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Whale Fail

By Maria Grusauskas

From her boat in Moss Landing, Sarah Graham has seen several gray whales in Monterey Bay this month. But sightings of the majestic animal so late in the migration season are not normal—nor is anything else about this year.

"There are not as many large groups of whales coming through the Monterey Bay, and we are seeing a lot of smaller, skinnier animals," says Graham, who serves as West Coast director at the California Gray Whale Coalition.

The gray whale routinely migrates 12,000 miles a year—southward to breed in the warm lagoons of Baja California and northward to feed in Arctic waters. The 6,000-mile northern migration typically ends in May, says Graham, with the mothers and calves bringing up the rear. Although gray whales are a welcome presence in the bay, their June occupation is a break from their ancient migration path and suggests the species is struggling to survive.

"We are still seeing a lot of animals in the area feeding on krill," says Graham. "For them to stop their migration for krill is a sign of starvation."

A newly released report on gray whale breeding areas is backing up with numbers what Graham and others have observed anecdotally. Dr. Jorge Urban of the Universidad Autonoma de Baja California has made annual boat surveys of cow-calf pairs and individual gray whales in Baja California since 1978. His new report shows the sharpest decline in the region's gray whale population in 15 years.  

Laguna Ojo de Liebre, historically the most abundant breeding ground for gray whales, saw only 183 mother-calf pairs this year, a steep decline from the 800-plus pairs reported in 2004–2006. Laguna San Ignacio has also seen a sharp drop, from its peak of 137 mother-calf pairs in 1984 to only 20 documented in 2010.  

The Baja report comes as the International Whaling Commission meets this week in Morocco. One item on the agenda: whether to allow Russian whalers to continue killing 140 gray whales a year. The U.S. and other traditionally nonwhaling nations have decided to support limited whaling in an attempt to gain broader concessions. It is unclear if Dr. Urban's report will be enough to reverse their support of the quota extension.

Maria Grusauskas

Picking Poison

The Beatles dreamed of "Strawberry Fields Forever" as a place of refuge and escape. Strawberries have symbolized purity for years. But a new chemical proposed for systemic fumigation of strawberry fields has put the fruit in a different kind of spotlight. Strawberries have become a point of contention between anti-pesticide advocacy groups, who disapprove of the use of methyl iodide as a fumigant, and the state Department of Pesticide Regulation (DPR), which maintains that it is mostly harmless.

Most scientists agree that widespread application of methyl iodide to strawberry fields poses a risk to the health of field workers and nearby residents. Methyl iodide is listed as a carcinogen in California's Safe Drinking Water and Toxic Enforcement Act of 1986 (Proposition 65), which catalogs chemicals known to harm human health. In fact, cancer researchers use methyl iodide on lab animals when they need to induce cancer-cell production. More toxic than methyl bromide—which is the currently favored fumigant—methyl iodide can cause thyroid cancer and birth defects. It can disrupt thyroid hormones, metabolic processes and immune response. A known neurotoxin, it can slowly erode cognitive abilities.

The DPR asked its consulting scientists to run risk-management tests on methyl iodide. The DPR then employed a committee to check its own scientists' work. The Scientific Review Committee agreed with the DPR scientists: methyl iodide is unsafe due to the tight restrictions necessary to control its use. The review committee advised slightly stricter regulations than the DPR suggestions, but the difference was not substantial. Both the DPR scientists and the review committee recommended barring registration of methyl iodide. But the DPR ignored both its own scientists and the committee it hired and moved ahead with the registration process.

The DPR is accepting public comment on registering methyl iodide until June 29. Send comments to [email protected]

Caroline Osborn

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