An unusually large number of gray whales are washing up dead along their northbound migration routes past the Oregon and Washington coasts this year.
The peak stranding time for gray whales in the Pacific Northwest is typically April, May and June. But the federal agency National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Fisheries has already logged nine dead whales washed ashore in Washington and one in Oregon. That’s on top of 21 strandings on California beaches since the beginning of the year.
A total of 25 dead gray whales were stranded on the entire West Coast in all of 2018.
One 39-foot-long dead adult whale was found floating in Elliott Bay last week, in front of downtown Seattle.
“This is looking like it is going to be a big year for gray whale strandings,” said Jessie Huggins, stranding coordinator for the Olympia-based Cascadia Research Collective.
Since February, Huggins has participated in necropsies of malnourished, mostly adult, gray whales on Whidbey Island and the Key Peninsula to Ocean Shores and Long Beach.
“We’re seeing very thin whales with little to no food in their stomachs,” Huggins said Wednesday. “This is kind of leading us to believe that this is an issue of nutritional stress with a few normal-type strandings mixed in.”
Huggins said these whales probably didn’t get fat enough on their summer feeding grounds in Alaskan waters last year.
Responders in rain gear and elbow-high rubber gloves cut into the massive carcasses to examine the animals’ fat reserves and internal organs. Multiple whales exhibited dry fibrous blubber. The responders noted ribcages and vertebrae sticking out, measured healed scars and took tissue samples for later analysis for contaminants.
Despite the unusual number of dead whales found, NOAA Fisheries spokesman Michael Milstein said the overall population of gray whales is fine, “probably as big as it’s ever been” in modern times.
Eastern Pacific gray whales were taken off the endangered species list in 1994. The population is now estimated at 27,000, which may be around the carrying capacity of their ocean territory.
“They’ve been coming back strong,” Milstein said by telephone from Portland.
Gray whale and humpback whale casualties from entanglement in commercial and tribal fishing gear have been a growing concern for federal officials, certain environmental groups and the fishing industry lately. None of dead gray whales found this spring on Oregon and Washington beaches was entangled in fishing or crabbing lines, however.
Crabbers and fishing boat owners are scheduled to meet with researchers and government representatives when two separate work groups convene next month along the Oregon and Washington coasts to hear updates about entanglement risk reduction strategies.