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The Endangered Status of Gray Whales: Understanding the Threats and Conservation Efforts

an animal swimming in the ocean

Gray whales are magnificent animals. They travel as far as 14,000 miles each year on their migratory routes from the Arctic to Central America and back. These 40-50-foot-long marine mammals used to roam all the waters of the Northern Hemisphere, but extensive whaling in the 19th and early 20th centuries brought gray whales to the tipping point of extinction. Even though populations have rebounded since the 1980s, gray whales are still endangered. Here’s everything you need to know about the threats gray whales face and conservationists’ efforts to protect them.

Why Are Gray Whales Endangered?

Like all other species of whales, whalers hunted gray whales in the 19th and 20th centuries for their blubber, meat, bones, and more. The industry was so profitable that many whale species went extinct or disappeared from their historic territories. Today, only two groups of gray whales are left, one in the western Pacific and one in the eastern Pacific.

There may be as few as 150 whales in the Western Pacific population, placing this group dangerously close to extinction. The eastern Pacific population of gray whales grew steadily until 2016, but birth rates decreased by 40%, and more whales are washing up dead on shore than in the past. Experts worry that this change may place the western group of gray whales back in endangered territory.

The major threats that gray whales face include:

  • Declining food sources due to climate change
  • Getting entangled in fishing gear
  • Destruction of their habitats by oil and gas exploration
  • Colliding with ships and other vessels

Gray whale conservation efforts primarily focus on climate change, the fishing industry, and energy projects.

Protected Status of Gray Whales

Gray whales are legally protected from commercial whaling, but some Aboriginal communities are allowed to make limited catches. The population of gray whales in the Pacific region are increasing, but there are some species of gray whales that are still very small. Whales are the top of the food chain in the ocean, so they play an important part in the marine environment. You may not think about it, but whale poop is also critical for the ecosystem as it fertilizes the ocean with essential nutrients needed for phytoplankton to bloom.

The Marine Mammal Protection Act lists gray whales as a protected species. Wester Pacific gray whales are endangered, and eastern Pacific gray whale numbers are recovering and are thought to be stable until the mid-2010s. Hunting whales is illegal, but hunting is no longer the primary threat these animals face. It’s important that gray whales are still listed as a protected species because it means advocates for these animals can take legal action against companies or governments that harm them.

animal on the water

Gray Whale Conservation Efforts

Scientists and gray whale advocates have many approaches when it comes to conservation. After the 1980s saw a moratorium placed on hunting whales, researchers got to work on improving conditions and safety for these animals in their habitats.

By studying gray whale migration patterns, scientists have helped state governments adjust oceanic shipping lanes to reduce collisions with whales in the water. Organizations also work with the fishing industry to develop new ideas and strategies to make fishing gear and crab harvesting less dangerous for whales.

Global conservation experts routinely pressure Russia and the U.S. government to end oil and gas exploration in the Arctic. They advocate for the Russian government to create a gray whale sanctuary off of Sakhalin Island, a major feeding area for these animals.

Best Time and Place To See Gray Whales

One way you can help secure a bright future for gray whales is by joining a whale-watching tour to see these marine mammals in the wild. Whale-watching exhibitions help the public understand gray whales and can also assist with scientific observation.

You can see gray whales all along the California coast, including in San Diego. The best time to see gray whales in San Diego is during the winter when they migrate south from the Arctic toward Mexico. January and February usually have many gray whale sightings near San Diego.

 Gray whale conservation is a success story that illustrates how powerful people can be when they work together for a cause. If you’re passionate about whales, join a whale-watching tour to learn more about their behaviors and habitat.