Monday, April 12, 2010

Possible Gray Whale Decline?: commercial and research groups clash over numbers

An article from the Associated Press looks at the possible declining numbers of gray whales off the eastern Pacific coast. Actually, no one's really sure whether there is a real decline taking place or, perhaps, an anomaly for this season.

These whales migrate all the way from the Arctic to Mexico and back, and are a popular species for whale-watchers. But according to boat captain and whale-watching operator Bill Reese, the numbers this season have dropped from highs of 25 per day in good years to a current low of only 5 per day. Is something happening with the gray whale population? Scientists at this point aren't sure.

Unfortunately, one of the results of listing an animal as endangered, as the gray whale was in 1970, is that as the numbers improve (if they improve), then the census counting from which total populations are estimated becomes less frequent - a typical result of limited
government/scientific resources and funding. And so, if there are any negative changes to the number of whales, it can take a while before the data accurately reflects those changes.

However, simultaneous to this reduction in ongoing population tracking, the International Whaling Commission is considering allowing the taking of 1400 gray whales over the next decade (140 whales per year for subsistence use by Alaskan/Arctic aboriginals. Is this sustainable or too much? Because of a lack of reliable data, many scientists are unsure.

"If you count 2,500 animals [a number recorded in 2006 and used to estimate a total population of 20,000], all you really know rock solid for sure is there are more than 2,500. Beyond that you're using models and assumptions," said Stanford University marine biology professor Steve Palumbi. "The problem comes when you say, 'We do know how many whales there are and we're going to start making unalterable management decisions on that basis.'"

"You can't set specific quotas for 10 years based on 2006 data," said Sara Wan, a California Gray Whale Coalition member who is also a state coastal commissioner. "It's irresponsible."

It looks like we are heading towards a butting of the heads of commercial and scientific interests that won't be resolved until there is more data that more accurately and conclusively indicates the actual current trend in the gray whale population. In the meantime, the gray whale may pay a high price.

Read the Associated Press article.

No comments: