Uptick in West Coast gray whale strandings puzzles scientists

OLYMPIA, Wash. -- It's not just endangered southern resident orca numbers that are worrisome. There's another local whale federal agencies are watching.

Gray whale strandings are significantly up from years prior, NOAA officials said.

Thirty-seven gray whales have been stranded in Washington, Oregon and California this year. That's up from 25 over all of last year.

NOAA Fisheries spokesperson Michael Milstein said 11 of those whales have have been found in Washington.

April, May and June are the busy months for strandings, as gray whales migrate from near Mexico to their feeding grounds in the Artic Ocean, Milstein said. It's concerning  such high number of strandings comes so early in the season, according to Milstein.

"We've seen a lot for this time of the year," Milstein said.

Even more worrisome is the state of the whales' bodies. Both juvenile and adult whales have beached, and many of them seem malnourished, Milstein said. Their ribs are often showing.

"They may not have enough energy to make it all the way back north," Milstein said.

Despite the recent strandings, gray whales have largely recovered since their lowest numbers following the heavy whaling of the 19th century. The population of gray whales is around 27,000, Milstein said.

The whales feed by sifting through ocean floor sediment to eating shrimp and amphipods.

Earlier this year, NOAA announced the Makah Tribe would be allowed permits to hunt and harvest one to three whales annually over a 10-year period. The Makah tribe has historically harvested stranded whales and also hunted whales, but hasn't done so for 20 years.