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The Guardian

Why do dead whales keep cleaning up in San Francisco?

A current wave of deaths in the area has actually triggered issue, however researchers state it might not signify disaster An adult female gray whale lies dead at Muir Beach near San Francisco on 8 April. Photo: The Marine Mammal Center/Reuters The 45ft carcass lay belly-up in the browse at Fort Funston beach, simply south of San Francisco, drawing a little crowd of hikers and hang gliders. The smell stuck around on the night breeze as seabirds circled around the animal, a juvenile fin whale. The whale was the 5th to clean ashore in the location this month. The other 4 were gray whales – huge cetaceans who move an impressive 11,000 miles each year from Alaska to Baja and back – all discovered on beaches near the city over a period of simply 8 days. Each was a stunning scene that raised instant issues for numerous observers. Whales are a fundamental part of the environment, frequently aimed to as markers of ocean health, and their deaths can function as signs that something is wrong. However researchers state the image is more complex. Investigations into the whale deaths continue and so far, experts state, there isn’t a smoking cigarettes weapon. Some marine scientists think the deaths might be more cyclical than an indication of disaster. “At first glance, it sounds horrific,” states Joshua Stewart, a research study partner with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (Noaa). “But this is not an isolated event and to some extent that puts me at ease, personally.” After nearing termination in the 1950s, gray whales have actually had an exceptional healing, rebounding to levels that allowed their elimination from the threatened types list in 1994. Now they are amongst the most regularly spotted along the California coast as they move south for the winter season and north in early spring. They are likewise among the most studied marine mammals, with information that returns to the 1960s. Each time a whale end up ashore, it offers researchers a brand-new chance to find out about the state of seas. Nevertheless, the gray whale population on the west coast has actually decreased recently – stopping by approximately 24% given that 2016. Today there are an estimated 20,580 whales left, according to data from Noaa. And this month’s high spate of deaths was not the first – in 2019, Noaa declared an ongoing “unusual mortality event” when 122 whales washed up across the western shore from California to Alaska, more than four times the previous 18-year average of 29. Stewart, who tracks gray whale population numbers, notes that, even with the declines, the population is still close to an all-time high. “Despite these downturns that, at the time, are very distressing, they have bounced back multiple times,” he says, adding that they are a highly adaptable and resilient species. “We want to know if this decline is continuing or a temporary thing.” Gray whales are among the most studies marine mammals. Photograph: Guillermo Arias/AFP/Getty Images On 8 April, there were two whales to examine in the Bay at the same time. One carcass had been floating for days before it wound up lodged at the Berkeley marina. The other washed ashore on Muir Beach, just north of San Francisco. Teams from the Marine Mammal Center and the California Academy of Sciences conducted necropsies, which includes taking tissue samples, assessing the internal organs and reproductive tract, and evaluating the ribs and vertebrae for signs of trauma or impact. Moe Flannery, senior collections manager of birds and mammals for the California Academy of Sciences, was on the scene for the necropsies and says teams haven’t concluded their investigations – though culprits could include a lack of food or disease. “There are no real answers yet,” she says, adding that despite the deaths, scientists are hopeful the gray whale population will bounce back. “They are a resilient species and I think it is concerning, but we have hope that this is just a little blip in time and that the species itself will rebound as it has in the past.” Ship strikes have already been identified as the cause of some deaths, including the fin whale found on Friday. Unlike the gray whales, fin whales are still listed as endangered. There are only an estimated 3,200 left along the west coast off California, Oregon and Washington, and ship strikes are the biggest threat to their survival. “It goes to show how many threats these whales are facing,” says Callie Steffen, a project scientist at the Benioff Ocean Initiative. Steffen works on a team that developed the Whale Safe project, which uses data to help mariners map where whales are when they plan voyages off southern California. The system, which she says is “like a Smokey the Bear fire warning but for whales”, has actually had a positive impact. But whales may be traveling closer to the coast, putting them at higher risk of harm from ship strikes, loud disruptive noises from ports, chemical pollution and entanglement, according to a 2019 study from Scripps Institution of Oceanography at the University of California, San Diego. Authors of the study believe the change has something to do with the whales’ biological clocks. Ari Friedlaender, a marine ecologist who teaches and heads a lab at the University of California at Santa Cruz, states that whether whales are killed by malnutrition or ship strikes, their deaths should be seen as red flags. Even if we can’t point our finger at a singular cause behind the decline, human activity – from shipping to the climate crisis – is driving changes that negatively affect the whales. “It means people are likely affecting and altering the ecosystems that these whales require food from,” Friedlaender states. “There are so many downstream effects and impacts from the things we do in our daily lives. The actions we take locally can have consequences and impacts very far away and over longer periods of time. We need to keep our eyes open.”

Jobber Wiki author Frank Long contributed to this report.