Susanne Rust: Tracking The Gray Whale

Gray whales are dying in record numbers –  over 400 have washed up on West Coast shores since 2019. And yet, scientists aren’t quite sure why. With all the man-made problems affecting ocean ecosystems, it’s hard to point to just one cause. But scientists do know that these majestic mammals are not getting enough nutrition. This week on Sea Change Radio, we speak to Susanne Rust, an environmental reporter for the Los Angeles Times, about her work tracking the plight of the gray whale. We learn about some of the steps that marine biologists are taking, how the food supply of gray whales has greatly decreased, and what it’s like to try to investigate this crisis during a global pandemic.

Narrator  0:02  This is Sea Change Radio, covering the shift to sustainability. I’m Alex Wise.

Susanne Rust  0:22  I mean, one of the amazing things about grey whales too is that they do this incredible migration up and down the coast. So there they are the sentinels.

Narrator  0:32  Gray whales are dying in record numbers. Over 400 have washed up on West Coast shores since 2019. And yet scientists aren’t quite sure why. With all the man-made problems affecting ocean ecosystems, it’s hard to point to just one cause. But scientists do know that these majestic mammals are not getting enough nutrition. This week on Sea Change Radio, we speak to Susanne Rust, an environmental reporter for The Los Angeles Times about her work tracking the plight of the gray whale. We learn about some of the steps that marine biologists are taking, how the food supply of gray whales has greatly decreased, and what it’s like to try to investigate this crisis during a global pandemic.

Alex Wise  1:49  I’m joined now on Sea Change Radio by Susanne Rust. She’s an environmental reporter for The Los Angeles Times. Susanne, welcome to Sea Change Radio. Hey, thank you for having me. So you have a new series of pieces for the Los Angeles Times that folks should check out is entitled something is killing gray whales. And then there’s also accompanying media with that, like podcasts and more explained in the Los Angeles Times newsletter. Why don’t you first explain what gray whales are and what the latest reduction in their numbers means in relative terms?

Susanne Rust  2:26  Yeah, so happy to – gray whales are these like amazing creatures that kind of are, I think a little underrated off the west coast. Like everybody knows the humpbacks sperm whales are pretty cool to see blue whales are amazing and enormous. And gray whales are sort of like the Jeep of the ocean. And for many reasons. They’re just they’re sort of unremarkable looking, but they’re remarkable and what they can do. So every year these guys travel from the Arctic, where they feed they gorge themselves. During the summer and late summer, when these little things called shrimp and they’re up in the Bering Sea and they’re up in the sea. They eat, and then they travel about 5000-6000 miles south and they hang out in the lagoons of the Baja Peninsula in Mexico. And they’re the kind of rest it’s a great place for females to bring young calves. They sometimes birth calves there they nurse calves, their workers don’t go into these lagoons, so they’re very safe in this area. And so they nurse they hang around, single whales come down and cavort mate. And then they all travel back north, beginning in early spring, to once again feed on the crop of amphipods that’s growing up in the Bering and Chukchi Sea. And so they’re really quite remarkable because they do this migration, like right 10-12,000 miles round trip every year. And they are going through everything right, they go again, from the Arctic down to Mexico, they go along the coastline. So they are really seeing everything that’s happening off of our coast here. And in recent years, starting in late 2018, probably in December, large numbers of them began to appear on beaches dead. And then as the year went on more and more and into 2020 and into 2021. I think right now the number is something around 480 have been stranded on beaches up and down the North American coast. But that’s actually probably a super small percentage of the whales that are dying, most are dying off at sea and drowning aren’t not just drowning, but sinking so we don’t actually see their bodies. So the estimate is that they’re probably 1000s that have died. And this is a real concern for scientists. And right now there is an investigation by the federal government to figure out what is happening to these jeeps of the ocean.

Alex Wise  4:53  And is this specifically gray whales that are dying off or are there other whales that are washing up in great numbers?

Susanne Rust  5:02  So whales all over the place are washing up in numbers that I think we’d rather not see mostly from ships strikes. And in fact, I have a have a story that accompanies the gray whale story in the LA Times about ship strikes and whales. Like if you go to the Atlantic, and you look at the North Atlantic Right Whale, right, there are very few of them left. And one of the biggest concerns for them, our ship strikes. But this thing with the gray whales, is really singular in the fact that this whale, unlike other Pacific whales, suddenly started showing this huge die off and really sort of, not sort of the usual number of whales dying every year to ship strike, or the usual number of whales getting caught in fishing gear. This this was sort of extraordinary. And the numbers I mean, usually see like two, three dozen who die every year, and we’re talking hundreds a year now. So this really is is again, singular.

Alex Wise 5:56  So when we talk about 400 gray whales, do we have any idea of the global population of this species?

Susanne Rust  6:03  Yeah, so in 2017, there were estimates that there were probably 26,000 27,000 gray whales going along the western coast of North America, there is a smaller population that’s on the other side of the Pacific that goes from, again, the Arctic, past Sakhalin Island, which is where Exxon has a big plant down the Russian coast, toward Korea and backup, there are about 250 of those. But the gray whales, yes, they have a humungous population, they’re sort of a conservation success story, as a matter of fact, because they were they had at one point been hunted almost to extinction. And then in the 1970s, with the Marine Mammal Protection Act came back in these enormous numbers. So right now the population isn’t imperiled. But there is a big concern that their die off is an indication of something happening in the oceans that we should be paying attention to.

Alex Wise  7:02  It’s all relative, when we talk about enormous numbers, I mean, 26,000 or 27,000, global population, then you just see 400 something whales wash up on the shore, that that would be like 100 million humans or something, in terms of the devastation to their population. It’s not insignificant, right?

Susanne Rust  7:23  No, it’s not insignificant at all. And in fact, again, if remember, as we talked about earlier, to this 400 500 whales are, are the ones we see. And estimates are that just is representative of about, I don’t know, you know, a small part of 1000s that are probably dying offshore. So the guesstimate is it’s probably like 5000 6000 that have died? That’s a huge number, right? That’s a what if it’s 5000 of 25,000. Right? What are we talking there? 20%. That’s big. And it could devastate the population for generations, unless there’s significant improvement, like we had in the 70s.

Alex Wise  7:56  What were some of the protections that were put in place to save these gray whales?

Susanne Rust  8:12  Largely not like intentionally killing them, right? Not going out there, harpooning them not intentionally running into them. Just making sure they stay alive as they move along our coastline that it seems like so binary to say don’t go killer whale, but it actually had had a big effect.

Alex Wise  8:31  What were the policies that were put in place to make sure that these behaviors were stopped?

Susanne Rust  8:36  Well, I think I’m actually not entirely sure what exactly happens if you go out and intentionally kill a whale, but I think you have to pay an enormous fine, and might even get jailed for it. So I think I think the marine mammal Act came Protection Act came around at a time that there was also a growing awareness of the sentience of most marine mammals and a desire to protect them. So I think those things went hand in hand. But there are very few people I think, who go out, at least off the Pacific Coast with any desire to kill whales, but if they did, they would be fine. Unless they’re, you know, that’s one of the protected tribes that are allowed to do this.

Alex Wise  9:16  And that came about in the early 70s, right?

Susanne Rust  That’s correct. Yes.

9:21 (Music Break)

Alex Wise  10:26  This is Alex Wise on Sea Change Radio, and I’m speaking to LA Times environmental reporter Susanne Rust. So Susanne, why don’t you give our listeners kind of a snapshot of your journey in covering this story down to Mexico, if you will, during the pandemic?

Susanne Rust  10:44  Yeah, well, so we actually we started this off, not during a pandemic. So 2019 was the year that the Federal invest, the federal government decided to do this investigation because so many whales were dying. And I think we decided this was a really important story to tell. It’s the California gray whale where you know, the la times we Covered California, we really sort of felt like we had a responsibility to be covering this. And so Carolyn Cole, who is a Pulitzer Prize winning staff, photographer on staff, and I decided we were going to follow the whales. We were going to start in Mexico, where the calves are nursed and often born and then follow them up as they moved along our coastline. We would talk to scientists, researchers see what they were seeing, see what amateurs were watching and then head up to the Arctic, and see if we could see changes in the environment with something bigger going on there. I mean, clearly, we all know Arctic sea ice has been receding for the for the past several years, the environment there has drastically changed. So we booked a trip to Baja in February of 2020. We got to Mexico. At the beginning of March, I believe it was just as the pandemic began to grip the globe. And we were diverted from our trip as a matter of fact, from the whales, and instead set by the national and international desk down to Cabo to cover people coming off of cruise ships and see what the Mexican government was doing, if anything about the pandemic. Luckily, we only had to do that for two or three days and we got back on track to look at the whales. And frighteningly ended up on a boat with a bunch of Northern Italians. Nothing. Nothing wrong with northern Italians, clearly, but that was that was the area that was the hot spot at that point in time of the of the Coronavirus. Yes, that

Alex Wise  12:35  Yes I forgot about Italy. I have friends in Italy, and I remember thinking, “Oh, they have to really be worried.” But now that seems quaint.

Susanne Rust  12:48  Yeah, it does seem so quaint and so long ago, but it was Milan that was the center at the time. And there we were on this boat with a bunch of people from Milan, we were like, Oh my god, right. We were just in Cabo and our now we’re here and we’re going to be exposed. Nevertheless, we had a fabulous time. But were wary and concerned. And we got back to California. And then a few days later, you know, everything shut down.

Alex Wise  13:08  So in your piece, you point to some of the behavior of the whale watching industry want to speak to that and how it might be affecting these populations.

Susanne Rust  13:19  Yeah, so with the whale watching industry, I mean, it’s really it’s a really important industry for these communities in Baja, right. This is their lifeblood, this is where they make all their money during this year. It’s hosting tourists from around the world who come to look at these whales and not just look at whales, like we think of if you go out of Monterey, right, you sit on a boat and you can see a whale if you’re lucky, maybe you know, 20 feet away. Here you get into a little boat and the whales literally come right up boat side. I mean, they’re pushing the boat near it’s like a Zodiac. You know, it’s a sort of small raft that fits about eight people with a little outboard on the back. So these whales come up, they’re pushing and there is no prohibition about you reaching your arms out and touching the whales. And so we saw literally we saw tourists not just touching the whales but sticking their hands in their mouths rubbing their baling, putting their hands in their blowholes and it was it was a little alarming I’ve never quite seen ecotourism like that, you know, I’ve been around but this this was this was the best close encounter I had been to before and apparently people come to do this right they get this it’s really quite a rush. You know, I mean, again, where else do you get to like hug and kiss? Oh, well, we saw people kissing whales and move some people to tears other people begin to sing. It’s not quite Extra Terrestrial, right because we’re on the planet, but there is this sort of otherworldly sort of feeling and mood that goes along with it. And it’s unclear if humans can actually, you know, pass diseases to whales were so far removed evolution from these creatures, it’s unlikely we share too many diseases, but it’s probably not healthy either. I did, I did ask, you know, the crazy reporter question is the problem that we like passed COVID on to the whales and just about every researcher I spoke to said, very, very unlikely. But you know, somebody has an infection and they’re sticking their hand and whales, blowhole. You know, you could, you could pass on some bad bacteria. Again, unlikely we’re the ones who are directly affecting whales that way. But one of the bigger concerns is that when you have this kind of positive, friendly interaction with a wild animal, you get them habituated to humans and you get them habituated to boats and ship strikes are one of the major killers of fish around the world. I mean, that fish, excuse me, of whales around the world, and bitchy waiting whales to come up and seek attention from boats is probably not a healthy behavior.

Alex Wise  15:57  So you mentioned the ship strikes and their feeding patterns. But when I first clicked on this article, I thought this was going to be a piece about microplastics and whale diet and issues surrounding plastics. But you don’t dive into that is that because there’s no evidence of it? I mean, we often find beached whales with and then they open them up, and there’s tons of plastic in there. And you talk about how they they’re feeding in the Alaskan waters where there are still these significant plastic garbage patches, so to speak, is there no direct correlation between this recent die off and microplastics? Susanne,

Susanne Rust  16:39  So it’s like on the long list of things that could be killing these whales, plastics are pretty low on that they are definitely affected by plastics. There is not there’s not an animal in the Pacific Ocean that isn’t affected by plastics if they’re if they’re feeding from the ocean, if they’re a top predator, like whales are. But again, on the long list of things that these whales are potentially affected by plastics don’t rise to the top. I mean, there are there there is the probably the most overwhelming risk for these whales is the fact that their food supply has declined precipitously. And I think that’s probably where the money as research has been done on these little shrimp that they eat in the northern Bering Sea, basically not there anymore. The whales are moving up into the Chukchi, and they’re moving along the Canadian Coast, and they’re eating different species of these little amphipods. Now, and scientists are just beginning to look at trying to figure out are these amphipods that they’re eating as nutritious as the ones that they, you know, adapted to, and, and the research isn’t, isn’t back on that. But clearly, where they go and gorge every summer, the food is different, the food is changed, and they have to go to different places to get it. So that’s sort of on the top of the list. There also, some scientists think it just might be as simple as the fact that there are too many whales, right, there’s only so much food to feed 27,000 whales, and at some point, you can’t feed them off. So that’s that’s one thing that’s logged out there. But when you look at the sort of grand scale of things that could be affecting these whales, again, you would think something else we have done to alter the oceans, and to alter the environment that these whales have adapted to for, you know, 10s of 1000s of years. overcapacity doesn’t seem at least from where I said they are the most the most likely culprit.

Alex Wise  18:42  Yes, because I remember, there’s a quote from one of the scientists who talks about you can see their skulls protruding in a different way. And so they’re emaciated. So that’s solely based on the availability of food, it’s not that their digestive systems are getting stopped up by plastics that they consume.

Susanne Rust  19:06  It could very well be however, again, when I’ve talked to the researchers to do the net cropsies those aren’t, that isn’t the thing that they point to most, it mostly looks like malnutrition, from the sense of just not getting food and the behaviors that people are seeing up and down the coast again, of them feeding in places where they have not traditionally been seen feeding. So that that’s a big indication again, that there is something I suppose it could be microplastics. But again, nobody, nobody really brought that up with me when I when I talked to them about what what could possibly be killing the whales. It was more like they just aren’t getting food. And so again, they would always feed in the northern Bering and Chukchi. But now people are seeing them, you know, trying to feed in San Francisco Bay in Los Angeles Harbor, in Baja that just something’s up with the food chain.

(Music Break)  21:09

Alex Wise  This is Alex Wise on Sea Change Radio and I’m speaking to the Los Angeles Times environmental reporter Susanne Rust. So the other piece of the puzzle when we look at the food chain, and how humans are affecting the climate is both ocean acidification and temperature rise in oceans is that is that one of the controls that is affecting shrimp populations and the food for these gray whales?

Susanne Rust   21:37 Again, it could be I mean, so much, so much is happening so quickly in these places like the northern Bering Sea in the Chucki. I mean, clearly, Arctic ice has receded Arctic ice is probably again, and this is this is sort of fuzzy the scientists here, science here. And scientists were prevented from researching this more closely in 2020, because of COVID. But clearly something has altered in the seas, and part of it is Arctic ice, it seems like there’s probably the Arctic ice itself is important for these amphipods. There’s algae that grows on the bottom that sort of, you know, drips down into the sediment. So without Arctic ice, it could be that these you know, these shrimp-like creatures just aren’t thriving, it could be acidification, it could be you know, just the fact that the temperature is warmer, that these things are growing, so much of that is unknown. And, again, scientists meant to get out there and 2020. And there’s they, they were not able to do it because of COVID. So, you know this crisis happened, the whale die off half dead at a time where scientists were grounded from answering some of these seemingly basic questions. So there’s much yet to be learned, I think

Alex Wise  22:50   And you mentioned in the piece how, at one point, scientists thought that there was too much ice and that was affecting whale populations back in the day. But now obviously, we have not enough ice without being able to get up there during COVID. How are the melting icecaps affecting whale populations? How much do we know about that correlation?

Susanne Rust  23:15  Again, with there is no good answer. So one of the things is when they get these whales, right, they go looking at these cadavers that wash up to try to get answers. So a few problems with that. One is they often wash up on a beach, and they’re decomposed already. So it’s really hard to get really, really fresh bodies where some of these questions can be answered easily. In addition, there are so many things that affect these whales from ship strikes to fish entanglement to like loud sounds. But I, again, the fact that so many of the whales that have washed ashore seem to be malnutritioned. Right, suggests that there is something happening to their food supply. And because their food supply mostly comes from these Arctic waters, where the environment has changed so drastically suggests that there is probably some connection to climate change in the polar regions, whether it’s, again, receding ice, whether it’s, you know, acidification whether it’s, you know, warming temperatures, which goes hand in hand with the receding ice. So there are correlations that can be made, but it’s very difficult for anybody at this point to sort of pinpoint that that causal relationship but it does look fairly obvious. And again, you point out, you know, that there was a concern 20 years ago, when there was a similar die off that it was too much ice right that the whales couldn’t get to the area where they usually fed because the ice had come so far south, depriving them of the food that they depend on. So there was correlation that they never really came up with that causal relationship for what caused that whale or die off. But it was, it was sort of, again assumed it must be related to the food supply. And again, I think people are wondering if the lack of Arctic ice is what’s doing it this time.

Alex Wise  25:16  While whales and other majestic creatures of the sea, obviously, they have a special place in environmentalist’s hearts. And that’s one of the reasons why we want to keep these creatures and their populations healthy. From a scientist perspective, you can’t really do a necropsy of a shrimp, it’s hard to measure their populations, obviously, right? So we look at these bigger creatures and try to intuit what we can about how the ecosystem is changing.

Susanne Rust   25:50  So you’re absolutely right. I mean, one of the again, the amazing things about gray whales to is that they do this incredible migration up and down the coast. So they’re, they’re sort of going through everything right off of our of our coast, here. They are, they are sort of they are the Sentinels, they are sort of the if something is happening to them, and they’re going up and down this coast, it’s an indication that something is happening along our coasts, that is indicative of not just one place in the water, but everything. So yes, when they look at a body, right, what are they seeing, what are the signs? What are the, you know, what, what is happening, you can see, the body of a dead whale is almost a microcosm for what is happening in the oceans off of our coast.

Alex Wise 26:40  And do we have any idea of how their nutritional issues are affecting their reproduction rates?

Susanne Rust   26:48  We don’t know right, so much of this is inferred from what we are seeing. But down in Baja, where the whales go to nurse their calves to calve to cavort. There are very few mother calf pairs. So usually, there are, you know, dozens, if not hundreds of these down there. And in the past few years, there have been very few I want to say it was something of probably going to get this totally wrong. But I think there were 18 in this last season that were observed. And so clearly, there is a dip in reproduction there. If you’re not seeing the calves and their mothers, the next generation isn’t being isn’t being brought forth. And that’s really concerning.

Alex Wise  27:36  Well, it’s terrible concerning story for so many and I’m sorry, if I keep trying to look for answers. I think that’s what you’ve been trying to do for the last couple of years. I appreciate you sharing all of your work with our listeners. Folks should go to the Los Angeles Times to check it out. We’ll link to it on Sea Change Radio, Susanne Rust. Thanks so much for being my guest on Sea Change Radio.

Susanne Rust  Hey, thanks for having me, my pleasure.

Narrator  28:16  You’ve been listening to Sea Change Radio. Our Intro Music is by Sanford Lewis and our outro music is by Alex Wise. Additional music by Jimmy McGriff, Lou Reed, and Crosby, Stills and Nash. Check out our website at Sea Change to stream or download the show or subscribe to our podcast. Visit our archives there to hear from Bill McKibben, Van Jones, Paul Hawken, many others and tune in to Sea Change Radio next week, as we continue making connections for sustainability. For Sea Change Radio, I’m Alex Wise.