Oregon coast whale beachings part of larger trend as oceans undergo ‘profound changes’
Feb. 8, 2023 Updated Wed., Feb. 8, 2023 at 3:31 p.m.
After four dead whales washed up on Oregon beaches in January, it was natural to wonder: Is this normal?
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration tracks whale beachings, including in Oregon and Southwest Washington, and the agency has counted 233 of them along those coasts since 1989.
The short answer: the deaths of the sperm whale and three gray whales last month is consistent with a larger trend endangering the gray whale population on the West Coast and Alaska. Since 2016, it has plummeted 38%, according to the NOAA.
The coastline from Alaska to Mexico has seen an increase in gray whale strandings since 2019, according to Jim Rice, stranding program manager at the Oregon State University Marine Mammal Institute. Of the whales stranded since 1989, 57 were found in the past five years – around 24% – with 19 of those whales beached in 2019 alone.
The long answer: changes in arctic waters may be affecting the gray whales’ food supply, leading them to become malnourished, Rice said. Killer whales also prey on them. NOAA declared the spike in deaths an “unusual mortality event,” but the specific cause of strandings is unknown.
Data from the organization includes beachings from Willapa Bay to Cape Disappointment in southwest Washington.
Gray whales make up 50% of beachings across Oregon and southwest Washington, with 117. Humpback and sperm whales are the second and third most common, with 27 and 23 respectively.
Gray whales live and migrate close to the West Coast shore, and they comprise one of the most abundant species compared to other whale populations, Rice said.
While sperm whale beachings are relatively rare today, Oregon did see a pod of 41 come to shore over 40 years ago.
Scientists don’t examine every beached whale. When they do, they learn that most are adults — 56 out of 233 were adults 5 or older. The second most common age group included calves under 1.
The state of stranded whales will vary, but a majority are found with advanced or moderate decomposition. Around 9% are found alive but later die because they are too heavy to move back into the ocean.
From 2007 to 2016, there were a total of 9,556 mammal strandings – which includes whales, dolphins, sea lions and all other sea mammals – in Oregon and Washington. California had 33,569 in the same time period, according to a NOAA report.
The first whale found on the Oregon coast last month was recovered on Jan. 11 in Winchester Bay. It was the victim of killer whales, according to NOAA.
Three days later, a 40,000-pound sperm whale was found beached at Fort Stevens State Park on the northern Oregon coastline. That whale was struck and killed by a propeller gash.
Scientists determined that a 12-foot-long newborn female gray whale, found Jan. 18 also at Fort Stevens, had just begun to nurse when it died.
The gray whale discovered Jan. 21 near Cannon Beach had been dead for at least a month when it washed ashore, staff at the Seaside Aquarium told The Oregonian/OregonLive. A sizable shark bite came after the whale had died, the staff said.
Rice said the whale deaths are concerning, but he pointed out that it’s not completely unusual. In 1999 and 2000, hundreds of gray whales stranded along the West Coast, but the population eventually recovered, Rice said.
“The oceans are obviously going through some profound changes,” he said. “Whales, and countless other organisms, must be able to adapt to those changes in order to survive.”
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