The Cambrian

Are whales running late?

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

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

But a small team of of ficial leviathan counters say this spring’s tally of grays from a rocky Piedras Blancas promontory is about normal … so far.

By Monday, 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 year’s counts have varied from 87 in 2001 to 501 in 1997.

Perryman expects to join his Piedras Blancas team today (Thursday, April 15) for a couple of weeks. 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 effects

Regular team member, marine biologist Richard Rowlette said they didn’t lose any counting time due to 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 last 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 estimated.

Whale hunts

All this comes amid the International Whaling Commission’s (IWC) 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 conser vationists 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 are opposing the pact.

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

Perryman said the issue is a tough one. “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.