Monday April 22, 2019
Home Lead Story ‘Unicor...

‘Unicorns of the Sea’ Are Under Threat Due To Arctic Shipping

Polar bears, on the other hand, seem to be the best equipped to deal with vessel traffic during September

0
//
Personnel stand aboard the Finnish icebreaker MSV Nordica as it arrives into Nuuk, Greenland, after traversing the Northwest Passage through the Canadian Arctic Archipelago, July 29, 2017.
Personnel stand aboard the Finnish icebreaker MSV Nordica as it arrives into Nuuk, Greenland, after traversing the Northwest Passage through the Canadian Arctic Archipelago, July 29, 2017. VOA

The polar bear may be the classic poster child for climate change, but it is far from the only animal threatened by a warming Arctic. Because the region is warming two to three times more quickly than the rest of the planet, the rapidly melting sea ice is opening new shipping lanes. New research suggests increased vessel traffic through Arctic waters is putting narwhals and other cetaceans at risk.

The receding ice has cleared the historically dangerous Northwest Passage, and the Northern Sea Route along Russia’s northern coast, dramatically increasing maritime traffic in what was once relatively untouched ocean.

“We’re on the precipice,” Donna Hauser from the University of Alaska Fairbanks said. “We’re poised for a lot of vessel traffic to increase in the Arctic. Part of what motivated the study [was to] understand where we’re at and where we need to go.”

Hauser was interested in assessing the vulnerability of Arctic marine mammals to shipping activity, to protect both the species themselves and the people who rely on them. “All of these species are really important resources for indigenous communities throughout the Arctic as well as in Alaska and in the Alaskan Arctic in particular.”

Hauser and her co-authors looked at seven species: beluga whales, narwhals, bowhead whales, ringed seals, bearded seals, walruses, and polar bears. They created a vulnerability measure based on a combination of the animal’s exposure to shipping traffic and their general sensitivity. Importantly, these measures refer only to vulnerability during September, when sea ice is at its lowest point and most ships pass through Arctic waters.

Their research found that narwhals and other whale species were the most vulnerable to late summer ship traffic, and polar bears were the least, with pinnipeds (walruses and seals) in between.

That does not surprise Randall Reeves, chairman of the Marine Mammal Commission Committee of Scientific Advisors.

A bearded Arctic seal, nicknamed Tama-chan by local residents, swims in the waters of the Tsurumi River in Kawasaki, near Tokyo, Japan.
A bearded Arctic seal, nicknamed Tama-chan by local residents, swims in the waters of the Tsurumi River in Kawasaki, near Tokyo, Japan. VOA

“They [narwhals and belugas] are used to living in an extremely quiet world,” he told VOA.

The noise of ice-breaking ships and other maritime vessels is extremely disruptive to these cetaceans, as co-author Kristin Laidre of the Polar Ice Center points out.

“That underwater noise is a disturbance for marine mammals, especially different whale species that rely on sound to pretty much do everything,” she said.

Narwhals in particular are at risk because of their high exposure to vessels in the Northwest Passage which receives more traffic than the Northern Sea Route. The combined effect of high exposure and sensitivity mean these so-called unicorns of the sea are in the most perilous position of all the Arctic marine mammals, with other whales facing similar but less extreme circumstances.

Polar bears, on the other hand, seem to be the best equipped to deal with vessel traffic during September.

“At that time of year,” said Laidre, “polar bears tend to be either on land or they followed the pack ice north.”

A pod of narwhals is seen in central Baffin Bay off of the North Atlantic Ocean near Greenland.
A pod of narwhals is seen in central Baffin Bay off of the North Atlantic Ocean near Greenland. VOA

This means they were not exposed to the same level of noise and disruption as the marine mammals like whales and seals.

In addition, Hauser noted that polar bears “don’t use sound in the same way as the other marine mammals do and so some of those things that make the other species sensitive to vessels aren’t as big a factor for polar bears.”

This is the first study to compare effects of increased ship traffic across the major Arctic marine mammal species and determine which animals might be most in need of conservation efforts.

A pod of narwhals is seen in central Baffin Bay off of the North Atlantic Ocean near Greenland.
A pod of narwhals is seen in central Baffin Bay off of the North Atlantic Ocean near Greenland. VOA

“We’re no longer in an Arctic state that was experienced by [1845 British Captain Sir John] Franklin or some of those early Western explorers,” said Hauser. “There’s a whole suite of different aspects that are potentially impacting the Arctic marine mammal species.”

In order to help protect these ‘sentinel species’ and the whales in particular, the authors of the study suggest requiring ships to move at slower speeds to reduce strikes of whales that swim or rest at or just below the surface.

In addition, placing limits on the amount of noise vessels can make will protect whales’ delicate hearing.

“It’s not realistic to think we’re going to stop people from taking advantage of these passages through formerly pristine regions,” said conservationist Reeves. The ships are going to go there.”

Also read: Threat of untreated human waste lurking large on the “dancing deer” of Manipur

However, by understanding which marine mammals are at risk, researchers can help plan for an uncertain future. (VOA)

Next Story

Judge Overturns Trump’s Attempt to Open Vast Areas of Arctic, Atlantic to Oil and Gas Leasing

The Obama-imposed leasing prohibitions will remain in effect unless and until revoked by Congress, Gleason said in her ruling

0
judge, oil, arctic, atlantic
Chukchi Sea, between U.S. and Russia. VOA

A federal judge in Alaska has overturned U.S. President Donald Trump’s attempt to open vast areas of the Arctic and Atlantic oceans to oil and gas leasing.

The decision issued late Friday by U.S. District Judge Sharon Gleason leaves intact President Barack Obama’s policies putting the Arctic’s Chukchi Sea, part of the Arctic’s Beaufort Sea and a large swath of the Atlantic Ocean off the U.S. East Coast off-limits to oil leasing.

Trump’s attempt to undo Obama’s protections was unlawful and a violation of the federal Outer Continental Shelf Lands Act, Gleason ruled. Presidents have the power under that law to withdraw areas from the national oil and gas leasing program, as Obama did, but only Congress has the power to add areas to the leasing program, she said.

oil, arctic, atlantic, judge
Trump’s attempt to undo Obama’s protections was unlawful and a violation of the federal Outer Continental Shelf Lands Act, Gleason ruled. VOA

The Obama-imposed leasing prohibitions will remain in effect unless and until revoked by Congress, Gleason said in her ruling.

Trump’s move to put offshore Arctic and Atlantic areas back into play for oil development came in a 2017 executive order that was part of his energy dominance agenda. The order was among a series of actions that jettisoned Obama administration environmental and climate-change initiatives.

Expanded program

The Trump administration has proposed a vastly expanded offshore oil leasing program to start this year. The five-year Trump leasing program would offer two lease sales a year in Arctic waters and at least two lease sales a year in the Atlantic. The Trump plan also calls for several lease sales in remote marine areas off Alaska, like the southern Bering Sea, that are considered to hold negligible potential for oil.

Obama had pulled much of the Arctic off the auction block following a troubled offshore Arctic exploration program pursued by Royal Dutch Shell. Shell spent at least $7 billion trying to explore the Chukchi and part of the Beaufort. The company wrecked one of its drill ships in a grounding and completed only one well to depth. It abandoned the program in 2015 and relinquished its leases.

judge, arctic, atlantic, oil
FILE – The lagoon complex is seen in the Izembek National Wildlife Refuge, located in Alaska’s Aleutian Islands, in this U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service picture taken Aug. 24, 2010. VOA
Gleason, in a separate case, delivered another decision Friday that blocked the Trump administration’s effort to overturn an Obama-era environmental decision.
Gleason struck down a land trade intended to clear the way for a road to be built though sensitive wetlands in Alaska’s Izembek National Wildlife Refuge. The Obama administration, after a four-year environmental impact statement process, determined that the land trade and road would cause too much harm to the refuge to be justified.

ALSO READ: Ebola Treatment Center in Congo Resumes Operations after Attack

Trump’s then-interior secretary, Ryan Zinke, broke the law when he summarily reversed the Obama policy without addressing the facts found in the previous administration’s study of the issue, Gleason ruled. (VOA)