Hong Kong Customs displays 82.5kg of rhino horns from South Africa and destined for Malaysia. Photo: ISD

Belugas & Narwhals

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.

Cook Inlet Beluga Whales

One particular example of the critical need for increased protections of beluga whales is the highly endangered Cook Inlet population, located in southeast Alaska near the port city of Anchorage. This geographically and genetically distinct population only consists of about 279 individuals and at their current rate of decline (approx. 2.3% annually since 2008), the population faces a serious risk of functional extinction in about a decade. The major threats preventing the recovery of this imperiled population are cumulative stressors, including:

  • chronic underwater sound exposure from oil and gas exploration and increased vessel traffic within critical habitat
  • pollution and contaminant exposure (sewage discharge)
  • reduction in prey availability (low salmon productivity)  

The US Federal Government, through the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) – the agency charged with the management of Cook Inlet belugas, published a detailed population Recovery Plan (RP) in 2016. The RP identified and ranked ten potential threats to recovery and developed over 60 specific recovery actions aimed at reducing these threats. Since the publication of the plan, the decline of the population has only accelerated and the window of time to make meaningful interventions to save Cook Inlet belugas is closing. EIA is urging NMFS to re-examine its management approach to make dramatic changes to every aspect of its recovery plan, from permitting and pollution testing and stranding response to understanding the role of prey availability and climate change to the population.

Narwhals

Narwhals, similar to belugas, reside within Arctic waters and are highly dependent on robust annual sea ice presence. They are considered at high risk from the impacts of climate change due to their more restricted habitat range and narrow prey preference. Increasing human activities like commercial shipping or oil and natural gas explorations in the Arctic generally, and in Baffin Bay especially, are also a risk to narwhals. Growing threats such as noise, potential oil spills, and marine debris could jeopardize this species’ overall health and survival.

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