Gray whales are one of the largest creatures on Earth and one of many species of whales that have been given “protected” status due to whaling in previous centuries. But over the past six months, the majestic creatures have appeared dead on the coasts of the United States and Canada at an alarming rate. The US government’s science agency, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), officially declared the strandings an “unusual mortality event,” tasking a team of scientists to identify the root cause of the unexplained deaths.
The Marine Mammal Protection Act (MMPA) defines an “unusual mortality event” as involving significant mortality, which requires an immediate response.
The number of gray whale strandings for 2019 is the highest number on record since 2000 – a year that saw more than 100 whales stranded on U.S. shores.
Some scientists have indicated that climate change may have played a role in the deaths.
Sue Moore, an oceanographer at the University of Washington, told Reuters: “The Arctic is changing very, very quickly, and whales are going to have to adapt to that.”
Scientists have suggested that a possible cause of the strandings is a lack of sea ice, which could have wreaked havoc on the whales’ food supply.
Gray whales from this part of the ocean migrate more than 10,000 miles from Mexico, where they tend to stock up on food for the year, in order to give birth in the colder seas off Alaska. .
Since many stranded whales were skinny or emaciated, researchers suggested that these whales may have used up their energy reserves before making their way to Alaska and died.
Scientists are not yet certain of the cause of the deaths, but the phenomenon has raised widespread concern about the future of the species.
Whaling of the species had been legal for three to four hundred years, and it had a devastating long-term impact on gray whale populations.
The giants of the oceans, which can measure between 12.2 and 15.2 meters in length, have been widely hunted for their fat and meat.
According to the World Wildlife Foundation (WWF), one population of gray whales – the North Atlantic – is already extinct.
The Pacific Northwest population has been classified as “critically endangered”, with as few as 150 whales estimated.
In total, it is believed that only 26,000 gray whales remain in the world’s oceans.