Coast Guard finds dead gray whales on Tugidak

A Coast Guard helicopter crew investigates a beached fin whale found dead during a 2020 survey. 

Three dead gray whales were spotted on the shores of Tugidak Island on the south end of Kodiak Island Borough during an aerial survey conducted by an MH-60 Jayhawk helicopter crew from Coast Guard Air Station Kodiak, according to a Coast Guard news release. 

The survey was part of an ongoing partnership between the Coast Guard, the Sun'aq Tribe of Kodiak and the National Ocean and Atmospheric Administration to document what has become designated internationally as an "Unusual Mortality Event" of gray whales.

"One gray whale likely washed ashore between May 24 and June 7. It was discovered by the USCG, along with two other dead gray whales, during a dedicated aerial carcass survey on Monday, June 7," Julie Fair, public affairs officer for NOAA's Alaska regional office, said in an email Friday.

Fair said the Coast Guard was conducting its second survey of the season. A survey of Tugidak Island had been planned in May, but it was scuttled due to bad weather. However, the Coast Guard did report a gray whale carcass in Ugak Bay at around the same time.

"We received a report from a private pilot who was able to circle Tugidak Island on May 24, and reported that there were no stranded whales there as of that date," Fair said.

Fair said the carcasses of the three whales found on June 7 were too decomposed to determine a cause of death.

Gray whales migrate from Mexico to the Arctic every year, and pass by Kodiak on their journey. Beginning in January 2019, a large number of dead gray whales began washing ashore in Alaska, California, Oregon and Washington state. Canada and Mexico also reported sightings of dead, beached or stranded gray whales.

Fair said the trend continued into 2020 and again this year. The deaths have become classified as an unusual morbidity event, defined under the Marine Mammal Protection Act as "a stranding that is unexpected; involves a significant die-off of any marine mammal population; and demands immediate response."

NOAA and other agencies began to investigate. In the U.S. alone, 122 gray whales were reported dead in 2019 (48 in Alaska), while in 2020 the count was 79 (45 in Alaska).

This year, 31 have been reported dead in the U.S. Five have been reported dead in Alaska waters or shores, including the three found June 7. The first whale reported was the one found in Ugak Bay on May 10; the second was discovered May 26 near Cat Island in the Ketchikan area.

“The USCG and members of the Sun'aq Tribe have also reported some healthy looking, live gray whales as well," Fair said. "As far as the migration, live gray whales have been reported in the Bering Sea.”

Fair noted that the partnership between the Coast Guard, NOAA and Sun'aq Tribe has been beneficial in the effort to document the deaths.

"Both the USCG and members of the Sun'aq Tribe have been valuable partners in assisting NOAA Fisheries with our investigation of the West Coast Gray Whale UME in Alaska, especially during the pandemic," Fair said. "The USCG is flying dedicated carcass surveys, documenting and reporting to us any and all gray whale carcasses they spot. Both the USCG and members of the Sun'aq Tribe are collecting samples from these dead whales if they can do so safely."

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