Known for their white skin, distinctive “melon” foreheads, and high-pitched vocalizations, beluga whales are one of only three cetaceans (whales, dolphins, and porpoises) that reside within the Arctic. Belugas are well adapted to their harsh environment with a thicker than normal blubber layer that provides added protection against the frigid Arctic waters. With no presence of a dorsal fin, they can swim forwards or even backwards under the sea ice as they dive for Arctic cod, salmon, and other prey.
Today there are more than 150,000 belugas living in the wild, and they are imperiled by the increased industrialization of the largely pristine Arctic marine ecosystem. Man-made climate change is causing the Arctic to warm at twice the global rate, and it is reducing critical annual sea ice coverage which serves as the cornerstone for the region’s ecology and marine food web. Climate scientists estimate that by 2050 the Arctic will likely become ice free during the summer months which will lead to large-scale commercial shipping through Russia’s Northern Sea Route, and eventually through the fabled Northwest Passage. EIA recognizes that this increased ship traffic will drastically increase underwater noise within Arctic waters, impairing the ability of belugas and other vulnerable marine mammal species to effectively communicate, reproduce, and locate prey through sound. Continued exploration for oil and natural gas will also increase the likelihood of a catastrophic oil spill in the Arctic, which is particularly devastating due to very little spill response and cleanup infrastructure and capability.
As apex predators, belugas are also highly vulnerable to pollution within the marine environment which can compromise immunity and contribute to a reduction in body condition and reproductive fitness. Exposure to pollutants can also lead to contamination of beluga whale prey, further impacting overall health status.