SAN FRANCISCO (KPIX 5) — U.S. scientists will investigate why an unusual number of gray whales are washing up dead on West Coast beaches.

About 70 whales have been stranded so far this year on the coasts of California, Oregon, Washington and Alaska, the most since 2000. About five more have been found on British Columbia beaches.

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Dead gray whale found on Limantour Beach

Dead gray whale found on Limantour Beach, Point Reyes National Seashore (CBS)

A marine mammal expert earlier this month called the number of gray whales dying along the Northern California coast and in the San Francisco Bay alarming and attributed the deaths to insufficient food levels in their native Arctic waters.

NOAA Fisheries on Friday declared it an “unusual mortality event,” providing additional resources to respond to the deaths and triggering the investigation into the cause.

“What happens when a UME (unusual mortality event) is declared, is that the government is mandated to develop a response plan,” explains Mary Jane Schramm with the Greater Farallones National Marine Sanctuary, a division of NOAA.

In NOAA parlance, an unusual mortality event is what amounts to the official alarm bell.

“We have 70 dead whales just within U.S. waters alone. There are a total of about 148 as of the time we’re speaking right now all along the coast, and those numbers are climbing,” said Schramm.

At the Marine Mammal Center in Marin County, the move could mean more funding and resources.

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“By declaring this, it opens up some federal funding for organizations to better study and learn why the increased number of gray whales [dying] is happening right now,” said Dr. Shawn Johnson, the Center’s Director of Veterinary Science.

To find anything like what’s happening right now, researchers have to go back 20 years.

“There had been a similar event back in 1999, 2000, where we lost roughly 30 percent of the entire gray whale population in the world,” said Schramm. “So that’s 6,100 whales out of a population of around 21,000, maybe a bit more than that. And we still don’t really have a satisfactory answer as to why that occurred.”

One suspect back then was El Nino. Now, scientists are looking at how gray whale how food sources have been disrupted by melting arctic sea ice. The UME declaration is supposed bring more funding and resources to find out. “To determine how is climate change potentially affecting these mammals and really all of the animals in the ocean, and in the end, how is that going to impact us,” says Dr. Johnson.

Another possibility is some not-yet-identified illness affecting these animals. That’s why wildlife experts want to know as soon as possible, when whales wash up, something they are very much expecting in the weeks and months ahead.

In 2000, more than 100 washed up. A similar investigation into those deaths failed to identify a cause.


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© Copyright 2019 CBS Broadcasting Inc. All Rights Reserved. The Associated Press contributed to this report.