gray whale photo GRAY WHALES IN THE PACIFIC OCEAN ARE DYING OF STARVATION! This story made headlines in the summer of 1999, and was fairly well reported by the media. Until this point, gray whales had been the “success story” of human efforts at whale “protection” and “conservation.” Their numbers were reduced to near extinction by commercial whaling, but they have been protected from this threat for the last half-century, and the population has increased substantially (from approx. 3,000 to 26,000 individuals). In 1972 the Pacific gray whale was placed on the endangered species list, along with many others, but it was removed in 1996 since the population had made such a good recovery. A recent comment from one marine mammal specialist: “This is the only whale population in the entire world that is up to snuff.”

Gray whales closely follow the west coast of North America on their annual migration route, so if they die they may be more likely to wash ashore than the types of whales that range in the open ocean. In 1999 hundreds of dead gray whales washed ashore during their migration north. This event was unprecedented. Initially it was feared that some sort of pollution had killed them, but eventually it became obvious to scientists that the whales had died of simple starvation. The estimated total was 800 dead. In recent years it has also been noted that gray whale calf production has slowed down, and they have been staying longer than usual at their northern feeding grounds before heading south. Both of these trends are likely indicators of a food shortage.

Has the death by starvation of these gray whales alarmed the scientific community? Not really. The explanation as reported in the media was that the gray whales were now so successful that they have outgrown the natural ability of the ecosystem to support them - they are eating themselves out of house and home, and therefore some must die. It is not really a problem and the gray whales are definitely in “no danger.” It has been estimated that the current population (26,000) is as high as the pre-whaling population. (I cannot imagine how an accurate estimate could be made of the pre-whaling population - and would appreciate information on this.) My concern is that the remaining gray whales are all undernourished due to the food scarcity that they are facing, and that even greater numbers of them are likely to starve in coming years. gray whale feeding

What do gray whales eat? They live on bottom-dwellers in the arctic seas, worms and little crustaceans and the like. They basically suck them up out of the mud. Other creatures, like carnivorous fish, doubtless compete with the gray whales for this type of food, and since the fish stocks are at extremely low levels, one might assume that it would be EASIER instead of HARDER for these whales to get enough to eat. The death of the gray whales is part of a very ominous picture - the STARVING MARINE ECOSYSTEM - it does not represent a part of a “normal” balance because the whole thing is severely unbalanced.

(The picture above and right is of a gray whale feeding. It is from the book WHALES by Seymour Simon, and is published by Scholastic (0-439-06237-3))

Some scientists and writers are getting close to the truth. Look at Ed Hunt:

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