Endangered Western Pacific Gray Whale "Flex" Makes Surprising Journey along California Coast
SAN FRANCISCO, CA – Back in October, a team of Russian and American scientists successfully tagged a critically endangered Western Pacific Gray Whale – an adult male known as “Flex” – and have been tracking his surprising journey via satellite telemetry. Flex’s last registered location was off the northern coast of Oregon, and if he has kept up his average speed of 6.6 km per hour, he should be approaching the central coast of California.
The whales are known to spend summers feeding off of Sakhalin Island in the Russian Far East, but their breeding grounds and migration routes are unknown. It is believed that the western gray whale migrates south along the Eurasian continent in the winter, since gray whales have been caught in fishing nets off of Japan. Scientists have been astounded to see Flex travel away Russia, across the Bering Sea and Gulf of Alaska to the coast of Oregon, and continuing south.
“It’s a real head-scratcher,” says Bruce Mate, director of the Marine Mammal Institute at Oregon State University. “Flex’s route may or may not be typical of what western gray whales do – there could be 3 or 4 other whales from the western population making this same trip, or Flex could take an entirely different route next year.”
The eastern gray whale population is healthy at nearly 20,000, while only about 130 western gray whales remain, and the population is at high risk extinction if even just a few reproductive females are killed. One of the greatest threats to the survival of the western gray whale is offshore oil and gas exploration, seismic testing and other loud industrial activities at the whale’s feeding grounds off Sakhalin Island in the Russian Far East. Loud industrial activities can force the whales from their normal feeding areas to deeper waters offshore, where it is difficult for whale calves to feed. Since the western gray whale relies on summer feeding to store fat to survive winter migrations, such displacement could devastate the already struggling whale population.
“After monitoring the critically endangered Western Pacific Gray Whale population near Russia’s Sakhalin Island for many years, we’re thrilled to have Flex show up at our doorstep here in California,” says Pacific Environment Interim Executive Director Leah Zimmerman.
“This link across the Pacific gives us further motivation to redouble our efforts to study the Western Pacific Gray Whale and to protect Flex’s habitat, including protecting his summer feeding grounds in Russia from offshore oil and gas extraction.”
Pacific Environment, an international NGO that has monitored oil and gas projects off of Sakhalin Island for over a decade, is one of the many groups (including WWF, IFAW, and SEW) that advocate for measures to protect this species. Measures Pacific Environment advocates for include moratoriums against further platform construction and seismic testing in the whale feeding area. Other measures include the establishment of the Western Gray Whale Advisory Panel (WGWAP) in 2006, a precedent-setting panel of leading scientists convened by the Independent Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN). WGWAP provides independent advice and recommendations on how oil companies operating in the area—including Rosneft, Sakhalin Energy, and Exxon Neftegas Ltd.—can minimize industrial risks to the western gray whales and their habitat. The impetus for the tagging project emerged from WGWAP.
About Pacific Environment
Pacific Environment is a non-profit organization based in San Francisco that protects the living environment of the Pacific Rim by promoting grassroots activism, strengthening communities and reforming international policies. For nearly two decades, we have partnered with local communities around the Pacific Rim to protect and preserve the ecological treasures of this vital region. Visit www.pacificenvironment.org to learn more about our work.
Contact: Leah Zimmerman, Interim Executive Director, Pacific Environment
Phone: 415-399-8850 x301, Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
Bruce Mate, Marine Mammal Institute, Oregon State University
Phone: 541-867-0202, Email: email@example.com