Where the whales are

Written by Adam Spencer, The Triplicate December 19, 2013 04:20 pm

Two gray whales ply the waters off the coast of Crescent City on Tuesday. You can pretty much count on finding them here.
Two gray whales ply the waters off the coast of Crescent City on Tuesday. You can pretty much count on finding them here. Del Norte Triplicate / Bryant Anderson
Del Norte coast, including protected areas, dependable place to find grays

Stretching from Crescent City’s airport to the tallest lighthouse on the West Coast, St. George Reef is a popular and ecologically important hangout for whales and other wildlife that frequent the North American coastline.

During a visit this week, marine biologist Jeff Jacobsen, explained why Crescent City’s coast can support a residential gray whale population that doesn’t need to migrate north like most other grays: “They can get enough food here; they don’t need to go to Alaska.”

Jacobsen lives in Humboldt County, but he spends more time documenting whales out of Crescent City because it’s such a dependable place to see them.

The reef’s far-reaching importance is why several portions of it were included in the North Coast Marine Protected Areas, which mark their one-year anniversary of implementation today. 

California’s network of MPAs, where fishing is limited or prohibited, were established to recover ocean fish and plant populations that have shown dramatic declines in the last 60 years, but the protections were also criticized for their potential negative impact on commercial and recreational fishing industries.

The MPAs at St. George Reef exemplify the compromises that were made to appease both environmental groups and critics from the fishing industry.  

Supporters of the MPAs, like Jennifer Savage of Ocean Conservancy, have said that an MPA spanning St. George Reef would have been preferable, but that a compromise was made to keep the reef off the proposal list due to fishermen’s concerns.

Instead, a nine-square-mile MPA was implemented on the western edge of St. George Reef Lighthouse, and commercial Dungeness crab fishing and salmon trolling is still allowed under the MPA. 

In addition, two special closures were put into place for Castle Rock and Southwest Seal Rock, which are both part of the reef.

Castle Rock is the second-largest colony of nesting seabirds  south of Alaska after the Farallon Islands.

Those compromises were reflected in the proposal that was sent to the state. The North Coast Regional Stakeholders Group was the only group of its kind in the state to submit a single, unified proposal for where the MPAs should be placed.

Whale-watching research

Jacobsen said that during his many whale expeditions around St. George Reef, he has seen the area west of the lighthouse, where the MPA was implemented, teeming with migrating whales, a virtual Pacific Coast highway.

This past week, Jacobsen has been observing the mating behavior of gray whales around St. George Reef.  Two to four male grays are known to court one female at a time. 

Because the residential population of gray whales on the northern West Coast is relatively small, roughly 200 adults, Jacobsen said he has been able to get to know each animal as an individual. 

The gray whales that call the coast from Cape Mendocino north to British Columbia are genetically different from other grays. At least 29 of the whales have been tagged with radio transmitters to document their behavior, Jacobsen said.

Although whales were already protected from predation by the Marine Mammal Protection Act, Jacobsen said that the MPAs could impact whale populations if the ecology of rockfish is improved.

“We don’t know if we don’t try,” Jacobsen said. “Everything’s connected is not a trite thing to say.  Everything is going to influence everything else.”

“California’s ocean economy, which includes tourism, recreation and fishing, totals $43 billion,” said Savage of Ocean Conservancy. “Not only do protected areas help ensure the long-range health of our fisheries, but they attract visitors interested in a top-of-the-line wildlife experience. This provides an economic boost for hotels, restaurants and outdoor stores.”

Monitoring progress

The first step in measuring the impact of the MPAs is to gain a clearer understanding of what was the ecological and economic status when they were implemented. What’s the baseline?

On Tuesday, 10 science grants to collect socioeconomic and ecological information were awarded to a diverse group of scientists, fishermen, tribal governments, and citizen groups from 31 organizations.

The North Coast has the first MPA baseline program that will incorporate traditional ecological knowledge, defined as “the cumulative body of scientific knowledge, passed through cultural transmission by indigenous peoples over many generations,” according to OceanSpaces.org, a website for the baseline monitoring program.

The Smith River Rancheria will lead the TEK project, which will involve a review of archival tribal information and interviews with tribal members to identify cultural knowledge and harvesting practices for keystone species such as sea lettuce, clams, abalone and mussels.

“This project is not only important because tribal perspectives and knowledge will be, perhaps for the first time ever, integrated into the state’s resource management scheme. It is also important because it is completely tribally driven and relies on an approach that respects the cultural and political sovereignty of each participating tribe,” said Megan Rocha, project lead on behalf of Smith River Rancheria.

To view descriptions of the awarded projects, visit www.oceanspaces.org.

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