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Dozens of West Coast gray whale deaths prompt federal investigation

Guy Kovner, THE PRESS DEMOCRAT

Prompted by the fatal stranding of 70 gray whales on the U.S. West Coast this year, federal scientists have launched a major scientific investigation aimed at identifying the cause or causes of the die-off among the migrating mammals that number about 27,000 and are a popular North Coast attraction in places like Bodega Bay.

A young gray whale that washed up last week on Limantour Beach at Point Reyes National Seashore was the 15th recorded stranding in the greater Bay Area.

An additional 78 strandings have occurred in Mexico and Canada, bringing the five-month total to 148 deaths of Eastern North Pacific gray whales.

NOAA Fisheries, the federal agency charged with protection and conservation of marine mammals, said the trend warranted declaration of an “unusual mortality event,” unleashing funding and resources for an investigation that could take months or years to find answers.

Deborah Fauquier, a NOAA veterinary medical officer, said Friday the declaration was justified by an unexpected and significant die-off that “demands an immediate response.”

An investigative team of experts from the United States, Canada, Mexico and possibly worldwide will be formed to “determine what might be causing the die-off, such as environmental conditions, disease or human activities” and “make informed decisions to protect this important marine species,” she said in a teleconference with reporters.

Read more at https://www.pressdemocrat.com/news/9655458-181/dozens-of-west-coast-gray

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Shorter season imposed on California’s Dungeness crab fleet to safeguard whales

Mary Callahan, THE PRESS DEMOCRAT

California’s commercial crabbing fleet will be fishing significantly shorter seasons going forward and with greater safeguards in place to avoid ensnaring endangered marine life in potentially deadly gear under a legal settlement announced Tuesday.

The deal, reached between state regulators, environmentalists and representatives of the crab fleet, is meant especially to protect whales, some of them endangered, that feed in abundance during the spring off the Central and North Coast.

The framework unveiled Tuesday will cut the current season and future seasons by as much as 2½ months and mandate a near-constant watch on the entanglement risks posed to sealife. If those risks are too high, regulators could trigger mid-season closures of some areas.

“It’s been my view almost always we can do right by our natural resources and do right by Californians, and do it better together than in a courtroom,” state Fish and Wildlife Director Chuck Bonham said during a media call on the settlement.

Other parties to the deal included the Center for Biological Diversity, which sued the state in 2017 over a sharp rise in the number of whale entanglements, and the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen’s Associations.

To a large extent, the complex settlement reinforces and formalizes efforts already being developed by wildlife regulators and partners to ensure that imperiled wildlife and the crab fishery can thrive.

State Sen. Mike McGuire, whose North Coast district accounts for most of the state’s crab catch, one of California’s most lucrative fisheries, said the cooperation was a sign of the “extremely proactive” posture the state has adopted “to ensure California’s majestic whale population and our crabbing fleet can co-exist.”

Read more at https://www.pressdemocrat.com/news/9433839-181/shorter-season-imposed-on-californias

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Environmental group sues California over whale-killing gear 

Olga R. Rodriguez, ASSOCIATED PRESS
An environmental group sued the state of California on Tuesday for allegedly not doing enough to keep Dungeness crab fishery gear from killing protected whales.
The Center for Biological Diversity filed its lawsuit in federal court in San Francisco, saying the California Department of Fish and Wildlife is liable for a surge in entanglements of endangered whales and sea turtles because it authorizes and manages operation of the fishery.
California should put in place more mandatory protection measures, such as blocking fishing operations from especially important waters for whales, restricting the amount of gear in whale hotspots and reducing the amount of rope running through the water, the center said.
Read more at: Environmental group sues California over whale-killing gear | The Tribune

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Tail end of gray whale migration happening off Sonoma, Mendocino coasts in April, May, June

Jeanne A. Jackson, THE PRESS DEMOCRAT
Just off our coastline, more than 20,000 gray whales travel thousands of miles on their great migration. In autumn, they begin their journey from their feeding grounds in the Arctic Circle to their birthing, mating and nursery waters in the lagoons off Baja California. It’s a trip of five to seven thousand miles, one-way. And the whales do not eat until they return to the Arctic in the spring.
The first to leave the Arctic are the pregnant females. They are followed by those gray whales who will be mating. Those whales not mature enough to mate, will then follow, though some will linger off the coast.
While in the warm waters off Baja, mother whales give birth to their calves. Each mother whale births one calf. The mothers and calves will stay in the lagoons for the calves to gain enough strength to swim the thousands of miles north. The mothers will feed their calves with their rich, calorie-dense milk. They nurse their babies as human mothers nurse their young. Gray whale bodies have many similarities to human bodies.
The first whales to leave Baja and head north in late winter are the newly pregnant females. They swim fast and hard, as they need to reach their feeding ground where they will be eating for two.
The last to leave Baja are the mother/calf pairs, and that is what is occurring now. April, May and early June are the perfect times to whale watch, as the mother/calf pairs are closer to shore due to the current, and the whales come up more often for their offspring to breathe.
Read more at: Tail end of gray whale migration happening off Sonoma, Mendocino coasts in April, May, June | The Press Democrat

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Unusual number of whales seen in San Francisco Bay

Associated Press
Migrating humpback whales have been swimming into San Francisco Bay in unprecedented numbers during the past two weeks — an onslaught that experts say could be caused by an unusual concentration of anchovies near shore.
As many as four humpbacks at a time have been spotted flapping their tails and breaching in bay waters, apparently feeding on the anchovies and other schooling fish during incoming tides, the San Francisco Chronicle reported Thursday.
It’s normal for gray whales to wander into the bay, but humpbacks generally feed farther offshore and are not accustomed to navigating shallow water and narrow straits such as those in San Francisco Bay, the newspaper reported.
Read more at: Unusual number of whales seen in San Francisco Bay – SFGate

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To save whales, Sen. McGuire promotes program to recover entangling crabbing gear

Mary Callahan, THE PRESS DEMOCRAT
The rising number of whales that become entangled in lost or abandoned crab pots off the western United States has spurred a new state bill aimed at ensuring hundreds, even thousands of crab traps that are left behind each year get recovered from the ocean.
Authored by state Sen. Mike McGuire, D-Healdsburg, the Whale Protection and Gear Retrieval Act would establish a fee-based regulatory system under which commercial crabbers could be paid to recover lost gear from the water, while owners would pay to reclaim it — or risk losing their crab permit — ensuring funding of the program for the coming year.
The system is modeled after a pilot program that has resulted in collection of about 1,000 crab pots and attached ropes over the past two years from coastal waters between Half Moon Bay and the Oregon border, McGuire said, though many of the details would be worked out at a later date.It was the commercial industry, through representatives on the California Dungeness Crab Task Force, that moved to make the program permanent, McGuire and others said.
“It’s basic accountability, is what it is: Take care of your equipment,” said Bodega Bay fisherman Dick Ogg, who took part in the pilot program this year, retrieving dozens of pots from the shoreline of the North Coast.
Read more at: To save whales, Sen. McGuire promotes program to recover entangling crabbing gear | The Press Democrat

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Recording project seeks to help marine wildlife in Cordell Bank sanctuary avoid harmful noise

Mary Callahan, THE PRESS DEMOCRAT

To listen to recordings of whale songs, click here and here.

Motoring across the steel-gray surface of the Pacific Ocean on a scientific vessel loaded with high-tech equipment — the vast horizon stretching ahead and seabirds soaring above — it is still nearly impossible to picture the diverse and abundant life that hides beneath the waves.
But occasionally, you get a glimpse.
A humpback whale breaches off the bow. Three sea lions mingle in a group before diving in unison. A pod of 100 or more dolphins puts on an acrobatic show, its members leaping above the surface two or three at a time.

What sounds do such marine mammals hear, and how loud is it in their underwater world?

Those are the questions driving scientist Danielle Lipski and her colleagues, who were on a daylong voyage Thursday out of Bodega Bay on a 67-foot ship — Research Vessel Fulmar — to deploy what amounts to a large listening device meant to record the ocean’s sounds.

Marine zoologists are increasingly worried that an ever-louder ocean — traversed by fishing vessels, shipping traffic and military craft — might interfere with the songs and vocalizations that whales and other marine mammals use to communicate about food sources, migratory routes, reproductive availability and other critical functions.

Read more at: Recording project seeks to help marine wildlife in | The Press Democrat

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Whale mystery

Kathleen Willett, NORTH BAY BOHEMIAN
Walking Sonoma and Marin county beaches recently has yielded some unusual sights and smells.
According to officials at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), 12 dead whales have washed up on Northern California beaches in the last three months, including two along the Sonoma County coast and one in Marin County. The carcass of a young gray whale showed up on Portuguese Beach on May 23, with another gray whale washing ashore near Jenner around May 28. In Marin, a headless whale came ashore on South Beach along the Point Reyes National Seashore on May 26.
Other than the fact that they are all whales, what do the carcasses share in common?
“There is no unifying factor,” says Mary Jane Schramm, spokeswoman for the Gulf of the Farallones National Marine Sanctuary.
Marine scientists have identified four species among the dozen dead whales: orca, humpback, sperm and gray, which are commonly seen heading north along the coast this time of year. Their ages, along with their causes of death, have varied.
According to Schramm, one of the dead whales found in Pacifica was mature and possibly died of “old age,” given the condition and apparent wear on various body parts. Several others were young, possibly calves from the winter birthing season in Mexico, and may have been victims of predation by orcas.
One humpback was a victim of shipping traffic, while other whale carcasses have shown signs of possible “fishery interactions” such as net entanglements, which can mortally wound the immense animals.
In a typical year, one or two gray whale carcasses wash ashore. So what is different this year?
Read more at: Whale Mystery | News | North Bay Bohemian

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Dead gray whale washes up at Portuguese Beach

Clark Mason, THE PRESS DEMOCRAT

A series of dead whales has washed up on Northern California beaches over the past five weeks.

A dead, juvenile gray whale washed up on the Sonoma Coast this weekend at Portuguese Beach.
The 28-foot whale appeared to have been dead for some time and was in a state of obvious decomposition, according to California State Parks Ranger Damien Jones.
He said the carcass came ashore Friday night or Saturday morning. The Marine Mammal Center took a tissue sample in an attempt to determine cause of death, but it did not to appear to be from trauma, he said, such as being struck by a ship.
Jones said State Parks did not plan to remove the whale from the beach, which is about halfway between Jenner and Bodega Bay. He said the tide could carry it out to sea again.
“Generally we leave dead and sick animals where they are and let nature take its course,” he said.
May is the tail end of the gray whale northern migration from their breeding and birthing lagoons in Mexico back to their feeding grounds in Alaska. Although thousands of whales make the approximate 5,000-mile journey, including the newborn calves and their mothers, some of the cetaceans, especially juveniles, are believed to stay closer year-round to a more confined area.
Read more at: Dead whale washes up at Portuguese Beach in | The Press Democrat

Posted on Categories Sonoma Coast, WildlifeTags , Leave a comment on Gray whales make comeback off Sonoma Coast 

Gray whales make comeback off Sonoma Coast 

Clark Mason, THE PRESS DEMOCRAT

Bodega Head provides one of the best places on the Sonoma Coast to spot the whales as they come past Doran Beach, and around the mouth of the bay, just outside the surf line.

This year’s parade of gray whales along the California coast is one of the best in decades, continuing a remarkable comeback story for a species that was hunted to the brink of extinction and in more recent years experienced high death rates due to food scarcity.
Marine biologists say that at the moment, a population estimated at more than 20,000 gray whales appears to be healthy and reproducing well, as compared to the hundreds that washed up dead and the emaciated individuals that were observed 15 years ago as changing oceanographic conditions eliminated or modified their food supply.
“Right now, it’s a good story — a population that recovered and is doing well,” said Wayne Perryman, a federal marine biologist who has been studying gray whales for 22 years. “The animals look robust and healthy.”

Whale tour boat operators are reporting a banner year for sightings.

“This was the most impressive gray whale season that I’ve had in all my years,” said Capt. Rick Powers, a Bodega Bay skipper who has been conducting tours for 31 years.

 “We saw gray whales every single trip this season. It’s very unusual to go out every trip and bat a thousand,” he said of the trips he’s led so far this spring.

Despite the rosy picture, scientists are concerned the whales face continued peril from the unfolding effects of climate change. And advocates for the leviathans, such as the California Gray Whale Coalition, worry that a Washington state Indian tribe’s current proposal to resume traditional gray whale hunting could open the door for more widespread killing of grays, as well as humpbacks.

The gray whales, which spotters say make up 95 percent of the whales seen off the Sonoma Coast, face a host of challenges, from both man-made obstacles and natural predators, as they head toward their Arctic feeding grounds, where they gorge during the summer on tons of minuscule, shrimplike bottom-dwelling amphipods.

Read more via: Whales make comeback off Sonoma Coast | The Press Democrat