gray whale monitoring program. But the government pays nothing for the studies and Perryman has had to beg and borrow gear and aircraft in recent years to carry out the important research.
He's a personable guy, and the fact that he's a former naval officer helps when he needs to borrow a plane and the special camera gear from associates in the military.
"It's a real struggle," Perryman says. "I haven't been getting any money so I've been stealing a bit from other people."
Lack of cash for work considered as significant as Perryman's demonstrates a fundamental truth of how science gets done in the 21st century. There's simply no money for a species that is not on the edge of extinction or showing signs of slipping that way.
"The most critically endangered species where we could mitigate the cause of the decline is our highest priority," says Doug DeMaster, head of NMFS' National Marine Mammal Laboratory in Seattle who oversees much of the funding.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
"I think with the government what happens is they respond to crisis," he says. "They don't get much money unless there's a crisis and the politicians lean on them and they produce a product."
So Le Boeuf, Bruce Mate from Oregon State University and several noted Mexican whale scientists decided to sidestep government red tape and collaborate on a paper. They had no intention of actually studying the feeding grounds or even applying for any grants.
"I think what you hope is that your paper presents an idea which stimulates further research," Le Boeuf says. "You don't necessarily have to do it yourself. You're moving things forward. I would hope that it would serve as a boot in the butt to the government."
In fact, their paper has gotten wide circulation in the small world of whale research. The 12-page paper has been the catalyst for a growing debate on whether there are just too many gray whales for the environment to support.
The scientists relied on existing data of various kinds surrounding the 1999 strandings: the locations of the strandings, how often they occurred, the sex and age of the dead whales, their physical condition, reports of whales feeding in new spots, especially along the migration route.
They found that most of the dead whales were female adults, not the usual calves and yearlings. Tests of dead whale tissue samples, although limited, showed thin blubber and low levels of oil and fat, which suggested low energy reserves.
"If gray whales have become food-limited, a high stranding rate and lowered reproduction would be expected to continue until an equilibrium is reached," the scientists predicted.
Le Boeuf and his colleagues' "starvation hypothesis" held that whales were going hungry for two related reasons. One, changes in the northern ecosystem were reducing the whales' principal prey, the amphipods. Moreover, they theorized, there are simply too many whales competing for the same meal.
This "carrying capacity hypothesis" has floated to the top of scientific debate over the future of the gray whales. Some researchers think the population has grown so large that the ocean environment simply cannot sustain 26,000 or more grays. The large number of strandings was simply nature's way of cutting the herd down to a sustainable size, they believe.
Other scientists don't buy the carrying capacity theory. They think the strandings were a random event, a spike -- albeit a sharp one -- on the whales' biological timeline that shows an upturn in strandings every seven or eight years. The more likely culprit for the 1999 and 2000 strandings, they say, was a short-term warm water event, an El Niño effect that reduced the amphipods for a couple of years.
But some scientists like Le Boeuf and Mate, as well as many environmentalists, worry that the low birthrate on top of the high number of strandings means something more long-term is afoot.
"If the whales have come on hard times and their food supply is threatened, the first thing you would have is some starving in the first couple years," explains Le Boeuf. "So maybe that was kind of like the first cut and the weak ones have succumbed. So that perhaps explains why we have not had the same strandings rate."
Or perhaps not.
In July, two other leading gray whale scientists, Robert Brownell and David Weller, both on the staff of NMFS' Southwest Fisheries Science Center in La Jolla, California, submitted a paper to the IWC that argued against the carrying capacity theory. Both men have worked extensively with the Western Pacific gray whale population that is found mainly off Sakhalin Island in the Okhotsk Sea near Russia. That population has been deemed "critically endangered" and is down to fewer than 100 whales.
Brownell and Weller contend that by no stretch of the imagination could the Western gray whales be overgrazing their feeding grounds; there are simply too few of them. Yet they are dropping in numbers, too, almost to the point of extinction.
Instead, "more global or oceanwide changes may be influencing the availability of, or access to, primary prey for numerous large whale populations," Brownell and Weller say.
Again, Brownell and Weller don't have any recent data on the actual food supply. That's the work that won't be done until the coming year, perhaps by both NMFS and the National Science Foundation.
But the two scientists got together with 10 other whale experts at a meeting of the Society of Marine Mammalogy in Hawaii in December 1999. The group scrutinized photographs of skinny whales from both the Eastern and Western populations. Many of the features were the same: protruding shoulder blades, depressions behind the head and a pronounced ridge or visible "bulge" along the lateral flank.
The scientists concluded that the "starvation hypothesis" proposed by Le Boeuf earlier in the year was indeed plausible. "However, we do not think that starvation is necessarily related to exceeding carrying capacity."
Evidence from throughout the world points to something much bigger at work, they say. Skinny blue whales have been observed in the Gulf of California and skinny right whales have been spotted in the North Atlantic. Changing global weather patterns may be affecting sea ice, which means the feeding grounds are not as accessible to the whales. Plankton production may be off in the North Atlantic because of long-term weather changes.
Brownell and Weller think that some sort of "large-scale ocean basin" climatic event has affected both sides of the North Pacific Ocean. They believe the shift took place in the late 1990s and changed the availability of food for both the Eastern and Western Pacific grays in the same way.
Brownell and Weller have no idea what that major environmental change might be or whether an end to industrial development, including oil drilling, or further cutbacks in aboriginal harvesting will, in fact, save the whales -- on either side of the ocean.
But it's important for scientists to figure out whether whales face a problem with abundance or the threat of scarcity. Marine mammal experts, especially the quasi-governmental IWC, will need the science to put in place species management plans. If there are too many whales (the carrying capacity theory), the IWC could decide to allow an increase in aboriginal quotas, for instance. If it looks like the food supply is being threatened by a larger environmental circumstance, officials may be forced to make tough political choices like limiting industrial development in whale territory.
Scientists agree there's only one way to solve the dilemma: study what's going on in the Bering Sea.
"What I think is most important for the gray whale now is to actually study the amphipods," says Le Boeuf. "You're probably saving the whales along with it."
Enter Ray Highsmith, who in studying the amphipods may well resolve the essential conundrum over carrying capacity versus environmental collapse.
The University of Alaska-Fairbanks biologist plans to lead a team of researchers into the northern latitudes of the Bering Sea next June and actually measure the amphipods that have been the subject of so much scientific hand-wringing.
Highsmith will be repeating work he did about 10 years ago, a research project that was also funded by the National Science Foundation, not NMFS. As an aside, Highsmith points out that he doesn't even apply for grants through NMFS because the agency never has the kind of money needed for arctic seafaring expeditions, which run into the hundreds of thousands of dollars.
In the previous study, Highsmith identified the gray whales' primary feeding ground as a 47,000-square-kilometer patch of ocean between St. Lawrence Island and the Bering Strait. As many as 3,500 whales were feeding in the area. He believes there is a similar "hot spot" north of the Bering Strait, in Russian waters near Siberia.
In the study area, the large amphipods favored by gray whales were plentiful, about 5,000 per square meter, his study showed.
Those amphipods are about the size of cocktail shrimp and live in the upper few centimeters of the muck on the bottom of the ocean. A feeding gray whale dredges a trench a few meters deep in the upper layer of the bottom, sifting the sand and amphipods through its baleen.
But the same area also contains many smaller types of amphipods, animals that are just too tiny to be trapped by the baleen. It's these smaller creatures that will be key to determining whether the whales are simply overgrazing, as Le Boeuf and his group contend, or whether a more widespread sea change is at work, as Brownell and Weller propose.
Ten years ago, based on the feeding rate of the whales and the reproductive rate of the amphipods, Highsmith predicted that by about the year 2000, the whales would be having a hard time finding enough food. "Lo and behold, about 1999, whales started washing up on the beaches," he says. "The arrows are all starting to point toward the amphipods."
Highsmith applied for the NSF grant about 18 months ago but only got final approval in September. It was too late to do any field work this year; all the research vessels were booked and the weather in the Bering Sea would soon be too rough for bottom-sampling. Now, Highsmith plans to head north in June for 10 days on site, then return next September for a second round of sampling.
Highsmith will repeat the work in as near the same way as he collected samples and analyzed data 10 years ago. That means dropping anchor in the same few spots the team visited before, and using a shipboard system that sends a heavy metal grab bucket over the side. The machine will bring back large samples of the bottom and whatever amphipods might be included. The team also hopes to make use of small, two-person research subs to study the bottom.
And here is where the gray whales' future lies: If only the amphipod species eaten by the gray whales has declined, then scientists can be reasonably certain that the problem is the whales themselves -- the overgrazing or carrying capacity theory. But if all species of amphipods have declined, including those too small to be consumed by whales, then, Highsmith says, it means the amphipods' own food system -- microscopic diatoms that live in the water column -- is in trouble. And that would suggest some larger cause, such as broader climatic change.
Either way, a downturn in amphipods does not bode well for the gray whales. It takes many years for amphipods to reproduce. "If their population is way down, it may not recover for decades," Highsmith says. "In terms of the whales, that's a problem for them."
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."