Record Gray Whale Deaths Spark Probe

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The largest die-off of gray whales along the West Coast in 20 years has prompted the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to launch a probe into the causes of the crisis.

Already at least 70 gray whales, including 9 in the Bay Area have been found dead along beaches since the yearly migration toward Alaska began late this winter.  Most appear to have been undernourished or starving.

The record year for gray whale deaths along the West Coast was 2000, when 131 gray whales washed up along the coast including 61 in California.  It is believed that unusually warm waters in the North Pacific contributed to record beachings that year.  This season is on track to exceed that total.

The whales are only halfway through their annual migration from Mexico to Arctic feeding grounds near Alaska, and the number of deaths is expect to continue to rise.

In launching the probe, the federal agency will pull together research on what has been happening to gray whales during their migration along the coasts of California, Oregon, Washington and British Columbia.

One theory that is being looked at is the impact of early sea ice melting in the arctic region.  Researchers believe this may be reducing the supply of amphipods, or small sea creatures, that the filter feeding gray whales depend on.  Warm sea temperatures in the Bering Sea last summer may have reduced the supply of this food source.

That’s important, because gray whales typically eat very little during their journey south to Mexican calving grounds and their time there.  Instead they rely on stored blubber fat for energy.   Scientists think that low fat reserves may be driving the die-off.  But further research will be needed to determine if this is actually the cause of the crisis.



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