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West Coast Wildlife Population: Maybe not such a whale of a problem

A female gray whale throws water as she comes to the surface at the Ojo de Liebre lagoon in Guerrero Negro, Mexico, in February 2009. Ojo de Liebre lagoon is one of three primary breeding lagoons that the whales seek in the Baja California peninsula.
A female gray whale throws water as she comes to the surface at the Ojo de Liebre lagoon in Guerrero Negro, Mexico, in February 2009. Ojo de Liebre lagoon is one of three primary breeding lagoons that the whales seek in the Baja California peninsula.

Whale-watching skippers and conservationists up and down the California coast say that gray whale sightings are down — again — this year.

According to The Associated Press, anecdotal information says gray whale sightings have dropped to five a day this season from 25 a day in good years.

But a small team of official counters says this spring’s tally of grays from a rocky Piedras Blancas promontory is about normal ... so far.

By April 12, after the first two weeks of visually scouring the sea, team members counted 13 calves heading north to Alaska from Baja. That’s about “average over the 16 years we’ve been counting,” according to Wayne Perryman, who oversees gray whale counts for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

But it’s still early in the season. “By May 1, we’ll have a better idea” of how many whales are swimming past the point, he said. “So far, I don’t see anything catastrophic in the numbers, nothing unusual.”

In 2007, for example, the team counted 117 calves with their mothers. Other years’ counts have varied from 87 in 2001 to 501 in 1997.

The counts they provide are used to calculate overall population and keep an eye on reproduction levels.

There’s an annual cliffhanger over whether NOAA will continue to pay for the count, despite the fact that the figures from Perryman’s team and other groups who count elsewhere form the backbone of gray whale population tracking.

Weather’s effect

Regular team member Richard Rowlette, a marine biologist, said they didn’t lose any counting time because of the five storms that have swept through the area since they began the count March 29, because the worst weather has hit at night or on weekends when the talliers aren’t on duty.

Perryman said fewer gray whale calves have been born in the past three years, “but we’ve had three cold years in Alaska, where the ice has been slow to melt,” making it harder for the whales to get to their feeding grounds. The low birth rate “can in part be explained by the weather,” he said.

Whale hunts

All this comes amid the International Whaling Commission’s consideration in June of a proposal to allow the hunting and harvesting of 1,400 gray whales, and others, over the next decade.

The proposal pits conservationists and whale lovers against commercial whalers in Japan, Iceland and Norway, among others.

Sara Wan, a longtime state coastal commissioner and member of the California Gray Whale Coalition said “allowing commercial whaling to resume is totally unacceptable, and the agreement will have profound ramifications for all whales.”

She said, “It appears that the Obama administration is set to sign off on this,” but that whale support and environmental groups oppose the pact.

Wan is trying to organize protest demonstrations for May 23 in every coastal California county.

Perryman said the issue is tough. “I understand the IWC is trying to come up with a compromise to cover the whole entire sweep of whale hunting with the goal of limiting the take.

One camp of people (including the Makah Indian tribe of Washington) says they should be able to take as many as they want. Others don’t want any whales hunted. It’s a little like Obama’s health care program; If you try to find middle ground between people who don’t recognize middle ground, then they all hate you.

“But I think people should get to chime in and say how they feel about these things,” Perryman concluded.

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