Climate change, increased traffic pose potent hazards, wildlife federation warns

Troubled waters threaten Arctic whales


Belugas, narwhals and bowhead whales may be in deep trouble due to climate change, warns a new report from the World Wildlife Federation.

Whales in Hot Water? says Arctic whales could be driven from the region by changes to water temperature and salinity, melting ice floes in some areas and heavier ice cover in others, increased ship traffic and food shortages.

At the same time, higher water temperatures could affect the whales' ability to breed and fight off new diseases.

The WWF argues climate change will hit Arctic whales in a "particularly dramatic" way because scientists expect the Arctic to warm more quickly and intensely than other regions.

But Nunavut's wildlife managers don't seem to be prepared for these changes, says the WWF's Peter Ewins.

"In Nunavut, you still have a chance – you can plan for change. It's called 21st century regional planning. Just go do it! Inuit recognize that this is the time to plan," he said. "These whales, polar bears, Inuit lifestyle and survival are impacted by climate change."

Ewins said more planning needs to be done now, so that hunting of whales by Inuit remains sustainable.

"It's nowhere even close [to happening] now, and industrial, military, fishing, mines and oil and gas decisions are being made. These decisions are being made in the complete absence of conservation planning," Ewins said. "It's totally bizarre, or unaccountable that anyone should be even considering these decisions, without having a proper plan in place."

Sea ice melt is a major threat to Arctic whales, says the WWF. Summertime sea ice in the Arctic may disappear by 2020, the U.S. National Snow and Ice Centre said last month.

Reduced ice cover is expected to trigger a boom in Arctic ship traffic in the Northwest Passage.

Bowhead whales are extremely sensitive to disturbance, say studies cited by the WWF. With increased ship traffic and industrial development in the Northwest Passage, bowheads could abandon familiar feeding areas and "fare badly" overall, the WWF suggests.

Ships and trawlers present lethal hazards to these large whales. Of 292 large whale-ship collisions looked at in one study, nearly seven in 10 were fatal and nearly two in 10 resulted in serious injury. Whales are also frequently caught along with fish in the large underwater nets pulled by trawlers.

And belugas and narwhals, which also use the Northwest Passage during the summer, could flee the area if they encounter increased traffic, fishing and gas and oil development, the WWF's Whales in Hot Water? says. Studies have shown belugas swim rapidly away from icebreakers even when these ships are 30 to 50 kilometres away.

Less ice could also leave belugas more exposed to killer whale predation, the report says.

To protect whales from the impact of climate change, the WWF wants to see cuts to greenhouse gas emissions, limits to ship traffic and commercial fishing and the creation of more whale sanctuaries.

The WWF released Whales in Hot Water? only days before the start-up of this past week's annual meeting of International Whaling Commission in Anchorage, Alaska.

The 75-nation commission, which regulates global whaling, banned commercial hunts in 1986. Canada is not a member of the IWC, but watches its decisions closely.

This year aboriginal whaling quotas were up for a five-year renewal, but a 75 per cent majority of members is required to change any policies.

With little consensus among the IWC's members, the IWC was expected to maintain the moratorium on commercial whaling. Only Iceland and Norway now commercially whale in defiance of the moratorium.

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