Letters to the Editor

Viewpoint: The gray whale is still in peril

National Marine Fisheries Service spokesman Wayne Perryman says the number of gray whale calves born this season is “average” and that he sees nothing “catastrophic” about the count so far (“Are whales running late?” April 15).

To make his point, he furnished highly selective data showing calf counts ranging from 87 in 2001 to 501 in 1997. If one were to look only at this limited data set, with no context, one might conclude that nothing is amiss with the California gray whale.

But nothing could be further from the truth. Consider this. The 87 calves in 2001 were born following a catastrophic die off, when, by National Marine Fisheries Service’s own estimate, as many as one-third of the population died for reasons that are still unexplained.

Since the gray whale was removed from the endangered species list in 1998 (over the objections of conservation groups who argued that the population was not yet stable), the calf count peaked at 1,528 calves in 2004 and has

been dropping steadily ever since. The most recent population study conducted by the National Marine Fisheries Service (Punt and Wade, 2009) shows that the number of calves has plummeted since that time to a low of 312 in 2009.

So, there were 1,528 calves in 2004 and there has been a precipitous decline over the last four years to 312. That means that reproduction rates, the most telling indicator of a species’ status, is down by 80 percent over a five year period. Is this the new normal by National Marine Fisheries Service standards? If that isn’t catastrophic, I don’t know what is.

A comprehensive study of all the factors affecting the gray whale, as required by the Marine Mammal Protection Act, has yet to be released. But factors likely include loss of food sources due to pollution, ocean acidification and global climate change, increased predation by orcas whose major food source, salmon, has been drastically depleted, ship strikes and underwater sonar testing which can affect migration routes and communication. How Perryman can blithely conclude that the low calf counts are attributable to increased sea ice is not clear.

In a April 12 Associated Press story by Noaki Schwartz (“California watchers: ‘Where are the whales?’” April 12), National Marine Fisheries Service researcher Paul Wade says an important decline in the health of the population isn’t “going to happen overnight. We’re going to see it.” Well, we are seeing it.

Emaciated, adolescent whales are washing up in Puget Sound, not far from the gray whales prime feeding grounds. Biologists and fishermen in the Baja lagoons are reporting an alarming absence of cow/calf pairs, a high proportion of single males and a frightening number of “skinny whales.” Whale watching boat captains in San Diego are having trouble finding any whales at all and calf counts are down by 80 percent. And yet, the United States appears poised to sign off on a plan to allow the killing of 1,400 gray whales over the next 10 years and also support a proposal to lift the ban on commercial whaling, in return for stricter oversight.

Perryman refers to this as a compromise, not unlike President Barack Obama’s health care plan, where only the extremists are unhappy. But no amount of compromise can bring back a species once it goes extinct. It is far from extreme to suggest that whale populations showing severe signs of stress should not be subject to hunting pressures, let alone quotas that remain in effect for 10 years.

Black market whale meat is showing up in Santa Monica sushi bars. If the United States can’t even guarantee funding for regular population studies of a single species of whale and keep illegal whale meat out of the country, how can it possibly expect to fund global oversight of whale hunting and shut it down if necessary? Let me guess, the Japanese and the Norwegians will voluntarily “monitor” their catch and file annual reports.

Whales are among the most biologically complex creatures on earth, with communication abilities we haven’t even begun to fully understand. They are sentient, self-aware beings with brain function rivaling our own. It is astonishing, inexplicable and horrifying that the Obama administration would be complicit in a plan to lift the global moratorium on commercial whaling and allow them to be killed for profit.

It is depressing that the agency charged with protecting whales is complicit in spinning the data to justify the argument, with a “burn the village to save the village” mentality. At a time when the health of our oceans is in deep distress, as described in detail in Ken Weiss’ Pulitzer Prize-winning series in the Los Angeles Times, we should be doing everything in our power, economically and diplomatically, to preserve what is left of ocean biodiversity and restore what we have destroyed. Killing whales is not the way. Sarah Christie is a former planning commissioner for San Luis Obispo County.