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Gray Whale Numbers Shrinking


SEATTLE - The population of Eastern North Pacific gray whales has dropped in the past four years from an estimated high of more than 26,000 to less than 18,000, federal researchers say.

Scientists suspect the decline is related to low food supplies in the whales' Arctic feeding grounds, and they expect the numbers will rise again next year.

Also, the drop is a fluctuation one could expect from a population that has rebounded so well that it is now at the limit of what the environment can sustain, said Paul Wade, a marine biologist for the National Marine Fisheries Service's National Marine Mammal Laboratory here.

Environmentalists consider the decline an indication that the whale's population is still threatened by pollution, climate change, dwindling food supplies - and hunting.

> > "If these numbers are correct, it's a very dramatic, very sharp decline in a short time period," said Michael Markarian, executive vice president of the New York-based Fund for Animals, which is involved in a second federal lawsuit challenging the Makah Tribe's right to hunt whales - a right based on centuries of tradition and guaranteed in their 1855 treaty.

"In our mind, it's one of the big success stories," Wade said of the gray whales' recovery over the past century.

The Eastern North Pacific gray, a 30-ton behemoth that migrates annually between winter breeding grounds off Mexico and summer feeding grounds off Alaska, was nearly hunted to extinction in the 19th century by Yankee whalers. There were only a few thousand left at the beginning of the 20th century.

But in the past two decades, the gray-whale population has often topped 20,000, with a 1997-98 estimate of 26,700.

The population is calculated by counting whales as they migrate past central California between December and February. The counts are adjusted to account for whales passing at night, at times when they can't be easily seen from shore or due to their distance from shore and other factors.

The recent estimate of 17,414 could be as low as 14,322 and as high as 21,174, said Dave Rugh, wildlife biologist and project leader of the gray-whale census for the Marine Mammal Lab.

However, it's a "pretty big shift" from the late 1990s figure, Rugh > >said.

A 1998 "warm-water event" around Alaska hurt the whales' food supply, he said. And more than 300 dead whales were reported along the migration route in 1999 and 2000, suggesting many more also had died. The whales do not eat during the migrations.

Wayne Perryman, a fisheries biologist at the Southwest Fisheries Science Center in La Jolla, California, said calf production also dropped, from 1,388 calves in 1998 to 427 and 280 in the following two years. He suspects heavy ice kept pregnant whales from their feeding areas before winter birthing off the Baja Peninsula.

The number of strandings has since dropped dramatically, leading researchers to believe the whales' The population will soon go back up. Perryman also saw less ice last summer and higher calf numbers this spring.

Some whales may have missed being counted because low food supplies up north prompted them to stay in more southern waters, Wade said.

Markarian contends the population drop bolsters the argument for putting the whales back on the Endangered Species List. Grays were taken off the list in 1994, but the Fund for Animals last year petitioned to relist them.

Anti-whaling activists contend the delisting was premature. "Seventeen-thousand is a very low figure indeed and quite worrisome," said Charlotte de Fontaubert, oceans-campaign coordinator for Greenpeace.


Washington, D.C.: Today, Australians for Animals (AFA) and The Fund for Animals (The Fund) filed a petition with the government asking it to list the eastern North Pacific or "California" gray whale population as a threatened or endangered species under the Endangered Species Act (ESA).  The listing is essential to protect gray whales and their habitat from increasing threats including aboriginal whaling, global warming, El-Nino events, benthic or bottom trawling, and offshore oil and gas development.

  The 44-page petition provides scientific evidence of these and other threats and their impact on gray whales and their habitat.  The direct, indirect, and cumulative impact of these threats have drastically altered the ecology of the Bering and Chukchi Seas resulting in a substantial decline in benthic amphipods -- small tube-building creatures that live on the ocean floor who are the primary prey of the gray whale.

  Without access to adequate food supplies, gray whale mortality has increased and births have declined substantially.  The number of stranded whales reported in 2000 was 291 compared to only 250 between 1990 and 1998 while the number of gray whales calves declined from 1520 in 1997 to only 282 in 2000.

"The gray whale is like a giant canary in a very large coal mine," claims Sue Arnold, President of Australians for Animals.  "The documented decline in the gray whale is indicative of a collapse in Arctic ecosystems which the U.S. government has largely ignored.  Unless the government acknowledges and addresses the threat of global warming, eliminates bottom trawling, and provides ESA protection for gray whales and their habitat, the population will be extirpated," adds Ms. Arnold.

The gray whale was nearly exterminated by 1880.  The population was previously protected under the ESA from 1970 until 1994 when the government prematurely delisted the population primarily for political reasons.  The loss of ESA protection in 1994 has eliminated any meaningful protection to gray whale habitat.  Deficiencies in other laws, as described in the petition, further threaten gray whales and their habitat.  The petition also challenges the government's overly optimistic gray whale population estimates documenting that such estimates are uncertain, unreliable, and are based on insufficient information and flawed formulas.

"The government can no longer rely on fuzzy math to deceive the world into believing that the gray whale is safe as the evidence contained in the petition demonstrates," assert Michael Markarian, Executive Vice-President of The Fund for Animals.  "It's time that gray whales and their habitat receive protection from harpoons, warming seas, bottom trawlers, and oil spills by relisting the population under the ESA," concludes Markarian.

  The Fund for Animals is a national animal protection organization headquartered in New York City.

Australians for Animals is a national animal protection organization in Australia based in Byron Bay, New South Wales. The Fund and AFA have previously combined efforts to secure a threatened listing for the koala under the ESA and successfully sued the government to stop the Makah gray whale hunt in 1999.

  Other groups supporting the petition include: The Great Whales Foundation
Cetacean Society International
Sea Sanctuary, Inc.
The Humane Society of Canada.

  A full copy of the petition and executive summary can be obtained at