SEATTLE (AP) – The number of gray whales off the west coast of North America has continued to decline over the past two years, a decline that reflects earlier fluctuations in species numbers in recent decades, US researchers say.
According to an assessment by the US National Marine Fisheries Service – NOAA in English, of the Office of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration – published Friday, the latest census puts the number of whales at 16,650 individuals, a 38% drop in relation to their peak in 2015-2016. Whales have also had the fewest calves since scientists began counting births in 1994.
The increase in the number of whales washed up on the shores of the West Coast prompted the Fisheries Agency to declare an “extraordinary mortality event” in 2019. Researchers are still studying the causes of this mortality, but they say climate change and its effects on sea ice and the availability and location of prey are critical factors. . Many whales washed ashore appear to be malnourished, but not all.
The population recovered from the days of commercial whaling before a similar 40% decline occurred in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Gray whales were removed from the endangered species list in 1994.
The number of individuals increased before the whale washed up on beaches resulting in an “extraordinary mortality event” reported in 1999 and 2000, when the whale population declined by a quarter.
Scientists say that although current population fluctuations fit historical patterns, they are still worrisome.
“We need to monitor the population closely to help understand what might be driving this trend,” said David Wheeler, director of the Division of Sea Mammals and Turtles at the Southwest Fisheries Center in San Diego.
Researchers count whales as they return from their summer feeding grounds in the Arctic to the lagoons of Mexico’s Baja California Peninsula, where they nurse their young in the winter. The census is usually taken over two years, but in order to better monitor the population, NOAA Fisheries is adding a third year to the current study, counting the whales as they pass the California Central Coast from late December to mid-February 2023.
Calves count when whales head north toward the North Pole. In the count that ended in May, there were 217 puppies, down from the 383 that were registered the previous year.
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