Thursday, May 6, 2010
Given the state of California’s economy, any loss of gray whale tourism will impact many coastal communities. A draft proposal currently under consideration by the International Whaling Commission will, if accepted, put whales and the whale-watching industry under great pressure.
The proposal incorporates a 10-year kill quota of 140 whales annually, allocated to the Russian Federation and previously renewed by the IWC every five years. A 10-year quota for a vulnerable, climate-dependent whale will be a political decision where science has no bearing.
Climate change is the most serious threat facing the population, and some scientists believe gray whales will likely be the first baleen whale casualty. As specialist feeders, their migration route is changing as they travel much farther north in search of food, leaving insufficient energy for reproduction. Many prime habitat areas are covered in oil and gas leases.
Given the current low calf counts, skinny whales and increasing evidence of global warming impacts, a decade-long quota is of major concern.
As Dr. Sidney Holt, a respected marine biologist and expert on the IWC, says: “The proposed gray whale strike limit takes no account of reported changes in this population, involving large numbers of dying calves, mothers without calves, and so on, in recent years. This is clearly a matter for serious examination by the Scientific Committee before what is in effect a 10-year block quota.”
U.K. IWC Commissioner Richard Cowan wrote of the draft proposal: “These catch limits would, for all practical purposes, be locked in place for 10 years regardless of the scientific information on the state of the populations. This would represent a reversal of the precautionary principle, to which our governments are firmly committed, both nationally and as European Union members.”
IT DOESN’T TAKE AN EXPERT TO SEE OBVIOUS PROBLEMS.
Add impacts of increased seawater temperatures, ocean acidity, and the loss of nutrients to the benthic community (on which gray whales depend) as sea ice disappears exponentially, and it doesn’t take an expert to see obvious problems. There’s simply not enough food. Two species sharing the same benthic ecosystem, diving sea ducks and walrus, are showing evidence of food stress, according to Arctic specialists.
National Marine Fisheries Service scientists continue to claim the population is doing fine. The current count being undertaken by NMFS is the first proper population estimate since 2001-02. NMFS scientists have told the California Gray Whale Coalition results of this year’s count won’t be presented to the forthcoming IWC Scientific Committee meeting, and the 2009-11 numbers may not be known for years.
The veritable Towers of mathematical Babel created by NMFS since the whales’ delisting in 1994 are incomprehensible. The massive crash taking out a third of the population in 1999-2000 has been virtually wiped from the slate. Professor Ray Highsmith, a benthic expert from the University of Alaska, said at the time: “We speculate the gray whales that have stranded are probably starving. Ninety percent of the strandings are underweight females. Also, calving is way down.”
Marine mammal experts say it takes at least a decade for a baleen whale population to recover from a crash of this size. Four consecutive seasons of low cow/calf counts and skinny whales don’t paint a picture of a healthy, recovering population.
While NMFS spouts numbers, the real indicators of a viable population are sex and breeding ratios, survivorship and population dynamics. None of these data are available. Yet NMFS has already supported the recommendation for a 10-year quota. Once accepted, this quota will be almost impossible to overturn. The IWC Scientific Committee is not open to non-government organizations, and most evidence presented comes from government scientists.
The only escape clause in the draft proposal is, if a “significant event… negatively affects the status of a stock, the commission will lower the catch limit for that stock prior to the next whaling season based on the advice of the scientific committee.” But there’s no definition of a “significant event.”
The California Gray Whale Coalition is lobbying Congress, the White House and NMFS to request a moratorium on any gray whale hunting quota at the forthcoming IWC meeting. Representing economic and environmental organizations in the U.S., Mexico, Canada and Alaska, the coalition believes any decision should be put aside until comprehensive research of major threats facing the whales, including data on current population dynamics, has been undertaken, reviewed and made public.
A Save the Whales Rally will be held May 23, 10am, at Monterey Bay Park. For info, contact Pelican Network at 667-2025.