Are alarming whale deaths linked to climate change?

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We need to act urgently to reduce the amount of greenhouse gas pollution we humans create in order to slow down and eventually stop climate change. In the mean time we see case after case of something happening that seems unusual and that seems linked to global warming. We need not wait for the jury to return a verdict in every single case in order to act. We already know what many of the effects of climate change are, and we have a reasonably good idea of what effects will arise in the future. Even so, every now and then something happens that any reasonable person might guess is linked ultimately to greenhouse gas pollution, and we should pay attention to those cases.

Whales die, and sometimes their bodies wash up on shore. Over the last few months, the rate at which this happens seems to have increased about 300% in the Gulf of Alaska and maybe in other areas as well. One possible culprit is warming of northern waters (you may have heard of the Warm Blob), which in turn feeds the development of toxic microbes. Warming can also have other effects as well. This set of effects is thought to be a possible, maybe likely, cause of this alarming rate of whale deaths. Many of the whales are larger species.

From NOAA:

Since May 2015, 11 fin whales, 14 humpback whales, one gray whale, and four unidentified cetaceans have stranded around the islands of the western Gulf of Alaska and the southern shoreline of the Alaska Peninsula. To date, this brings the large whale strandings for this region to almost three times the historical average.

The declaration of an unusual mortality event will allow NOAA and federal, state, and tribal partners to develop a response plan and conduct a rigorous scientific investigation into the cause of death for the stranded whales.

“NOAA Fisheries scientists and partners are very concerned about the large number of whales stranding in the western Gulf of Alaska in recent months,” said Dr. Teri Rowles, NOAA Fisheries’ marine mammal health and stranding response coordinator. “While we do not yet know the cause of these strandings, our investigations will give us important information on the health of whales and the ecosystems where they live. Members of the public can greatly assist the investigation by immediately reporting any sightings of dead whales or distressed live animals they discover.”

Ryan Schuessler has written about this in the Washington Post.

Predation, starvation, or disease could be behind the deaths, but researchers say there have been few signs of physical trauma to the whales. The more likely culprit is unusual water conditions.

Over the past two years, a large mass of warm water that climatologists have dubbed “the blob” has persisted in the north Pacific, and El Niño 2015 is pushing more warm water into the region.

The unusually warm and calm seas are believed to be behind a series of toxin-producing algae blooms – record-breaking in size and duration – stretching from southern California to the Aleutian Islands. Clams sampled near the town of Sand Point, Alaska were found to have toxin levels more than 80 times what the FDA says is safe for human consumption, said Bruce Wright, a scientist who studies toxic algal blooms for the Aleutian and Pribilof Islands Association. The levels were ten times anything Wright had previously recorded.

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19 thoughts on “Are alarming whale deaths linked to climate change?

  1. Greg, I’ve actually seen fin whales, up close, nearly ran my Achilles onto one, Sea of Cortez, Bahia Los Angeles, 1991. Stiff chop, wasn’t trying to hit it, it just popped up. I killed the motor, watched it swim by, 2 meters ahead. Epic.

    Later, towards evening the wind died, we were fishing, a couple fins swam about 50 meters away. They spouted. You could FEEL them breathe.

    I’ve seen humpies up close in Alaska (a baby spy hopped us, 2 m from our boat, I came close to jumping in), and Maui 2011. I swam with a gray baby off La Jolla in -1982-5 m away. I’ve seen a blue 20 miles off Reyes Point, 2006, 1000 m from our boat, they are coming back.

    I’ve dived with Spinner Dolphins off Kauai, sat in an Achilles off Loreto, while dolphins did in-air summersaults around my boat for 20 minutes 2-5 meters away (f**k Seaworld, this is WAAY BETTER). We ran the Achilles south of San Felipe in 1995, a bottlenose ran with us, jumped, came down and soaked us.

    Giant squid are proliferating in California waters. Guess who’s coming to dinner? Sperm whales, not seen here for decades.

    Speaking of squid, have you ever seen the squid mating fiesta off La Jolla?

    Greg, if you are interested in what is happening with sea life, get yourself down into the water. Take scuba lessons. Learn how to free-dive 40-60 feet.

    I have a son who’s telling me salmon are being extinguished–based on reading the newspaper. Crap, I didn’t take him to the Skeena River to catch pinks, and up to the tributaries to watch beautiful Sockeye spawn (not worth catching for eating, red sides==flesh degenerated).

    Actual experience beats reading. You should try it.

  2. We’re going to Grad Teton, for a September camping trip next month. Crowds are way down. Last time, all the kids were homeschoolers (the gov’t schoolers had to be in class). The docents were having a blast, answering questions from inquisitive, civilly-behaing children.

    We stayed in a tent. Our food was protected in a bear-proof locker.
    The Jackson Albertson’s had fantastic porterhouse steaks that we barbecued on or little Weber.

    We slept soundly in our REI tent, under Marmot down bags, when the temp went to 25 F.

    I ran across a bison, riding my bike, that blocked the gravel road. I stopped 100 m from it. It stopped, but then proceeded. We saw elk. Of course we drove to Yellowstone, watching the elk gather.

    Greg, you should try home-tutoring your kids, because you’re smart, and taking them out-of-season to amazing places. Once you free yourself from the government school schedule, all kinds of things open up. Like skiing Big White with powder snow that flows up to your hips. Okay, your 10 year old skis into a tree hole, okay, you can pull her out.

  3. Mark Schooley, MD:

    What’s the point of your posts. I think you’ll find many of the posters here have experienced the same kinds of things without the need to brag about it, but if you must, I photographed a half-dozen humpbacks pass within 50 feet of our boat yesterday and on Sunday, two male killer whales take a harbor seal. On Monday I worked my day job.

    So what?

    This has nothing to do with the post, nor the question at hand: what’s causing the whale deaths?

    Water conditions are very likely to be a cause. Apparently not much is known about domoic acid poisoning of whales during toxic algae blooms. Everyone in the whale world is eagerly awaiting the results of toxicology tests on these dead whales.

  4. dhogaza

    I’m not “bragging” just stating onsite observations going back 35 years.

    I could state that I fished in Monterey Bay in the 60s and never saw a whale. Not that many sea lions. In La Jolla’s Children’s Cove in the 70s, there were 4-6 resident harbor seals, and they were rarely onsite to photograph. Now there’s a colony, photographable any time.

    Now, from SF to SD, and even up to Eureka, there are whale watching trips from every major fishing port.

    We are seeing an epic return of whales, dolphins and seals/ sea lions.

    This is great news. But more observable life means more observable death. Beach wash-ups can be the result of old age, shark or orca attacks, collisions with ships, diseases, and other causes. Attributing dead-whales-on-the-beach to intolerably warm waters is junk science.

    Whales are really smart. If warming waters were causing them to die, they’d migrate north, whale-watching trips in Cali would have dried up, and you wouldn’t have gotten to see whales. But the whales live, they love California waters, which are 5-15 C warmer than the Gulf of Alaska.

    You’re too young an inexperienced to realize that there weren’t many whales off the California coast 30 years ago, except for grays. Now they are easy to observe. Global warming is not driving them away.

  5. Mr MD (what language is that? Not many omit vowels.)

    Your summation of an abundance of wildlife is woefully and profoundly inadequate. You obviously have no understanding of the ecology of species and ecosystems, and it would probably a semester or two of intensive delivery of lessons, starting from first principles, to get to to the point where you have the smallest clue about the myriad factors that determine species’ distribution, their “smartness” or otherwise notwithstanding.

    I’ll give you a hint though:

  6. “You’re too young an inexperienced to realize that there weren’t many whales off the California coast 30 years ago”

    I’m 61, asshole. While there is truth in some of what you say, there is also intolerable bullshit:

    “Attributing dead-whales-on-the-beach to intolerably warm waters is junk science.”

    Scientists aren’t suggesting that the water is intolerably warm for the whale species being seen dead (in numbers which are a step jump above normal, even given the relatively slow increases in numbers we’re seeing – 7% a year for eastern pacific humpbacks, grays and blues appear to be at capacity, there’s not enough data for fins, seis).

    Nor did I suggest that “intolerably warm” water is the issue.

    Scientists are wondering if domoic acide poisoning, associated with toxic algae blooms associated with warmer waters, which are demonstrably poisoning noticeable numbers of sea lions, may be playing a role.

    Thus my comment that toxicology results are eagerly awaited.

    This is not “junk science”.

    “But more observable life means more observable death. Beach wash-ups can be the result of old age, shark or orca attacks, collisions with ships, diseases, and other causes.”

    And natural variation in the particular wind and current conditions, of course.

    All of which the scientists referenced by Greg are all aware of, and all of which is being taken into account.

    Oh, KWs and sharks aren’t killing adults or sub-adults, and by the time most calves get up that far north, few gray whale calves on virtually zero humpback calves.

    And the professional scientists are also aware that we’ve stopped hunting baleen whales in the eastern pacific, that sea lions and harbor seals are now protected and that many older fisherman actually regret the past when they’d shoot any “furbag” they saw, etc. They are aware and take that into account in their research.

    Your post is intolerably ignorant because you assume your knowledge is not shared by researchers. That’s just effing stupid.

  7. ” But the whales live, they love California waters, which are 5-15 C warmer than the Gulf of Alaska.”

    Which would be why 99%+ of the gray whales are up in the Bering sea at the moment (and the rest feeding off the Oregon Coast, with none off the California Coast).

    And why there are as many humpbacks up in the gulf of alaska (a separate population) than there are off the lower 48 eastern pacific.

    Because, you know, they prefer warmer California water.

    The situation is complex, and your stupid hand-waving assertions are just embarrassing.

  8. Our MD:

    “If Al Gore turned his Montecito mansion into a co-op apartment building, stopped flying on a private jet, just stopped flying at all, hand-grew his own vegetable and fruits in a co-op garden, gave his fortune away to the poor, then, heck, we skeptics might believe him.”

    Al Gore is fat writ large.

  9. “gave his fortune away to the poor”

    If Al Gore doesn’st give his fortune to the poor … physics is wrong.

    It’s an interesting concept.

  10. dhogaza,

    You don’t have to use swear words. And FWIW, I’m older than you, so you’re young and inexperienced to me. 😉

    I probably collected more Doors albums than you, back when Jim Morrison was still performing. Elvis was before my time.

    Toxic algae blooms kill sea life. Not a new phenomenon.
    The term “red tide” was coined before both of us were born. On the West Coast, everybody knew before WWII to not eat clams or oysters in the non-R months (May-August), but September was actually often risky.

    I grew up at a time when sea otters had been driven to near-extinction long before I was born, but there was an upside: abalone were prolific, and they were mmm delish. My favorite seafood. Otters are coming back. Hurray!

    Industrial toxins are a problem–orca flesh (around Seattle) would be considered “hazardous material” due to PCB levels. Eewe. But these dolphins are thriving.

    On gray whales, they mate and give birth in Mag Bay and other Baja shallow waters that are in the 50’s-60’s. Humpbacks mate and give birth in Hawaiian waters, temps in Nov.-April generally mid-70’s. Flip Nicklin got some spectacular sperm whale photos in the Indian Ocean, temps 80s.

    When I saw fin whales, the water temp was in the mid-50’s. This was in the Midriff Islands, Sea of Cortez (Golfo de California) in September.

    At that time, shallow northern Gulf temps were in the 90’s, deeper water southern Gulf surface temps were in the 80’s (Mulaje) to 90’s (Cabo Pulmo). But the area around Isla Angel de La Guardia generated tidal-flow upwellings between the deep southern Gulf and the shallow northern Gulf that kept the surface cool (think Monterye Bay CA temps), with lots of nutrients for phytoplankton to absorb sunlight and proliferate, and feed the krill that the whales scarfed on.

    The fins were huge–they made Grays and Humpies look like midgets. But the main thing I remember, is FEELING them breath, when the wind was nil in the evening, and their breath reflecting off the rock wall they swam by. If you haven’t experienced it, get yourself down there. Then say, “Oh, yes, I grok what your are saying.”

    (You don’t think this conservative read Heinlein in high school?)

    Don’t be fooled. The Blob’s temps off Alaska have been in the 42-49 range–warm for there–absolutely–but not intolerable to baleen whales. Not even close. Californians have been thrilled watching blues off the Channel Islands in the last 10 years, with surface temps to low 60’s and below-thermocline temps in the 50s.

  11. Look, I’m just a scrounger. I remember exploring Mission Bay, a totally artificial watercourse, I remember playing with an octopus. I “caught it” below the head, and it squirmed out of my grasp. I repeated it twice more, marveling at its escape–lizards and snakes couldn’t do that. I didn’t kill it, I played with it and let it go.

    Then I dug up some geoduck clams. I had to dig really deep. (This was with scuba, 3 feet deep). I kept those. I stayed out so late my spouse called the Sheriff’s Dept.

    I took up spear fishing. A friend said a “secret” method was to take a tuna can and open it. I was watching my can, when I felt taps on my zzz. I opened my legs and a moray swam to the can.

    I caught a Tridacna in Fiji, at 100 ft, and barely made it to the surface–it weighed a 100 lbs. The islanders loved it, and let me sit in the men’s kava ceremony..

    I studied ecology from age 5.

    Raise your hand if you’ve ever spent four summers getting up at 5 AM to work on the farm starting before sunrise.

  12. Is this some kind of Poe? Or to quote the immortal Abe Simpson:

    “We can’t bust heads like we used to, but we have our ways. One trick is to tell ’em stories that don’t go anywhere – like the time I caught the ferry over to Shelbyville. I needed a new heel for my shoe, so, I decided to go to Morganville, which is what they called Shelbyville in those days. So I tied an onion to my belt, which was the style at the time. Now, to take the ferry cost a nickel, and in those days, nickels had pictures of bumblebees on ’em. Give me five bees for a quarter, you’d say.

    “Now where were we? Oh yeah: the important thing was I had an onion on my belt, which was the style at the time. They didn’t have white onions because of the war. The only thing you could get was those big yellow ones…”

    “My story begins in nineteen-dickety-two. We had to say dickety because the Kaiser had stolen our word twenty. I chased that rascal to get it back, but gave up after dickety-six miles. What are you cackling at, fatty? Too much pie, that’s your problem! Now, I’d like to digress from my prepared remarks to discuss how I invented the terlet…”

    “Three wars back we called Sauerkraut “liberty cabbage” and we called liberty cabbage “super slaw” and back then a suitcase was known as a “Swedish lunchbox.” Of course, nobody knew that but me. Anyway, long story short… is a phrase whose origins are complicated and rambling.”

  13. Off topic. I seen my first whale today . Off the river mouth at Brunswick Heads. Dunno what sort, but it was freaking huge, from several hundred metres away.
    Anyone who wants to travel thousands of kms to harpoon these animals is utterly fucked in the head.

  14. “Raise your hand if you’ve ever spent four summers getting up at 5 AM to work on the farm starting before sunrise.”

    Raise your hand if you have any clue what the hell the point of this question was.

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