Gray whales are one of the largest creatures on Earth and one of many species of whales to have been given “protected” status due to excessive 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 search for 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 US shores.
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 rapidly, and the 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.
The gray whales in this part of the ocean migrate over 10,000 miles from Mexico, where they tend to stock up on food for the year, to give birth in the cooler seas off the coast. Alaska.
As many of the whales that stranded were thin or emaciated, the researchers suggested that these whales may have exhausted their energy reserves before making it to Alaska and died as a result.
Scientists aren’t yet certain of the cause of the deaths, but the phenomenon has sparked 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 ocean giants, which can measure between 12.2 and 15.2 meters in length, have been hunted extensively for their fat and meat.
According to the World Wildlife Foundation (WWF), one population of gray whales – the North Atlantic – is already extinct.
The western North Pacific population has been listed as “critically endangered”, with only an estimated 150 whales remaining.
In total, there are thought to be only 26,000 gray whales left in the world’s oceans.