Such a vastly reduced population of gray whales has likely exerted large changes in Pacific ocean ecosystems. Unique among whales, the gray bulldozes the oceans, digging troughs through the sea floor for food. In the process, they resuspend ocean sediments bring food to the surface. "A population of 96,000 gray whales would have resuspended 12 times more sediment each year than the biggest river in the Arctic, the Yukon," said Alter, "and would have played a critical role in the ecology of the Bering Sea."
Other species may have felt the loss of whales as well. "The feeding plumes of gray whales are foraging grounds for Arctic seabirds," Palumbi said. "96,000 gray whales would have helped feed over a million seabirds a year."
The research also raises questions about how many whales the current oceans can now support and whether the future of whales, even if whaling is limited, may be reduced by new problems in the guise of oceanic overfishing and global climate change. "Despite our best efforts," Palumbi said, "these genetic results suggest gray whales have not fully recovered from whaling. They might be telling us that whales now face a new threat - from changes to the oceans that are limiting their recovery."
"Decades ago, whales were the first creatures to tell us that we were overfishing the oceans," Palumbi concluded. "Maybe now they trying to tell us the oceans are in deeper trouble."
|Contact: Steve Palumbi|