Gray whale deaths trigger alarm

A gray whale lies dead in front of citizens standing a safe distance from the animal in Northern California. (Courtesy photo)

NOAA declares Unusual Mortality Event

After 148 gray whale strandings on the West Coast of North America so far this year, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration declared the spike an Unusual Mortality Event. Of those 148 strandings, 70 occurred along the West Coast of the U.S. — three occurred in Oregon.

Scientists have pointed to a lack of food as a possible reason for the deaths which are otherwise a baffling occurrence for the whales, which are still listed as endangered and whose population rests around 27,000.

In an effort to investigate the unusual mortality event of the Eastern North Pacific gray whales, NOAA announced Friday, an independent team of scientists is being assembled to coordinate with the Working Group on Marine Mammal Unusual Mortality Events by reviewing data collected, sample strand whales and determine further steps to take in the investigation.

Already, full and partial necropsies have been conducted on a subset of whales. Preliminary findings showed evidence of emaciation in several whales, however, those findings were not consistent across the whole subset, so more research is needed.

According to NOAA, one UME has previously been declared for the Eastern North Pacific gray whales: in 1999-2000, more than 650 emaciated animals were stranded along the same stretch of coast — many of those stranded whales were emaciated and calf production in those years was less than one third of that seen from 1996 to 1998. Oceanographic factors that limited food availability for gray whales were identified as likely causes of the event.

There are two primary ways citizens can assist in the investigation. The first is through donations: the public can use Pay.gov to donate to the Marine Mammal UME Contingency Fund for this or other UMEs and help cover costs incurred by the Marine Mammal Stranding Network.

Citizens can assist by reporting dead, injured and stranded marine animals immediately upon finding them. Contact the West Coast Marine Mammal Stranding Network at 1-866-767-6114, or contact the U.S. Coast Guard on VHF Channel 16. Do not approach or touch injured or dead marine mammals. Pets should always be kept away from marine mammals, particularly diseased or dead marine mammals.

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