A whale’s tale: Fighting for survival

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Posted: Monday, January 20, 2014 10:54 pm | Updated: 10:25 pm, Thu Jan 23, 2014.

OSU researcher dedicates his life to saving endangered whale populations

NEWPORT — Bruce Mate took his wife, son and 9-year-old daughter whale tagging on the first expedition off the coast of Newport 35 years ago. There, they met a young gray whale. Mate named her Elizabeth. 

Mate now takes his granddaughter, who is 9 years old, out to the sea along the west coast of Baja in the San Ignacio Lagoon in Mexico to see the whales.  

Struggling through deep-set emotion as he looked at a recent picture of Elizabeth, awe-struck, Mate commented on her “wrinkled, old eyes.”

“It’s a lot different than a newborn calf,” Mate said. “But she’s definitely a charmer.”

In order to carry out his research on whales, Mate receives 90 percent of his funding through generous philanthropic donations and grants.

Mate has worked in every ocean in the world.

Mate initially set forth across the globe to map the migration habits of seals and sea lions. These migratory routes were surprisingly unknown to the so-called top experts at the time.

First hired by Oregon State University in 1973 as a postdoctoral scholar in biochemistry, Dean of Oceanography John Byrne, who was later the OSU president, assigned Mate to the Hatfield Marine Science Center at the coast of Newport. 

Mate is now a professor in the department of fisheries and wildlife and is the director of the Marine Mammal Institute at Hatfield Marine Science Center.

Mate pioneered the development of satellite radio monitoring of the migration habits of seals and sea lions during his Ph.D. work, which led to his work with whales.

“I would like to think that almost all the research that I’ve done has been applied,” Mate said. “That is, it has human value.”

Mate’s research focuses on trying to figure out the critical habitats of endangered species, specifically whales and their migration habits.

“You cannot protect what you don’t understand,” Mate said. 

According to Mate, when it comes to knowing about endangered whales for most people, it’s out of sight, out of mind.

“In fact, if we look at Lake Michigan or the Indian Ocean or the Atlantic Ocean or the Pacific Ocean, all the water looks the same to us,” Mate said. “Water masses are characteristically different.”

Animals like whales and sea lions move up and down the coast. If their pathway is disturbed by human activities — such as fishing, shipping or oil and gas development within these inland zones — it needs to be taken into consideration whether these marine mammals have access to the necessary resources for their survival, Mate said.

“We need to make sure that we don’t compromise the recovery of the animals that are truly endangered,” Mate said.

Many people ask Mate, “How do you define whales as being endangered?”

According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, commercial whalers killed more than 20,000 blue whales in the Northern Hemisphere between 1890 and 1965.  

Currently, blue whale populations have depleted to between 5,000 and 12,000.

When things are going well for whales, they reproduce at a rate of 7 percent, allowing for the population to nearly double every 10 years. 

“(Humans are) the reasons why whales are endangered — no other reason,” Mate said. “The consequences of that are these very depressed populations of whales all over the world.”

There are few researchers who do this work.

Mate pioneered the area of satellite tagging of marine mammals. Mate and his team of researchers still struggle to find the funds every year to go out and do the projects that they believe are important. 

“If it was easy, somebody else would have done it already and if it wasn’t hard it probably wouldn’t be worth doing,” Mate said.

When Mate began tagging whales in 1979 to learn their migratory patterns, people in the field said it was too risky and couldn’t be done, as the technology wasn’t available, making funding hard to come by.

Mate’s wife understood his passion for this work and offered to sell her car to fund his tagging research. The couple also took out a second mortgage on their home. 

Mate said he has dedicated his life to learning about whales ever since.

“I tell folks that the job of scientists is to provide progressively better descriptions of reality, so we all have a better grip on what is real so we can deal with this information as a collective,” Mate said.

It’s important to figure out critical habitats and migratory corridors of whales to provide some measure of protection so humans don’t inadvertently cause the animals to go extinct or put additional challenges in their way of recovery, Mate said.

“If you want to come back reincarnated as a whale, you better be prepared to work pretty hard,” Mate said. “I’m in awe of whales.

Dacotah-Victoria Splichalova

Science reporter


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