Published: July 1997
Author(s): Scott Richardson
The eastern Pacific population of the gray whale migrates through Washington waters when traveling between its Alaskan feeding waters and its Mexican breeding waters. A few gray whales reside in the state's nearshore waters during portions of the summer; these "summer residents" are known to move among Washington localities and into British Columbia.
The abundance of gray whales in the eastern Pacific is estimated to be as great or greater now than it was prior to the onset of commercial exploitation around 1850. The population of approximately 23,000 whales is no longer in danger of extinction. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service delisted the species in 1994, based on the recommendation of the National Marine Fisheries Service (the western Pacific population remains endangered).
The federal delisting of the eastern Pacific population was contentious. The Marine Mammal Commission and environmental organizations recommended downlisting to a threatened designation or maintaining the endangered status. These entities expressed concern over potential impacts of proposed salt mining at a major calving area (Laguna San Ignacio, Mexico), an increase in the frequency of "take" by recreational boaters and professional whale-watching operators, increased development along migratory corridors, impacts of oil and gas development, and possible influences of sonic experiments (e.g., acoustic thermometry) on gray whales.
Public commenters on the draft status report raised these same issues. They also addressed uncertainty about effects of contaminants on whales foraging in inland marine waters of Washington and the need to manage migratory and summering gray whales distinctly.
State Endangered status of the gray whale is no longer warranted, because the species is not "seriously threatened with extinction." State Threatened status is not warranted, because the species is not "likely to become an endangered species within the foreseeable future."
Gray whales present in inland marine waters of Washington during summer may constitute a "significant portion of [the species'] range within the state." Although certain threats to Washington's summering whales may be greater than to migrating individuals, no available evidence indicates the foreseeable extirpation of the summer resident subpopulation.
However, whale watching has increased, whales may eventually be subject to low-quota harvest by Washington tribes, and there are uncertainties about the status of and risks to gray whales summering in Washington. For these reasons, State Sensitive status is warranted, because the gray whale is "vulnerable" and requires "cooperative management or removal of threats" to avoid becoming threatened or endangered. If the gray whale is designated State Sensitive, the Department will be required to prepare a management plan within three years.
The Department recommends the gray whale be downlisted to State Sensitive status.