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Sunday, April 25, 1993 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Back On Course -- Have We Saved The Whales?

OFF THE RUGGED shoreline of Granite Canyon south of Carmel, Calif., researchers sit counting California gray whales from wooden shelters that look like lemonade stands.

It's fascinating for about two minutes, observers say, but it goes on for weeks and weeks.

First come the pregnant females, highly motivated, headed south from the winter feeding grounds in the Bering Sea to protected calving grounds in Mexico's Baja Peninsula.

Puff, puff, puff, down. Puff, puff, puff, down.

Gray whales have no tell-tale fin. They have a hump where the dorsal fin sits on other whales. It's followed by a series of 10 or 12 knobs along the ridge of their tail. Their mottled gray skin is distinctive, in part because of the proliferation of barnacles and whale lice, but it's the hearty blow of vapor that gives them away.

Puff, puff, puff, down. Puff, puff, puff, down.

"When you're watching, the first call is `I've seen a puff! Is it or is it not a whale?' " says David J. Rugh, overseer of the most recent count for the Seattle-based National Marine Mammal Laboratory.

"That's a judgment call, like a birder who sees a flash in the bush and identifies a species from what would be a blur to the untrained eye. With the whale, it's a little puff. A good whale counter will get a sense of height and the puffiness and pacing of the animal underneath and get a feeling `This is a whale, not a whitecap,' and then what species."

The pregnant females are a snap to count because they're so set on fast, efficient travel that they develop a rhythm in their journey that may slow slightly at night but otherwise doesn't vary.

Next in line are sexually mature males and females, who are also intent on getting to the breeding grounds, but not so intent they won't slow for a little amour along the way.

"It's a real distraction," says Rugh about the mating, "because you only see them on the surface and so if the whale is turning and there are several whales turning, it's much harder to sort out."

And finally come the juveniles, wayward youth who have so little instinct about the fun that will someday await them in paradise that they dawdle along the way, swimming this way and that, any way but straight. They're the ones most likely to wander - occasionally to their fatal misfortune - into Puget Sound.

The annual migration, up to 10,000 miles round-trip and one of the longest of any mammal, has proceeded despite harpoons, ships, oil spills and occasional misguided tourists who drive boats over the top of the 30- to 50-foot whales, propeller and all.

And yet this year the California gray whale may have topped even that journey. Barring a last-minute reversal by the new administration, the gray whale will become the first marine mammal to come off the "good end" of the Endangered Species List. Once numbering fewer than 5,000, it's now back to historical highs.

That's a long trip for an air-breathing, warm-blooded creature that since the 1960s has come to symbolize how greedily we've treated anything that's not us. In some ways, it's proof that our species also shows promise of evolving.

Delisting is why the accuracy of periodic counts is so critical. The counts have shown a 20-year trend of population gains at a rate of 2 to 3 percent a year. When the gray whales were last counted five years ago, the census was estimated at 21,000, believed to match the population before Yankee whalers first crashed their boats into the calving lagoons in the 1850s, slaughtering mother and calf alike.

Storms in California in December and January did all they could to distort the 1992-'93 count. Still, when fully tallied, the numbers are expected to have risen again.

Greenpeace says counts by the Mexican government are a full third lower. But disputes about accuracy are minor bickering compared with the bellows that rise when the topic turns to whether the gray whale should be delisted.

The gray whale actually was officially taken off the list Jan. 7 by the National Marine Fisheries Service, which has jurisdiction over the whale. But after the environmentally active Clinton-Gore administration took office, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which has jurisdiction over the Endangered Species List, said in March, "Put it back until we review the pros and cons."

Fish and Wildlife says it will re-open the process for a 60-day public comment before deciding whether to endorse the NMFS's delisting proposal.

Some call delisting a move for political gain only, using the gray whale as a sort of a sacrificial lamb. And it has been one of those years when a dramatic gesture was needed. The Endangered Species Act of 1973 was up for reauthorization again. Opponents made the case that almost nothing has been saved by the ESA, but many commercial dollars have been lost. It became a sort of environmental Sophie's Choice: Which species had the best chance of surviving off the list?

In the end, it was a commercial interest that prompted the National Marine Fisheries Service to start the delisting process for the gray whale. Commercial fishermen wanted to avoid the up-to-$10,000 fines for incidental catch of a listed species in their nets.

They argued that if, as the census shows, the gray whale is revitalized, then it should come off the list, especially since the National Marine Fisheries Service declared that fears of potential habitat erosion were not as great as earlier believed.

Those two factors opened the door for a petition to have the gray whale delisted, and the Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission did the duty, representing 14 commercial fishing groups and 19 tribes. One aim, they said, was to test whether the ESA is a "two-way street."

Delisting doesn't mean a return to whaling, but other commercial ventures could benefit. For instance, interest could be renewed in seabed mining off the San Francisco coast, which is right in the middle of the migratory path of gray whales. If the whale stays listed, any development that is potentially hazardous to its habitat has to go through great government hoops to be approved in advance, a deterrent for oil and mining companies alike.

SO OFTEN THERE'S ONLY bad news when it comes to the wild. Ranchers and wolves clashing. Owls stealing jobs. So before we survey fears of what delisting may mean in eroded protection for the gray whale, let's take a moment to celebrate its comeback.

Bouquets should go first to the stalwart "California," or eastern North Pacific, gray whale, lone surviving member of its family. The western North Pacific, or "Korean," gray whale is virtually extinct. Another relative, the Atlantic gray whale, has been gone 400 years.

Next give a nod to human beings, of all things, and even to their governments.

Harvesting of gray whales was banned internationally in 1946, not a real sacrifice since it had long ceased to be profitable, but by far the biggest boon to recovery. More applause due: In the 1970s, Mexico declared three of the five calving lagoons gray-whale refuges when offshore development and rising tourism threatened the whales' tranquility and health.

Obviously, there were concerns and actions long before the first "Save the Whale" poster was ever tacked together.

"Can he who has discovered only some of the values of whale-bone and whale oil be said to have discovered the true use of the whale?" wrote Henry David Thoreau in 1853. "Can he who slays the elephant of his ivory be said to have `seen the elephant'? These are petty and accidental uses; just as if a stronger race were to kill us in order to make buttons and flageolets of our bones."

The gray whale is one of the oldest and most primitive whales. Some whales have a bigger brain-to-body-weight ratio than human beings, but not so the gray whale.

Perhaps that's why the poor thing is confused by our actions. First we kill it, then we save it, then as tourists we spend more than $100 million a year on the West Coast just to get a glimpse of it, then we debate at length whether we trust ourselves enough to peel back some of the protection.

The pattern continues with the latest controversy: The gray whale is caught in a jurisdictional dispute between the National Marine Fisheries Service, which is under the Department of Commerce, and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which is under the Department of Interior.

The Department of Commerce apparently thought it had the signoff to delist from the Department of Interior. Then came the March surprise that Fish and Wildlife hadn't signed off and might not.

In the months before the delisting was initially announced in January, the Department of Commerce held hearings that solicited more than 60 pages of comments.

Among those commenting were environmental groups such as the Center for Marine Conservation that agreed with the delisting. It's not as if the gray whale would be cast out to Captain Ahab, they argued. No one can shoot it, or even harass it. The good old Marine Mammal Protection Act extends for 200 miles offshore and the gray whale seldom ventures out of waving distance.

According to Deborah Crouse of the Center for Marine Conservation, the question becomes: Does the Endangered Species act work, or doesn't it? "Rather than complaining about the number of endangered species and saying the Endangered Species Act needs to be fixed, we should, in fact, be looking to its successes. And this is one."

Greenpeace was middling. They wanted the whale downlisted to "threatened" from "endangered," which would have kept the protective punch of the ESA, but still recognized that endangered species could do more than fall off the extinct end of the ESA list.

Environmental groups like the protection the ESA gives to species habitat. Unlike the American alligator, another revived species that could come off the list, the gray whale's habitat is ripe for catastrophic disaster, they say, because it's right out there in the middle of industry and tanker traffic.

The gray whale survived the Exxon Valdez oil spill and a 1969 spill off Santa Barbara, but critics still worry that the potential for damage is there.

Here's an example of why that's important. The whales essentially fast on their southward journey, eat little or nothing in the calving grounds and come back north past California as much as 30 percent lighter.

There's concern about what it would mean for nursing mothers if oil spills, bottom fishing or factory pollutants decreased available food, hazards that add to the argument for keeping ESA protection for the gray whale habitat.

"We ought not to be in this rush," said David Phillips, executive director of Earth Island Institute, which believes threats are as high or higher than ever. "We've twice driven the gray whale to the brink of extinction."

OUR SPECIES HAS HAD a hard time seeing the gray whale without also seeing dollar signs.

The gray whale is a baleen whale, which means there are fringed baleen plates along each side of the palate.

All baleen whales filter their food between these plates, but the gray whale actually lies on its side in shallow waters and vacuums the bottom, sucking up tiny creatures related to the sand flea.

That's one reason they stick so close to our coast. Prime feeding grounds are in the northern Bering and southern Chukchi seas, but the whales also have been known to feed south of Alaska, including in Puget Sound.

They have paid a dear price for hugging our coastline.

Natives in Alaska and Siberia hunted the gray whale for centuries. In fact, they still do. The Chukotka Eskimos are allowed an average catch of 174 whales a year under aboriginal subsistence laws. Alaska natives take about one a year, but prefer the bowhead.

Washington native peoples also hunted gray whales, using dugout canoes and seal-skin floats for their hunts. But one of the last to do so, the Makah, stopped voluntarily in 1915 because so few whales were left. Now the Makah are contemplating taking an occasional whale again, not for commercial use, but for cultural revitalization.

Whale meat was important in the past, but it was the oil that was the real commodity. One historian claims the Makah sold $8,000 worth of oil in 1856. It was also coveted by locals because it added to the taste of food and helped preserve it.

Some archaeological sites indicate native whaling went on for thousands of years, and yet gray whales remained a renewable resource until they were discovered by Yankee whalers in the mid-19th century.

Boats forced their way into the calving lagoons, where it was common practice to kill the calf to draw the mother to the craft. Sometimes it was to the crew's fatal regret. The gray whale became known as the "devil fish" because it would ram its mighty head into the boat, sometimes sinking it.

As has too often been the case in modern history, the animal still lost. Much of the gene pool was wiped out, so much that when modern whaling after the turn of the century began using explosives and deck-mounted cannons, the gray whale still had not recovered.

"For over 20 years the species has been lost to science and naturalists believe it to be extinct," R.C. Andrews wrote in 1914.

Now it's believed there were 4,000 to 5,000 left at the turn of the century, which was barely enough to keep the species alive.

FOR YEARS SCIENTISTS had enough data to show that if harvesting continued, a number of whale species would be wiped out, says Howard Braham, director of the Seattle-based National Marine Mammal Laboratory. But nobody listened.

The International Whaling Commission based its decisions on the politics of its 37-member nations rather than on science.

In fact, it's one marker of the evolution of our relationship with the whale that the IWC was formed to help protect depleted stock so that they eventually could be harvested again. Now, led by the protectionist Australian, U.S. and British delegations, the IWC is seen as so tainted by members who want to save the whale for the whale's sake that it's facing threats from splinter groups.

The U.S. banned whaling in 1971. The IWC followed with a temporary moratorium in 1986 that's still in effect. Norway is threatening to begin harvesting the Minke whale next year through its own commission. Japan, where whale meat is a delicacy that sells on the dock for $200 a pound, also talks of forming its own regional group. Many observers believe these countries wouldn't dare, given international sentiment.

And that leads us back to numbers.

Making an accurate count of most species in the open seas is difficult, even for those jumbo whales reported to have hearts the size of Volkswagens and arteries wide enough that children could comfortably crawl through them.

There's also a natural suspicion among some environmentalists, government scientists and whaling nations. All three come up with numbers. None trusts the motivation of the other.

As one example, listen to Dr. Tag Gornall describe the relationship of the census takers to the California gray whale: "It's the fox guarding the hen house."

Gornall, a Seattle veterinarian long associated with the Marine Animal Resource Center, points out that the National Marine Mammal Laboratory, which conducted the census, is part of the National Marine Fisheries Service, which is under the Department of Commerce, for which fishing is more profitable than worrying about whales.

One of Gornall's gripes is that nobody's paying attention to the gray whale's food sources. He believes extensive bottom fishing in the Bering Sea is ripping up the gray whale's feeding grounds. He also believes that if the truth were known about the inordinate number of gray whales dying in Puget Sound, it would send a scare through the fishing industry that would echo the Alar/apple and E. coli/meat scares.

Eating the sea bottom, which is rich in nutrients from matter that dies at the top and sinks, "can be like licking the cake bowl," says Gornall. But if ships hauling aluminum illegally wash out their holds or the whale stops to eat outside the dumping grounds of former factories, "it's like licking the bottom of the toilet bowl."

Here come the scientists with their counterarguments. With the population increasing, more dead whales are naturally going to be found. Some who find their way into Puget Sound are not healthy to begin with or they wouldn't have gotten so far off course. Aluminum is a naturally occurring substance. The tiny organisms eaten by the gray whales in the Bering Sea fall right out of the fishing nets.

And so it goes.

THE BOTTOM LINE IS that nobody has ever tried to delist an animal so close to our hearts as the gray whale, says Braham of the National Marine Mammal Laboratory. He first recommended delisting in 1984.

In fact, only four species have ever come off the "good end" of the list, and anyone able to name them should sign up immediately for the championship round of "Jeopardy!" (For the record, the answer is three island birds and a plant that was delisted because more of it was found.)

New rules were tacked on when the ESA was reauthorized in 1978. Under the change, all listed species have to be reevaluated every five years. That's how it happened that the California gray whale was scrutinized in 1984 and again in 1990.

Now that the gray whale faces delisting, counts become even more critical. By law, if delisting goes through, counts have to take place twice more in the next five years.

More is known about the gray whale than any other whale species. But even the census takers say the variances are great enough that the first indication of trouble for the gray whale won't come from the census, but from the high number of bodies suddenly washed up on shore.

Since we're so closely related and basically call the same place home, if environmental degradation wipes out the California gray whale, we can take it as a sign that it's time to check our own life-insurance policies.

Can we be trusted to take care of the gray whale if it's off the Endangered Species List, or will we become more casual about offshore development and tanker seamanship? Delisting may be as much of a test for us as it is for the whale.

The gray whale navigates by either reading the sea floor or keeping an eye out for our shore. Although they don't come as near in Washington and Oregon, the ribbon of migrating whales passes as close as one-quarter mile off shore in California and Alaska.

Census takers use special binoculars to measure the field of view vertically and horizontally so they can get a quantitative bearing on the sighting. Time is noted. At the end of a shift, the notes of one observer are measured against the notes of another observer, who has spent his hours blocked from view in a rival lemonade stand.

Southward migration past Granite Canyon ends in early February. That's when the tourists, their behavior now highly regulated, begin to flock to the Baja calving lagoons.

It becomes almost a pilgrimage. There's a natural attraction, of course, to the majesty of this 40-ton creature that has survived millions of years of the Earth's changing environment, but a close-up view means more: It's a reminder of our slow self-reckoning that we are not superior creatures.

If anything mirrors that last personal change, it's the behavior of the mothers in lagoons known to be home to "The Friendlies."

These "devil fish" who once rammed their heads into boats now come up and stick their heads over the sides of skiffs to be petted by tourists. More than that, they position themselves in such a way as to encourage their shy calves to rise to be stroked.

Seattle freelance photographer Natalie Fobes, who recently experienced this phenomenon, came back so shed of her natural cynicism that she credited the whale with omnificence.

"The calf surfaced two feet from us and then it chose me," she says, by now a little embarrassed but still awed. "All I could think was that the gray whale picked me because it thought I was a good person.

"Knowing the human species as I do, I had to wonder, why have the whales decided to come back to us? Why have they decided to make the first friendly contact?"

In figuring the motivation for these exchanges, scientists caution against too much emotion. But one thing seems clear: It's too late to breach such trust.

Sherry Stripling is a reporter for The Seattle Times. Christine Cox is a Times news artist. Natalie Fobes is a Seattle freelance photographer.

Copyright (c) 1993 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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