Thus, most experts agree that the Israel gray whale was born in a Baja lagoon. Members of the California Gray Whale Coalition have cited the event — perhaps the first case of an eastern Pacific gray migrating over the pole — as evidence of desperation, while Rugh sees it as a case of new feeding and migration opportunities.
“The disappearance of sea ice has allowed whales to explore farther north,” said Rugh. “One even got to Israel.” He says climate change is incorrectly characterized as a universally harmful phenomenon; whales, he predicts, “might find it advantageous for a while. Sure, it’ll be bad for polar bears and walruses, but it could be good for gray whales.”
But mass starvation caused by reduced ice formation has occurred among gray whales. In 1999 and 2000, the warming effects of El Niño prevented ice from forming over much of the Bering Sea. Experts believe that as many as one-third of the gray whales starved, many of the corpses washing ashore on California beaches, though the total population of gray whales before the crash is unknown. Information provided by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration shows a starting population of about 21,000 whales in 1998, dipping to just over 16,000 in 2002, and subsequently climbing again to roughly 19,000. Another agency report, produced in part by Dave Rugh, says the population in early 1998 might have been as high as 32,427. However severe the crash, gray whales have experienced only two seasons of high breeding success in the years since, according to Arnold, and she doubts the population has recovered.
Biologists once believed the mass starvation of 2000 came as a result of the whales reaching the maximum carrying capacity of their environment. In 2007, however, Stanford researchers studying the wide range of genetic variation within the existing gray whale population concluded that as many as 118,000 might once have swum in the eastern Pacific. This pre-whaling figure would suggest that new environmental conditions — namely sea-ice disappearance and breakdown of the marine food web in the Bering Sea — are now limiting the food supply of gray whales.
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s last official estimate of the gray whale population came in 2006, a figure of 19,600 animals based on data collected that same year in Baja and in California. The International Whaling Commission is factoring this figure into its current management regime. Sarah Graham, the Moss Landing–based West Coast manager of the California Gray Whale Coalition, believes a fresh population estimate is overdue. Perryman said such a figure will not be available until sometime in 2011.
“The whale-population numbers aren’t being properly presented,” said Graham, who suspects the gray whale population in the eastern Pacific could number as few as 16,000 animals. “They’re using 2006’s numbers as evidence that it’s okay to keep hunting [gray whales].”
Gray whales rebounded from near extinction a century ago and were removed from the federal endangered species list in 1994, but in response to Stanford’s pre-whaling population estimate of 118,000, conservation groups are now advocating an effort to relist the whale as threatened. Stanford whale researcher Stephen R. Palumbi wrote a letter in March 2008 to the California State Assembly urging the state to take action. He warned that the changing environment would likely lead to whale starvation, perhaps on par with the event of 1999–2000.
Palumbi also warned that should gray whales migrate farther north seeking food in a warming environment, they could encounter oil- and gas-drilling activity in the Chukchi Sea, off Alaska’s oil-rich North Slope, and the Barents Sea, north of Finland.
Norman Sanders, a retired UC Santa Barbara professor of environmental studies, believes the federal government is more interested in preserving oil-drilling possibilities than whales.
“It seems to me that [the National Marine Fisheries Service, a division of National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration] wants to take no action that will interfere with offshore oil drilling,” said Sanders, who serves as a scientific advisor to the California Gray Whale Coalition. “That would be too much political mess for them, and so they aren’t being honest scientists. They’re afraid their funding will dry up if they get in the way.”
Perryman, of the fisheries center in La Jolla, has acknowledged the decline in breeding activity in Baja California but believes short-term weather changes rather than long-term climate patterns could be the cause. He also cautions against underestimating the whale population.
“I think that the conservation effort has to be based on getting facts straight, not on being alarmist,” he said.
Numbers are hazy in the field of gray whale research, yet Arnold believes ample cause for alarm has arrived.
“What is the benchmark for acknowledging that this population is in trouble?” she said. “We’ve had four years of low calf counts in Mexico, and whale-watch captains are reporting emaciated whales.” Why, she asks, is such information not sounding alarms? “Are we going to wait for six years of low calf counts? Or ten years, or until there are no calves at all? When do we call this an emergency?”