Western Gray Whales: The World’s Most Endangered Whale

Post by Jake Levenson, Global Program Officer for Whales, IFAW Headquarters Office

I've woken up early again. Well, actually, I never really got to sleep. It started raining around 11 last night, the this sound of rain dripping into a pot under the leaky roof kept me awake most of the night. Now it's morning, and I can abandon my attempts to sleep. Instead, since I'm awake and sitting here waiting for the fog bank to retreat a bit further, I thought I'd tell you a bit more about why these Western grey whales are so unique.

The Western grey whale was believed to be extinct due to commercial whaling until sometime in the mid-1970's when a remnant population was discovered. Now, the WGWs are believed to be the rarest whales in the world. The Western grays look identical to the Eastern Pacific grey whale (also known as the California grey whale) found on the West Coast of the United States and Mexico, but their genetics are different. Their luck has been different too. While the recovery of the Eastern grey whale is thought of as a conservation success story, the Western grey whale continues to linger on the very brink of extinction. 

This is not exaggeration. The Western grey whale is about as close to extinction a species can get without actually being extinct. There are approximately 122 of these whales left in the whole world, and that's it. We need to protect every single one of these remaining Western Pacific grey whales if we want to save them from total extinction. Part of this involves learning as much as possible about these rare whales. We are already working to identify each whale so that we can track their health, breeding successes and life histories. But, there is more that needs to be done.

Most our our knowledge about WGWs is really in the realm of educated
guesses, gut feelings and hunches. We'd like to rely less on hunches
and more on science, but (so far) we just don't know enough about these

Here is what we know. We know that Western grey whales (WGWs) feed in a small area outside the Piltun lagoon on Russia's Sakhalin Island. We are fairly sure this is their only feeding area in the entire world. In recent years, four WGWs have been found dead, entangled and drowned
in Japanese fishermen's nets. This confirms a longstanding hunch that
these whales migrate along one, or both sides of Japan. But, beyond this, we know very little.

Since whales can migrate thousands of miles every year, this lagoon in Russia may just be one stop in a much longer annual migration.  Their eastern cousin -- the Eastern Pacific grey whale -- migrates every year from their mating and calving grounds in the San Ignacio Lagoon in Mexico's Baja peninsula, along the California coast, to their cold-water feeding grounds in the Bering and Chucki Seas. 

From this, we can deduce that WGWs also probably prefer colder, nutrient-rich waters for feeding, and warmer, shallow waters for breeding. And, this fits what we know: here in Piltun we have the cold nutrient-rich part of the journey (some scientists also believe WGWs have a second feeding area further north, in the even more remote Kamchatka Peninsula -- the part of Russia that stretches out towards Alaska's Aleutian Islands -- and others believe the WGWs may venture as far as the Chucki Sea). At the end of their feeding season, we believe the WGWs depart Piltun in one of two directions, although this is still debated. From the four recent entanglement deaths in Japan, many now believe take a southerly route past the coast of Japan. Their destination would be their warm-water breeding ground and nursery. This vital area has never been identified, but some suspect that WGWs breed and bear their calves in the shallow, warm-water lagoons near the Parcel Islands off the southern coast of China. This would certainly be a good place to start looking.

This is more than just an interesting puzzle. By learning where these critically endangered whales travel, we can better protect them from the threats and challenges they face along their migratory route. And this is why we are here. My colleagues around the world are working to solve these mysteries, and protect the WGWs in Piltun's lagoon and off the coasts of Japan and China. For example, after the WGWs were accidentally caught in fishermen's nets near Japan, IFAW-Japan set to work ensuring that a market for endangered Western grey whale meat never began. This is because, in countries such as Japan and Korea, whales that are caught accidentally can be legally sold as meat. If WGW meat was included in this rule, then fishermen would have no real incentive to release live whales from their nets. Thanks to the hard work of our staff in Russia and Japan, WGW's found entrapped in a net off Japan must now be set free. In fact, it's actually illegal now to sell Western grey whale meat in Japan.

And that's something to think about. IFAW -- with your help -- convinced a country that actively hunts and eats whales to ban the sale of this species. That's how incredibly endangered these whales are.

Comments: 1

5 years ago

I learned a lot of information about the WGW and the work of IFAW. Thank you for saving the whales.
-Ji-Yoon Kim- Student of Beachwood Middle School, Beachwood, OH

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