Back in 2019, scientists reported an alarming spike in the number of deaths of gray whales along the Pacific Coast. Now, a new study in the Marine Ecology Progress Series journal confirms the trend continued through 2020. In what they term an "unusual mortality event," researchers have counted at least 378 deaths of gray whales since 2019, reports CBS News. And because many whales die at sea, that number is almost certainly an undercount. In the study, researchers say many of the migratory whales appear to be starving to death, possibly because warmer waters in the Arctic have reduced their food supply. Images included in the study show that the whales look markedly thinner than they did in 2017. That leads to cascading problems, with undernourished whales unable to fend off diseases.
"We may have a few years where the mortality levels are less," Padraig Duignan of the Marine Mammal Center in the Marin Headlands tells the San Francisco Chronicle. "But I expect to see events like this happening at greater frequency than we did in the past." The Chronicle notes that the whales were hunted nearly to extinction a century ago, but protections since then have helped swell the population to an estimated 27,000. Now, however, the rapid die-offs are threatening the rebound. Another possible factor in the rise in deaths: Whales might be traveling further into shipping lanes in the hunt for food, with fatal consequences. In the view of lead author Dr. Fredrik Christiansen of Aarhus University in Denmark, "the rapid warming of the Arctic" is the No. 1 culprit. "I am indeed concerned." (For better whale news, read about a never-heard-before ocean song.)