News / Science & Technology

Scientists Seek Clues to Whale Deaths in Gulf of Alaska

Sharp Rise in Whale Deaths Being Investigatedi
X
Rosanne Skirble
September 01, 2015 7:56 PM
Why have 30 dead whales washed ashore on the Gulf of Alaska since May? Scientists with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration have mobilized a research team to find out, and one possible cause being investigated is toxic algae. VOA's Rosanne Skirble reports.
Rosanne Skirble

While President Barack Obama is in Alaska, he might have this question: Why have 30 dead whales washed ashore from the Gulf of Alaska since May?

Scientists with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration have mobilized a research team to find out.  NOAA marine scientist Deborah Fauquier said that on average,only eight whale carcasses are found per year.  “It was definitely elevated, and for us it was a reason of concern,”  she said.

Floating fin whale in Alaska. (Credit: Briana Witteveen)Floating fin whale in Alaska. (Credit: Briana Witteveen)
x
Floating fin whale in Alaska. (Credit: Briana Witteveen)
Floating fin whale in Alaska. (Credit: Briana Witteveen)

Fauquier said the “extreme mortality event” was complicated and that scientists were considering a range of factors, including disease, predation, starvation, ship strikes and harmful algae.

While most algae are safe, the less common toxic variety can cause brain damage or death. The largest such bloom in more than a decade appeared in June along the Pacific Coast from California to Alaska, in part because of warm water and sunny, calm weather.  The blooms had some of highest concentrations of the natural toxin domoic acid ever observed in Monterrey Bay and off the central Oregon coast, according to NOAA's Northwest Fisheries Science Center.

Fisheries in several states were forced to close.

“We’re taking advantage of our active surveys to focus research on a serious concern for coastal communities and the seafood industry,” said Eileen Sobeck, assistant administrator for NOAA fisheries. “The better we understand what’s happening out on the water, the better we can address the impacts.”

Fauquier noted that in the ocean, toxins move up the food chain.  “Some of the whales actually filter the phytoplankton and the zooplankton, which are the little insects that eat the grass in the sea.  So, they get the toxins through that method.  The other one is that they eat the fish that eat those.  So it just depends where on the food web they eat, and as you go higher up the food web, more toxin gets concentrated.”

The waters around Alaska are warming, a trend that began in 2014 and continues today with temperatures 3 degrees Celsius above normal.  Scientists say the warming is due to an El Nino weather event and wind patterns, and is not linked to climate change.   

Bears feeding on a fin whale carcass in Larson Bay, Alaska, near Kodiak. (Credit: NOAA)Bears feeding on a fin whale carcass in Larson Bay, Alaska, near Kodiak. (Credit: NOAA)
x
Bears feeding on a fin whale carcass in Larson Bay, Alaska, near Kodiak. (Credit: NOAA)
Bears feeding on a fin whale carcass in Larson Bay, Alaska, near Kodiak. (Credit: NOAA)

But global emissions are warming the planet, heating the Arctic faster than anywhere else.  At the beginning of the latest melt season, Arctic sea ice was at its lowest level on record, a problem for polar bears, walruses and other marine mammals that use sea ice as a platform on which to hunt, live and breed.

Fauquier said the ocean is a dynamic system affected by rising temperatures.  “For Arctic species, species that normally like cold water, it is going to change the phytoplankton, so it’s going to change the base of the food web.  It is going to change the fish. They may go farther north because they don’t like warm water, and so the predators that are mobile are either going to have to follow those fish or, if they can’t follow them, then they can starve."

Fauquier said NOAA hopes to explain why the whales died and why they perished in such great numbers.  Knowing the cause, she said, is the first step to understanding the problem.  

You May Like

Disappointing Report on China's Economy Shakes Markets

In London and New York shares lost 3 percent, while Paris and Germany dropped around 2.4 percent More

DRC Tries Mega-Farms to Feed Population

Park at Boukanga Lonzo currently has 5,000 hectares under cultivation, crops stretching as far as eye can see, and is start of ambitious large-scale agriculture plan More

Video War, Drought Threaten Iraq's Marshlands

Areas are spawning ground for Gulf fisheries, a resting place for migrating wildfowl, source of livelihood for fishermen and herders who have called the marshes home for generations More

Comment Sorting
Comment on this forum (1)
Comments
     
by: ChemE
September 01, 2015 9:34 PM
The whales are getting shocked by high power, high gain pulsed microwave radars and high gain microwave antennas. 0.1 amps stops a mammals heart near the surface of the ocean.

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
Nobel Prize Winner Malala Talks to VOAi
X
August 31, 2015 2:17 AM
Nobel Peace Prize winner Malala Yousafzai met with VOA's Deewa service in Washington Sunday to talk about women’s rights and unveil a trailer for her new documentary. VOA's Katherine Gypson has more.
Video

Video Nobel Prize Winner Malala Talks to VOA

Nobel Peace Prize winner Malala Yousafzai met with VOA's Deewa service in Washington Sunday to talk about women’s rights and unveil a trailer for her new documentary. VOA's Katherine Gypson has more.
Video

Video War, Drought Threaten Iraq's Marshlands

Iraq's southern wetlands are in crisis. These areas are the spawning ground for Gulf fisheries, a resting place for migrating wildfowl, and source of livelihood for fishermen and herders. Faith Lapidus has more.
Video

Video Colombians Flee Venezuela as Border Crisis Escalates

Hundreds of Colombians have fled Venezuela since last week, amid an escalating border crisis between the two countries. Last week, Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro ordered the closure of a key border crossing after smugglers injured three Venezuelan soldiers and a civilian. The president also ordered the deportation of Colombians who are in Venezuela illegally. Zlatica Hoke reports.
Video

Video Rebuilding New Orleans' Music Scene

Ten years after Hurricane Katrina inundated New Orleans, threatening to wash away its vibrant musical heritage along with its neighborhoods, the beat goes on. As Bronwyn Benito and Faith Lapidus report, a Musicians' Village is preserving the city's unique sound.
Video

Video In Russia, Auto Industry in Tailspin

Industry insiders say country relies too heavily on imports as inflation cuts too many consumers out of the market. Daniel Schearf has more from Moscow.
Video

Video Scientist Calls Use of Fetal Tissue in Medical Research Essential

An anti-abortion group responsible for secret recordings of workers at a women's health care organization claims the workers shown are offering baby parts for sale, a charge the organization strongly denies. While the selling of fetal tissue is against the law in the United States, abortion and the use of donated fetal tissue for medical research are both legal. VOA’s Julie Taboh reports.
Video

Video Next to Iran, Climate at Forefront of Obama Agenda

President Barack Obama this week announced new initiatives aimed at making it easier for Americans to access renewable energy sources such as solar and wind. Obama is not slowing down when it comes to pushing through climate change measures, an issue he says is the greatest threat to the country’s national security. VOA correspondent Aru Pande has more from the White House.
Video

Video Arctic Draws International Competition for Oil

A new geopolitical “Great Game” is underway in earth’s northernmost region, the Arctic, where Russia has claimed a large area for resource development and President Barack Obama recently approved Shell Oil Company’s test-drilling project in an area under U.S. control. Greg Flakus reports.
Video

Video Philippine Maritime Police: Chinese Fishermen a Threat to Country’s Security

China and the Philippines both claim maritime rights in the South China Sea.  That includes the right to fish in those waters. Jason Strother reports on how the Philippines is catching Chinese nationals it says are illegal poachers. He has the story from Palawan province.
Video

Video China's Spratly Island Building Said to Light Up the Night 'Like A City'

Southeast Asian countries claim China has illegally seized territory in the Spratly islands. It is especially a concern for a Philippine mayor who says Beijing is occupying parts of his municipality. Jason Strother reports from the capital of Palawan province, Puerto Princesa.
Video

Video Ages-old Ice Reveals Secrets of Climate Change

Ice caps don't just exist at the world's poles. There are also tropical ice caps, and the largest sits atop the Peruvian Andes - but it is melting, quickly, and may be gone within the next 20 years. George Putic reports scientists are now rushing to take samples to get at the valuable information about climate change locked in the ice.

VOA Blogs