OREGON STATE UNIVERSITY

'Flex' leads researchers to five endangered western gray whales

09/13/2011

Sources: Greg Donovan, IWC, +44 1223 23971; www.iwcoffice.org
Valentin Ilyashenko, IPEE, + 7 495 254 8601 ; www.sevin.ru
Bruce Mate, +1 541 867 0202; http://mmi.oregonstate.edu/
Vyatcheslav Rozhnov, IPEE RAS, + 7 495 952-73-05; www.sevin.ru

CAMBRIDGE, U.K. – The saga of Flex the whale continues to deliver surprises a year after the 13-year-old male western (North Pacific) gray whale was tagged and took scientific observers on a four-month, satellite-tracked ride, far from the Asian coast where he was expected to migrate, across the Bering Sea, through the Gulf of Alaska and down the west coast of North America.

Flex’s surprise journey was a revelation to many whale experts, who had estimated only about 130 of the “critically endangered” mammals remain. A scientific team coordinated by the International Whaling Commission has tagged five more western grays this year in the same Russian coastal waters where it tagged Flex. The team hopes to expand that number to 12 in coming days.

The route taken by Flex, who was initially tagged just off the coast of Russia’s Sakhalin Island, has increased the need to better understand the movements of western gray whales, as well as the need to evaluate and improve conservation measures, according to Greg Donovan, head of Science for the International Whaling Commission and coordinator of the project.

“Notwithstanding the scientific interest, this collaboration is being undertaken because western gray whales are considered one of the most-endangered whale populations in the world,” Donovan said. “It is clear that we need to re-examine our understanding of the population structure of gray whales in the North Pacific and any conservation and management implications. We can only do that through increased information from genetic, individual identification and especially satellite telemetry data from more animals. 

“We are indebted to the Russian and American scientists who are undertaking this work in a challenging part of the world.”

Flex’s journey last summer attracted no small amount of public attention, particularly as he made his way down from the Gulf of Alaska and reached Oregon’s coast before his tag stopped working. In no small part, this was because researchers tracking the whale posted his progress on publicly accessible websites, generating an international game of “where in the world is Flex?”

The research team has created new tracking maps for whales being tagged this year --  http://mmi.oregonstate.edu/Sakhalin2011  for English readers and, for Russian, http://kit.sevin-expedition.ru/news/news_69.html.  Weekly maps stringing together the whales’ coordinates will be updated each Monday afternoon as long as the tags remain active. 

Bruce Mate, who directs Oregon State University’s Marine Mammal Institute and is a pioneer in the use of satellites to track endangered whales, is leading the tagging portion of the project. Mate said it isn’t unusual for gray whales to migrate thousands of miles annually, en route between breeding or calving grounds to feeding grounds in search of food, but he acknowledged the importance of the potential migration patterns by Flex and his fellow western gray whales.

“In the 1970s, it had been claimed that western gray whales had gone extinct,” Mate said, “but then a small aggregation was discovered by Russian scientists off Sakhalin Island that has been monitored by Russian and U.S. scientists since the 1990s. It is essential to understand the relationship between the animals that frequent the feeding grounds off Sakhalin Island with those in the eastern North Pacific population – which have recovered from their endangered status, been de-listed from the U.S. Endangered Species Act and re-occupied much of their former range.

“Without better information, it is not possible to state categorically whether the situation is considerably better, or even worse than we thought prior to Flex.”

Another member of the research team, Valentin Ilyashenko from the A.N Severtsov Institute for Ecology and Evolution and the Russian representative to the International Whaling Commission, has proposed since 2009 that recent western and eastern gray whale populations are not isolated and that the animals now found in the west are a part of an eastern population that is restoring its former historical range, which includes the Okhotsk sea.

“The tagging last year of Flex was the first time a whale from Sakhalin had been tagged and monitored via satellite. Flex spent two months feeding near Sakhalin Island as winter began approaching, and other forms of observation would have been almost impossible,” said Ilyashenko.

Flex’s movement from Okhotsk to the Kamchatka Peninsula wasn’t big news; western gray whales are often seen in this area. “But his movement across the deep waters of the Bering Sea and around the Aleutian Islands had never been documented before,” said Ilyashenko. “The possibility that these animals are part of the eastern stock warrants serious consideration.”

The collaboration will help conservationists better protect the western grays, said Ilyashenko. “Resource managers in Russia will use the findings from the tagging and tracking project to plan future conservation strategies.”

The eastern gray whale population was also once tenuous because19th-century whaling decimated its numbers. But the remaining 2,000 eastern gray whales mounted a big comeback in the 20th century, breeding off the Baja California coast and migrating to feeding areas in the Bering and Chukchi Seas. There are now an estimated 18,000 eastern grays.

In addition to Mate, other team members include Vladimir Vertyankin and Grigory Tsidulko of IPEE RAS, Amanda Bradford from the U.S. National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) in Honolulu, and Ladd Irvine from Oregon State University. Tsidulko and Bradford have both studied western gray whales for many years with U.S. scientists David Weller and Robert Brownell of NMFS and Russian scientist Alexander Burdin.

The telemetry program was developed by IPEE RAS, Oregon State and an international team of experts from the International Whaling Commission and the International Union for the Conservation of Nature, and was carried out under a permit granted to IPEE RAS as part of their western gray whale research program. Every care is taken for the well being of the animals, and only whales agreed to be in good body condition by Bradford, an expert in this field, can be tagged.

BACKGROUND

The western North Pacific population of gray whales was greatly reduced by whaling in previous centuries. It was feared to be extinct in the mid-1970s, but was ‘rediscovered’ off Sakhalin Island, where it has been monitored for the past 15 years. There is evidence of a fragile recovery. Individual animals can be recognized and sexed by photographs and genetic information obtained from biopsies. Sakhalin Island is also the site of major offshore oil and gas activities, and national and international efforts are under way to minimize the impact of industrial development on the whale population. In addition, the whales are threatened in much of their presumed range by accidental entrapment or entanglement in fishing gear and by heavy ship traffic. A Rangewide Conservation Plan has been developed by IUCN and endorsed by the IWC; obtaining telemetry data is also a high-priority action within that plan.

Funding for this international collaboration was provided by Exxon Neftegas Ltd. (ENL) and Sakhalin Energy Investment Company (Sakhalin Energy). ENL and Sakhalin Energy have sponsored a western gray whale monitoring program conducted offshore Sakhalin since 1997.