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The Pacific Gray Whale – Not Endangered Enough

It was a ruling that was not a complete surprise by those who want to see the Gray Whale under protected status but it still was disheartening when the The National Marine Fisheries Service decided not to label the Pacific Gray Whale as “depleted”.

It’s complicated story because it has to do with how we define the carrying capacity of the habitat and what benchmark is used in order to mark at what point this whale becomes endangered and depleted enough to intervene on its behalf.  The California Gray Whale Coalition is arguing that the 20,000 whales left deserve to not only be protected but that the agency has a responsibility to “prepare a conservation plan to restore the stock to its optimum sustainable population.”

The National Marine Fisheries Service seems to have no issue lowering the bar on what we decide as depleted, which is a very worrying for those concerned about biodiversity and endangered species.  At the rate we’re seeing species disappear and the further impact that human beings have on habitats, ecosystems, etc. then we will always have lower standards for measuring what it means for a species to be depleted.  It means sitting by and watching more and more species go the way of the blue fin tuna.

The petitioners say that the agency should have used the historical k–the capacity of the ecosystem to support a given population of whales when the species was at its maximum level of abundance before decimation by the whaling industry–as it has done in some status review and listing decisions, rather than on current estimates of k which are based on the way ecosystems are today.

While the agency has relied on historic levels of abundance to determine k for a few species, it has determined that in most cases it is impossible to determine the k prior to human exploitation and that its goal for conservation of a species is ‘equilibrium,’ thus, listing decisions must not be based on what ecosystems may have been able to support in the past.

The result, the Coalition argues, is that the gray whale can not reach its true optimum sustainable population because human activity will always reduce the k of an ecosystem through degradation and that ever smaller populations of the species will be accepted as the most that can be sustained.

Of course this is not just about the Gray Whale, this could happen to any species that needs some kind of protection and special help to restore its population.  Since the Gray Whale is one of the many species of whales that migrate past the California Coast, I take their protection even more seriously. I plan on going whale watching with my daughter Charlotte soon so we can catch the whales on their winter migration.

I have written about whaling, captivity and the other issues facing marine mammals because these animals aren’t just threatened by one thing.  And they have touched me personally from when I was just a little girl who wanted to be a marine biologist to the woman I am now who witnessed the heart wrenching death of a Pacific Gray Whale.   I wrote about the death of Lily the Gray Whale last May and it touched me a great deal.  I still remember running along the beach, trying to get to her as she laid in the surf, alone and I wondered if we could have helped her.

Of course we couldn’t have, it was not possible.  But we can help the species.

I asked Sue Arnold who heads up the California Gray Whale Coalition about what happens next and she sent me this:

One of the reasons for filing a depleted petition under the provisions of the Marine Mammal Protection Act was the fact that any decision by National Marine & Fisheries Agency can be challenged. The California Gray Whale Coalition fully expected NMFS to deny the petition. The Agency put every road block possible in the way of the petition.

Their first effort was to grant just 14 days for comments on the Coalition’s scientific petition which was some 14,000 words plus. After much lobbying by the Coalition and its political allies, NMFS granted an extension to Dec. 8. But the Agency would not provide a dedicated email instead insisting that the public use a complicated website which didnot allow more than 2,000 words and often was down.

The three scientific papers on which NMFS relied on denying the petition were not made available to the public in spite of a formal request by the Coalition. Although the Agency has discretion in terms of what information they provide in a Federal Register Notice, a recent official memo by Pres. Obama directed NMFS and other agencies dealing with science to be open, transparent and to fully inform the public.

The next step is to sue NMFS for failing to use the best available scientific data; for ignoring the documented evidence of a major decline in numbers as well as a significant decline in cow calf numbers. The predation by transient orcas has also been ignored. This predation, according to experts, is taking up to 35% of calves and juveniles annually, a completely unsustainable number.

At present, the Coalition is waiting on a decision by several public interest law firms as to whether they will sue on behalf of the Coalition.

In the meantime, NMFS scientists have advised the Coalition they believe this current migration will see the fifth consecutive season of very low cow calf numbers. The question NMFS refuses to answer is just how many seasons of very low cow calf numbers constitutes an emergency. Their efforts will be directed to more spin along the lines of ” the whales are adjusting to the carrying capacity ” and/or ” whales are giving birth off shore” and ” whales are finding alternative prey”. None of these assertions are backed by research or data proving once again that NMFS decisions are political and not scientific.

The management of the Gray Whale by NMFS is nothing short of a national scandal. Let’s hope the Coalition is successful in getting the support of a public interest law firm and prevailing in Court.

What can you do?  You can keep up to date at the California Gray Whale’s website, they provide up dates and ways you can intervene on behalf of the Pacific Gray whale.

These whales are amazingly friendly and warm.  How do we know?  Anyone who has visited the Gray whales in Baja have witnessed their curiosity and friendliness.  They introduce their calves to people in the small boats and allow these strangers to embrace their young, touching their faces and scratching their backs.  It’s not subtle, the mothers will push these baby whales right up to the boats, as if insisting everyone meet.  It’s a life changing event for some and something that I hope to get to experience one day.

Here is a video of the experience.

We have a responsibility to protect these animals and do what we can to help them.

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