Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Ice entrapments an increasing concern for Arctic whales

            The recent news about the beluga whales caught in an ice entrapment north of Russia reminded me of the last such event that made the news, one that entrapped 600 narwhals just off Baffin Island in northern Canada.  Given the changing ice conditions caused by global warming, our Arctic whales are likely to experience increasing numbers of ice entrapments in coming years.
Entrapped belugas await icebreaker in Russian Arctic
On that November day back in 2008, the ice near the village of Pond Inlet apparently closed suddenly, leaving the whales just a few small holes from which to breathe.  Those holes were closing, too, while the next nearest place to surface and breathe was believed to be about 30 miles away.  The animals were certain to die, so the Pond Inlet Hunters and Trappers Organization advised its members, with approval by federal officials from the Department of Fisheries and Oceans, to kill the narwhals rather than let them suffer and die.  As heartbreaking as the situation was, it was probably the right decision – the entrapment was a natural event, the whales were certain to die after what would surely have been a long and stressful experience, and their harvest by the hunters not only reduced the animals’ suffering but provided an unexpected bounty to the local Inuit communities.
Entrapments such as this are extremely rare.  David Angnetsiak, a 50-ish hunter in Pond Inlet, told me it was the only time in his life that he had seen narwhals inescapably trapped. He said that most of the entrapped narwhals were females and young, reflecting the Inuit belief that bull narwhals can hold their breath longer and were probably better able to reach open ocean. The last such entrapment that local hunters remember occurred in 1943.
While news reports indicated that federal officials said the harvest was the most humane way to deal with the entrapment, there was considerable public outcry that the government didn’t send in an icebreaker to open a passage for the trapped whales.  The Humane Society International/Canada called the government decision “unconscionable” and noted that the narwhal harvest was “inherently inhumane.”  Others from the South agreed, though Mike Richards, a special administrative officer for Pond Inlet, told the Globe and Mail of Toronto that “It’s just a misfortune of nature.”
Ice entrapments, called savssats by the Inuit, are an increasing concern and they probably happen much more often than records suggest, since the Arctic is so thinly populated and no one is around to observe or document entrapments in the vast majority of the region.  Nonetheless, narwhal biologist Kristin Laidre told me that four ice entrapments that resulted in the deaths of more than 700 narwhals occurred in 2008 and 2009 – the first one ever documented in East Greenland, as well as two in northwest Greenland and the very large one near Pond inlet.
Laidre is beginning to examine the distribution and timing of known ice entrapments and look at the trends in the breakup of sea ice on the narwhal’s summering grounds. She has found what she calls “strongly significant trends” that suggest that the ice is forming later and later.  “Over a 30 year period there is a three to four week difference in when the ice forms,” she said.  “If ice formation is a clue to the narwhals that it’s time to get out of their summering grounds, then the trigger is changing, the pattern is changing.”  Is that change in the formation of ice making narwhals more vulnerable to ice entrapments?  Laidre hypothesizes that it may be the case, though there is precious little data from which to draw conclusions just yet.  But the hints she has found so far are another indication of the dangerous implications of global warming.

Friday, November 18, 2011

Tracking migrating narwhals

Many news outlets have reported this month about a study in northern Canada aimed at tracking narwhal migrations by attaching satellite tracking devices to the whales and monitoring their movements.  It’s a great project that will hopefully shed new light on population dynamics, migratory corridors, and how declining sea ice is affecting the species.
Some news reports suggested that this project is new, but that’s not true.  The effort has been underway for about a decade, and I spent two weeks with the researchers in the summer of 2010 in the same location they worked this year in a challenging effort to capture narwhals for study.
Narwhal research camp in Tremblay Sound
Based in Tremblay Sound, a fjord in northern Baffin Island in the province of Nunavut, the 13-man research team started out by spending more than a day just setting up camp – which included 1,800 pounds of food, three gas grills, two zodiacs and outboard motors and drums of fuel, giants nets, high-tech scientific equipment, and a 25-foot tall radio antenna.  As we finished preparing camp, we all glanced up in unison as our first massive movement of narwhals swam by. 
Like a child’s bath, at first we just heard gentle splashing noises in the distance from the narwhals’ repeated surfacing for air and an occasional whooshing sound as they exhaled.  Then the whales came into view, swimming in groups of threes and fours and sixes, most appearing quite dark like they were not yet very old, some with pinkish gray calves that looked like tiny swimming sausages, and all porpoising at the same speed in the same direction with little concern for the crowd of onlookers standing on the shore less than 50 yards away.  As we watched, our mouths hung open and I could barely catch my breath, so pleased were we with their seeming tameness and abundance.  There must have been 200 of them, and they took more than 10 minutes to pass our camp.  If the scientists had worried about whether narwhals were going to be in the area, those worries quickly disappeared.  Little did we know then that what we believed were the same animals would swim by us repeatedly two or three times a day for the next several weeks.  Watch my video of the narwhals parading by.
Researchers capture a narwhal for tagging.
Unfortunately, we didn’t catch any narwhals while I was in camp.  Day after day, the whales approached the nets numerous times, and every time they must have detected the nets and swam under or around them.  After I left, however, the researchers acquired a different net that apparently was more difficult for the whales to detect, and just 30 minutes after the new net was deployed, they captured their first narwhal.  In the next four days they caught five more.
“You can count whales from the air, you can count them from land, you can see what the herd is doing, but you don’t really get an idea of what an individual does on a daily basis [without tagging them],” said Jack Orr, the chief scientist in charge of the project and a biologist with the Canada Department of Fisheries and Oceans.  “These tags provide us information on where they are geographically on the Earth, but we also get an idea of how they use the water column.  Tags will tell us how long a whale is at a certain depth, and then we can set up dive profiles…Coupling this with information on water depths and what animals use these depths – we know, for instance, that turbot (Greenland halibut) and crustaceans live on the bottom, we know that squid are pelagic so they’re in the water column – and working with other data on ice and other environmental parameters, we can determine what these animals are doing over the course of a year.  It gives us insights into not only its movements but also its behavior.”
By late November, all of the narwhals the team tagged the previous August were in the middle of Baffin Bay at the edge of the pack ice, exactly where it is known that most narwhals spend the winter.  But the scientists were intrigued to see that some of the tagged whales traveled together the entire route while others took widely varying routes to the same destination, including one who went all the way to West Greenland before returning to Baffin Bay.
It will be exciting to see what route this year’s tagged narwhals take to their wintering location, and if they return to Tremblay Sound next summer.

Saturday, August 13, 2011

Shipping, oil exploration add to narwhal threats

News from the Journal of Commerce this week indicates that about 350 cargo containers slip from transport ships into the ocean every year, and that number nearly doubles to 675 if a ship loses multiple containers at once.  It’s a much smaller number than the 10,000 containers per year that had been circulated for years, but still a worrisome figure.  It’s just one source of the abundance of trash in the world’s oceans and a continuing source of concern for the health of marine life, especially whales.
Until recently, Arctic marine life hasn’t had to worry much about massive ships traveling through its habitat and affecting its behavior.  But the retreating sea ice and the expected opening of the Northwest Passage is soon going to change that, as will the increasing efforts to explore and drill for oil and other minerals that previously had been inaccessible due to the ice.
According to The Wall Street Journal, the U.S. Geological Survey believes that there may be as many as 50 billion barrels of oil off the coast of Greenland, a quantity similar to that of Libya, which could provide an economic boost that would transform the island and sever its financial dependence on Denmark.  The expense of drilling in the region, along with the short drilling season and the risks that oil rigs would get rammed by icebergs, had made oil drilling in the region unattractive.  But increasing oil prices, satellite tracking of icebergs, and warming temperatures have created a huge opportunity and growing interest among oil companies around the world.
The political wrangling over what country controls the rights to oil and gas and other minerals at the North Pole, including the bizarre effort by two Russian submersibles to stake aclaim to the area by placing that country’s flag on the seafloor at the pole, is a testament to the great potential wealth to be found there.  In 2010, a British company drilled the first exploratory oil wells off Greenland in more than a decade, and the same year the government awarded more than a dozen new exploration licenses to companies from several nations.
These developments are alarming to a number of groups, including those concerned about the health of narwhal populations.  Narwhals are skittish and the noise and increased shipping resulting from increased industrial activity is certain to be a significant disturbance to their feeding, migration and communication, to say nothing of the threat of oil spills, which could be devastating. 
Representatives of the fishing industry in Greenland have also publicly expressed their concerns about the effect that oil exploration will have on commercial fishing, though some narwhal biologists worry about the fishermen, too.  It is predicted that the loss of sea ice will open up additional areas for expanded fishing for halibut, the primary prey of narwhals and a species with snow-white meat that is high in fat and reportedly rich in flavor, making it popular for sushi, sashimi and smoking.  It’s a worrisome possibility, especially considering that when commercial interests compete against wildlife for a resource, the animals almost always lose.
Narwhals have a very restricted diet, with Greenland halibut being their predominant prey.  Halibut are widely distributed in the North Atlantic, and commercial fishermen traditionally harvested about 20,000 tons per year in the fjords of northwest Greenland using long-lines and gillnets.  An additional offshore fishery developed in the 1990s in Davis Strait that now captures more than 10,000 tons of halibut each year, and efforts are underway to open up additional fishing grounds in the deep waters of central Baffin Bay, where most narwhals do the majority of their feeding. The more the ice recedes, the more fishing is likely to take place, leaving fewer and fewer resources for the narwhals and adding to the increasing headaches the whales will face from the industrialization of Arctic waters.

Friday, July 29, 2011

Narwhals contributing to mounting climate change data

While the major heat wave last week may only hint at the long term climate changes taking place on Earth, the indisputable evidence from around the world – especially in the Arctic – continues to mount.  Even narwhals have been used to collect climate data.
Photo by Paul Nicklen
University of Washington biologist Kristin Laidre has found a new and unusual use for what may be the narwhal’s greatest behavioral claim to fame – their incredible ability to dive to great depths.  In 2006 and 2007, Laidre successfully attached satellite transmitters to14 narwhals in Melville Bay on the west coast of Greenland, and in addition to collecting data on the animals’ geographic positioning, the tags also recorded the temperature of the water as they dived to the bottom.  While Laidre knew that temperature data would be somewhat insightful to her narwhal research, she also guessed that oceanographers and climatologists might find the data useful as well.  It is difficult to use traditional oceanographic measuring devices to monitor water temperatures at great depths, especially in the winter when the water is frozen over for many months.  As a result, researchers have little data from the middle of Baffin Bay to feed into their climate models.  Instead, they have used temperature readings from coastal locations or estimates calculated from historic data, which clearly provide only a hint of the true picture.
“The gliders that oceanographers occasionally use to collect this data sort of look like a streamlined narwhal, with a long pointy antenna, but they’re not as smart as narwhals because sometimes they can’t find the surface and get caught under the ice,” Laidre said. When the narwhal-collected temperature data was published in a scientific journal in 2010, it generated considerable media attention, not only for what oceanographers learned about water temperatures but also for the unusual way the data were collected.  Thanks to the narwhals, water temperatures were determined to be about 1.8 degrees F warmer than what the climate models predicted, and the surface isothermal layer – a layer of water that is at a constant temperature – was 160-260 feet thinner than previously believed.
“I’m not an oceanographer, but for me the excitement was the proof of concept -- that it worked and we collected useful data and the scientific community seemed to be interested in it,” Laidre added. “[The data] suggested that Baffin Bay has continued its warming trend, though I don’t know that it was terribly surprising to the oceanographers.”
Similar data is being collected by narwhals along the East Greenland coast this year.

Saturday, July 23, 2011

The marine world's champion deep divers

            The extreme hot weather that has taken over most of the U.S. in the last week or more has most of us wishing for an opportunity to dive into the ocean.  And yet here at the beaches of New England, the water is too cold for most people to spend much time in without a wetsuit.  That’s not a problem for narwhals, of course, as they are among the champion deep divers of the marine world and are well suited to doing so in the coldest of waters.
          With a layer of blubber three or four inches thick, narwhals have no difficulties surviving in the extreme cold.  At great depths, where it is often even colder but where they must dive to feed, they are faced with pressures greater than 2,200 pounds per square inch, which they withstand with a flexible and compressible rib cage that can be squeezed without harming them as pressure increases. To carry along enough oxygen to sustain them on deep dives of up to 25 minutes, they have evolved several nifty solutions, including an enormous concentration of oxygen-binding myoglobin in their muscles, more than twice that of most seals and eight times as much as land animals, enabling them to swim under water at speeds of one meter per second for 20 minutes without taking another breath.  With muscles better suited for endurance than for speed, narwhals can save even more oxygen by turning off the blood flow to non-critical organs and other body parts.
When they are diving to feed on the bottom, they often do so repeatedly to depths in excess of 1,500 meters.  The transit from the surface to the bottom is typically a 30 minute round trip, mostly spent swimming straight down and straight back up.  During most of the year, they make that round trip 10-20 times a day every day all day long. 
But Jack Orr, a biologist with the Canada Department of Fisheries and Oceans, told me that narwhals may also use several other diving strategies.  When they are living in dense ice, they may often use a V dive for feeding and a U dive for finding their next breathing hole.  During a V dive, the animals dive straight down to feed at a certain location where they know they can find food, and then they swim straight back up to the surface to a different known breathing hole.
          “Whereas with a U dive,” Orr said, “they’re going down and then going horizontal for a while and then they’ll start their dive up toward the surface again.  What we presume is that they’re getting to a certain depth and then using their echolocation to find their next breathing hole. If you’re 400 meters below the surface and you start looking for a hole and you find one 400 meters away versus 50 meters away, then you can decide whether you have enough breath to go forward to the next hole or, no, I don’t have the air so I have to go back to my original hole.  These animals are living in such dense ice over the winter months that they’re coming up in breathing holes that aren’t really even a hole that you would see at the surface.  That’s a behavior that they’ve adapted to navigate in dense pack ice.”
Whatever they do down there and however they capture their prey, their extreme diving behavior certainly makes them unique among the world’s cetaceans, and gives me another reason to be in awe of their remarkable lifestyle.

Monday, July 11, 2011

Life in a Narwhal Hunting Camp

It was a year ago this week that I departed on my greatest adventure yet, traveling on seven flights over three-and-a-half days to reach the northernmost municipality on the planet, Qaanaaq, Greenland.  It was there that I joined up with Mads Ole Kristiansen to observe a subsistence hunt for narwhals.  It wasn’t what I would call fun, but it was an experience I’ll never forget.
The hunters watch for approaching narwhals
            When we arrived at the nearby hunting camp of Siunnertalik, Mads Ole said that narwhal hunting is mostly about waiting: sit high on an overlook in the cold and wind and stare through binoculars while waiting for a narwhal to surface close enough to approach in your handmade kayak.  That could take hours or days, depending on the whim of the narwhals.  When a narwhal is sighted, the hunters rush to launch their kayaks, but even then they spend a long time sitting quietly on the water waiting for the animals to resurface, then reposition themselves and wait again for them to come closer.  And when the whales don’t come close enough, the hunters return to camp where the waiting and watching resumes.  For the next 15 hours, we waited and watched.  My hands and feet were numb within the first 15 minutes.
           It was quickly apparent that time has little meaning there.  By 3 a.m., five hours after I would normally have been asleep, the camp was still lively, food was being shared, and hot tea was still being offered.  Two more families of hunters had arrived, their two children were still awake and exploring the nooks and crannies around camp, and the men were sitting on a driftwood log talking quietly and watching for narwhals.  Their wives were watching from high above at the observation point. 
Mads Ole strikes the narwhal with his harpoon.
Mads Ole and I were warming up in the tent when someone called out from the lookout at 4:02 a.m. that narwhals were approaching. Before I even understood what was happening, Mads Ole dashed out of the tent, ran up to the observation point, and quickly verified the location of the whales.  Then he jumped into his kayak and took off, followed shortly by the other two hunters.  When I finally climbed to the lookout and raised my binoculars, I could see dozens of narwhals in all directions.  From my vantage point it appeared that the hunters were surrounded by narwhals, some of which looked as if they were very close to the kayaks, yet the hunters sat still, not paddling closer, and never hoisting their harpoons. It was exciting to watch, but probably quite frustrating for the patient hunters.  At 5:07 the hunters returned to camp, but as they were climbing out of their kayaks, another call came out that more narwhals were approaching quite close to camp.  Only Mads Ole decided to try again.
Within minutes he was in perfect position to intercept at least a dozen narwhals swimming in a line towards him.  He waited, unmoving, then took a couple paddle strokes, then waited some more.  The narwhals came closer, and several swam right by him, appearing to me like they were just arms’ length away, and still he didn’t move.  Then three narwhals surfaced at once just behind him, and as they went under, he paddled alongside them and lifted his harpoon, but they resurfaced too far away, so he lowered it again.  I thought he had missed his best opportunity, but two whales trailed the group, surfaced, dived, and when they surfaced again, one was right beside Mads Ole.  He quickly raised his harpoon, held it in the air for what I thought was far too long, and threw it.  The harpoon struck the narwhal in the flank, and the animal responded with a sharp slap of its tail and dived, taking with it the sealskin float to keep it from sinking. 
A celebratory cheer rang out from the hunters and their families, and surprisingly, from me as well. As difficult as it was for me to watch, I was pleased for the hunters that they were successful in providing food for their table for the coming months. And I was pleased to be offered a piece of muktuk – raw skin and blubber from the freshly killed whale – to help them celebrate the hunt. But I was equally pleased that their success meant that I could return South again from the coldest summer of my life.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Challenge dropped in tusk export ban

The battle between the Canada Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO) and Nunavut narwhal hunters over the export of narwhal tusks took a new turn this week.  According to an article in Nunatsiaq News, a publication serving Inuit communities in the Far North, a group that advocates for the economic and social well-being of the Inuit has withdrawn its legal challenge of the Canadian government’s ban on exporting narwhal tusks.
            The ban was announced last December when DFO biologists determined that narwhals were being overhunted in 17 Nunavut communities and a ban was necessary to meet the government’s obligations under the Convention on the International Trade in Endangered Species.  The advocacy group Nunavut Tunngavik Inc. immediately challenged the decision in court on the grounds that the ban violated the Nunavut Land Claims Agreement.  The group withdrew its challenge this week and instead has decided to try to hammer out an agreement with government officials.
            Inuit hunters in the eastern Canadian Arctic kill about 500 narwhals and sell about 120 tusks overseas each year. Tusks can sell for more than $1,000 each. 
            While most in the Canadian Inuit community argue that narwhal hunting is necessary for the subsistence of the human residents, many observers I spoke to say that the hunt is almost entirely focused on killing male narwhals to sell their tusks.  The only time I saw narwhal hunters in Canada, I heard at least nine gunshots and later saw the remains of one narwhal on shore, its tusk removed and very little edible flesh was taken.  The hunters reported that they had killed one more narwhal but the whale sunk before they could retrieve it.
            I have no problem with subsistence hunting.  The time I spent at a narwhal hunting camp in Qaanaaq, Greenland, where the hunters carved up virtually every last piece of the animal they harvested for their dinner table, reinforced that belief. But killing whales to sell their tusks to overseas collectors doesn’t seem right to me, especially if the hunt negatively affects narwhal populations.  And no one in the Canadian narwhal hunting community was willing to talk to me about it.  The government scientists only hinted at the difficult politics involved, the wildlife managers wouldn’t return my messages or wouldn’t go on record as saying anything substantive, and the hunters themselves, including the local hunters associations, didn’t want to have anything to do with me.
            As I wrote in a posting here in March, independent biologist Kerry Finley worries that hunting of narwhals exclusively for their tusks will have serious repercussions on the evolution of the species. “Never in evolutionary history has so much powerful selection pressure been meted against that portion of the population that has survived to adulthood and carries the best genes for survival,” he told me in an email. “Several recent studies have shown that such strong selection pressure has had a profound genetic effect by, for example, reducing the size of the main sexual attractant (e.g. size of bighorn sheep horns in the Canadian Rockies). It also has profound effects on social organization and breeding success.”
           So for now I’m siding with the government’s ban on exporting narwhal tusks from Canada.  (A similar ban is in effect in Greenland for different reasons.)  The ban doesn’t stop the Inuit from hunting narwhals, and they can even still sell tusks to buyers within Canada. While the ban may make the hunters’ wallets a little thinner, the health of the narwhal population may be at stake.

Sunday, June 12, 2011

Celebrating Fulcrum

 Today was supposed to be my first whale watching experience of the year, but heavy rain and thunderstorms on Cape Cod made the trip a washout. It didn’t stop me, however, from reminiscing about previous trips, especially my multiple encounters with Fulcrum, whose propeller-damaged dorsal fin and unfortunate entanglement in fishing gear made her somewhat of a celebrity in the region.
Photo by Capt. John Whale Watching Tours
            My first sighting of Fulcrum was in September 2005, when we stumbled across her on a routine whale watching trip, and because of her entanglement, we stood guard with her for about two hours as a disentanglement crew from the Provincetown Center for Coastal Studies rushed out to try to remove the ropes and monofilament netting wrapped around her flipper and caught in her mouth. The crew leader later told me it was the “summer of Fulcrum,” as they repeatedly and unsuccessfully tried to remove the gear throughout the summer and fall.
            When Fulcrum disappeared at the end of the season, still entangled, and wasn’t seen the following year, it was assumed that she succumbed to the ropes, which had made it difficult for her to swim and feed efficiently and even more difficult to dive deeply.
            But in 2007, as I traveled with researchers who were surveying the region for humpbacks and collecting biopsy samples for DNA analysis, I was startled from gazing across the calm sea by celebratory shouts of glee from the biologists.  I had joined the team for preliminary research for my book about New England’s rarest marine creatures, Basking With Humpbacks, and I had almost forgotten about my previous Fulcrum experience.  But there she was again, this time with no ropes marring her progress.  And this time she was traveling with her first calf.  Given the stresses she underwent during her entanglement, no one was sure she was even alive and certainly no one expected that she would have given birth so soon.
            It was a good sign, not only for this iconic humpback whale, but also for humpback populations in general, which have rebounded from the era of commercial whaling in the Atlantic to the point where discussions are being held about whether they should be removed from the endangered species list. While that move may be a little premature, it’s wonderful to see these charismatic animals plying the New England coastal waters in healthy numbers.  I just wish the weather had cooperated a little more and I could have seen those healthy whales for myself this weekend.

Monday, May 30, 2011

Recalling my amazing narwhal adventures

I almost wish that I had started research on my narwhal book a year later.  Because that would mean that I might have had an opportunity to join a team of Oceans North Canada scientists in the first research expedition to follow narwhals as they migrate from the coast of Greenland to the fjords of Canada’s Nunavut province.  They depart this week and will survey the numbers of narwhals, belugas, bowheads and other whales they see, monitor migrating whale sounds, survey seabirds and trawl for plankton as part of a polar bear food-chain study. Sounds like a great trip.
            But I can’t complain too much.  I’ve had plenty of pretty spectacular narwhal adventures of my own.  The midnight jousting session 50 feet from my campsite on a beach in Koluktoo Bay, the first time I had a clear look at a narwhal tusk, may be the most mesmerizing moment of my life, and thinking back on it now more than two years later still gives me a jolt of excitement that I pray never diminishes.  I’m still not sure whether it was the quiet, slow-motion activities of the whales, the spectacular rocky hillsides and iceberg-filled waters, or the unexpectedness of the experience after having already gone to bed that makes that observation rise to the top in my mind.  But it does. 
          And yet there were plenty of other moments that I won’t soon forget either. The parade of narwhals traveling back and forth day after day in Tremblay Sound, skillfully avoiding the researchers’ nets and providing a daily dose of frustration while impressing us at the same time with their remarkable navigational abilities. The more determined parade of narwhals streaking close by our boat in Eclipse Sound, caring not a whit for the threat we posed, for they were far more concerned about escaping from the pod of hungry killer whales that was chasing them.  The honks and moos and twitters and whistles and creaky doors and other bizarre sounds the whales made as I listened in on their conversations with a hydrophone in the middle of Kolukotoo Bay.  The first time I touched a narwhal – still warm after having been killed just minutes earlier – its skin soft and leathery and firm all at once, and my first taste of its blubber and its meat soon afterwards, something I’ll never say was tasty but which I’m pleased to have shared with the proud hunters.
            I have had weeks of adventures that make me more enamored of the narwhal than when I started writing my book about them.  How it can thrive in its icy world and find food in the dark depths will always amaze me.  And yet despite their great skill and flexibility and physiological adaptations that enable them to undertake their entire life cycle in conditions that few creatures can withstand, and despite what I’ve learned about their somewhat stable populations from the world’s experts, I still worry about them. 
            Today, though, I’m just enjoying those amazing memories.  If you want to keep track of the Oceans North Canada expedition as it follows the narwhal migration, check out www.oceansnorth.org/2011-arctic-whale-survey.

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

No soup for you - Banning shark finning

When I arrived at the Inuit hunting camp to observe a subsistence narwhal hunt not far from Qaanaaq, Greenland, the northernmost municipality on Earth, there were no narwhals to be seen.  But sitting on the beach decomposing were two Greenland sharks.  The hunters told me that the sharks had been scavenging the narwhals that the hunters had harpooned before they were able to haul the whales to shore. So they killed the sharks.
            As disturbing as it was to see, even more disturbing is the practice of “finning” sharks – capturing them, slicing off their dorsal fins, and tossing the rest of the carcass into the water to die – and selling the fins to Asian markets for shark fin soup, a delicacy in China where it is consumed at weddings and other celebrations.  It’s not practiced in the Arctic, but it takes place in all of the other oceans of the world.
Fishermen can sell the fins for more than $40 dollars per pound, with some large fins from basking sharks going for as much as $50,000. (A market in California was selling the fins for up to $699 per pound this year.) Finning, banned in U.S. waters, is responsible for the death of tens of millions of sharks every year, which is causing great declines in shark numbers around the globe. And when the numbers of top predators decline drastically, it has a cascading affect on the entire ecosystem.
            Thankfully, public outcry about finning is beginning to show results.  Hawaii became the first state in the nation to ban the import and sale of shark fins this year, and Washington state soon followed suit.  This week a bill to ban shark fin soup in California, introduced by a Chinese-American legislator, passed the Assembly and is headed to the Senate.  Similar bills have been introduced in other states, including Oregon, where it has passed the House, though final passage is uncertain.
            Whit Sheard of the marine conservation group Oceana said that winning a ban in West Coast states is part of a campaign to build international support for protecting the sharks killed each year for soup. “It’s fantastic that in times like we are in now, something like this can get such enormous bipartisan support,” he told the Associated Press.
            But the battle is far from won. Even if it is banned across the U.S., the practice of finning sharks is still legal in most of the world’s oceans, and high demand for shark fin soup is keeping prices high, which provides an economic incentive for fisherman to continue the practice.  However, high profile Asian chefs, celebrities, and even basketball star Yao Ming have come out in opposition to shark fin soup, so momentum is building.
            Sharks reproduce slowly so it will take a long time to rebuild their populations, but these first steps look promising. And while sharks are responsible for the deaths of many marine mammals every year, including narwhals, they play a vital role in maintaining a healthy marine ecosystem.

Friday, May 20, 2011

The Narwhal Tusk Debate

            Numerous theories have been presented over the centuries to explain the function or purpose of the narwhal tusk, the strangest tooth in nature: as a spear for hunting or a tool for digging, as a weapon of defense or aggression, an instrument for breaking ice or sound propagation, or even as a swimming rudder or an organ for breathing.
Photo by Paul Nicklen

If you search the Internet for an answer, most of the results will be somewhat misleading. The answer you will no doubt find there is that the tusk is a sensory organ that the whale uses to somehow sense something about its environment.  That’s the conclusion of a Connecticut dentist, Martin Nweeia, who has done a great deal of study of the tusk.  But almost all of the narwhal biologists on the planet disagree.  Vehemently.  Yet the media picked up on Nweeia’s announcement of his findings and it raced around the Internet, much to the chagrin of the biologists. The sensory organ conclusion has found its way into natural history museum exhibits, award winning books, and respected publications around the world, yet even Nweeia would agree that he hasn’t amassed the scientific proof of his hypothesis.
The biologists, on the other hand, all stake their reputations on their belief that the narwhal tusk – the male whale’s left tooth, which spirals out to a length of up to eight feet -- is a “secondary sexual characteristic,” like the antlers on a deer, the tail of a peacock, and the mane of a lion.  It’s a physical adornment designed to attract a mate and demonstrate dominance over other males, they say. If it were important for sensing their environment, females would have one, too. (A tiny percentage of females do.) The scientists point to Charles Darwin, who argued in 1871 that “when the males are provided with weapons which the females do not possess, there can hardly be a doubt that they…have been acquired through sexual selection.” Half a century before Darwin, Arctic explorer William Scoresby concluded similarly: “It cannot be essential for procuring their food, or none of them would be without it: nor is it, perhaps, necessary for their defense, else the females and young would be subjected to the power of enemies without the means of resistance, while the male would be in possession of an admirable weapon for its protection.”
I’ve interviewed all of the parties involved, and all are passionate about their position.  Perhaps the harshest critic of the sensory organ theory is biologist James Finley, who wrote to me in an email, “The romance of the narwhal makes people want to fantasize all sorts of bizarre function.  Nweeia is dreaming. It continues to amaze me that practically every account of the narwhal, even some by biologists, has to end with the assertion that we still don’t know the function of the mysterious narwhal tusk. It’s no more mysterious than a moose’s antlers, yet we are loath to let the legend die.”
Nweeia’s conclusion is based on his finding that the tusk has millions of tiny tubules extending from the inner core of the tooth to the outer edge, unlike in any other mammalian tooth, enabling seawater to penetrate to the nerve endings in the tusk. From that finding, he drew his hypothesis about it being a sensory organ, and he has been working to prove it ever since by administering water of varying salinity levels to the tusk of live narwhals and observing their physiological reactions. It has taken five or six years of effort to get results from half a dozen animals, and he is convinced he is right. But he hasn’t published his results, so none of the biologists have been able to review his claim.
So the debate goes on. Though to call it a debate is overstating the situation, because – unlike most scientific debates – those on either side of the question have never communicated with each other.  It’s a stand-off with no end in sight. 

Friday, May 6, 2011

Pollutants in narwhal tissues raise concerns

I’ve paid close attention to the news this week noting that mercury levels are rising in Arctic marine mammals and that diabetes among Arctic natives is on the increase due to the pollutants in the whale meat they eat.  It got me thinking about what that means for narwhals.
Biologist Rune Dietz of Denmark’s National Environmental Research Institute has been investigating the contaminants in the marine environment that find their way into the animals’ vital organs, blubber, and other tissues -- even their tusks -- via the food chain.  While no studies have yet been conducted that have evaluated the health effects of contaminants like heavy metals and industrial chemicals on narwhals, Dietz found elevated levels of cadmium, selenium and mercury, as well as man-made organochlorines like PCBs and DDT, in tissue samples collected from 150 narwhals in Greenland.
These contaminants travel on prevailing winds in the atmosphere and are deposited in the Arctic in the rain and snow.  While concentrations of many contaminants in the environment are slowly decreasing over time, mercury – perhaps the most dangerous one because of the known deleterious effects it has on the brain and reproductive system – is increasing.  About 200 tons of mercury finds its way into the Arctic region each year, about 10 percent of the world’s emissions of mercury.  And the decline of multi-year sea ice due to global warming means that mercury that may have settled on the ice and was having little effect on wildlife is now finding its way into the marine environment where it is accumulating in the tissues of whales and other creatures.
Photo courtesy of Glenn Williams
Dietz is in the midst of several additional studies of mercury contamination in Arctic marine mammals. He has found that polar bears generally have low levels of mercury in their brains because they can rid their system of a substantial amount of mercury through their fur, a process whales cannot partake in since they have no fur. He is also analyzing mercury in the growth rings of narwhal tusks, which, like hair, teeth and feathers, can be a storehouse of pollutants.  “I can go out and get a two meter tusk and get the last 50 year history of that animal’s mercury contamination,” Dietz said. 
Dietz isn’t the only scientist examining narwhal tissue samples to better understand the health of the population. University of Manitoba scientist Gary Stern has collected samples of narwhal livers, kidneys, muscle and blubber to assess contaminants in the whales, and his results somewhat mirror those of Dietz.  He said that climate change may be exacerbating the problem because the accumulation of contaminants in narwhal tissues is dependent on the whales getting access to those contaminants.  As sea ice retreats, he said that more contaminated fish will be available for the whales to feed upon, making those contaminants “bioavailable.”
While Stern agrees with Dietz that little is known about the health impacts of these pollutants, he worries most about what he calls the “synergistic effects” from a wide range of challenges the animals are facing. 
“It’s hard to tell what affects the contaminants are having on their health, but they are one additional stressor they have to deal with,” he said.  “We still have no information that says directly that it’s affecting reproduction or having neurological effects; it’s hard to tell with an animal in the wild.  But these animals are under stress for a number of reasons – changing habitat, noise pollution – and contaminants are just another thing that acts synergistically to possibly making their immune systems not work as well.”

Friday, April 29, 2011

Ice Whale winter habitat 98% ice-covered

A research paper published in February but which received little attention in the popular press is a fascinating example of why narwhals could be considered the most extreme marine mammal on the planet.  The paper reports on an aerial survey of Baffin Bay in April 2008 that highlights the challenging conditions that narwhals live under in winter.
“During their migration, the ice begins to chase them south and they arrive in their wintering grounds and the ice just forms right around them,” explained biologist Kristin Laidre, who conducted the study.  “They become enveloped by the ice.  It’s very dense ice...and the ice floes are constantly changing, the leads are constantly opening and closing.”
Laidre’s objective in conducting the aerial survey was, in part, to quantify the amount of open water where the narwhals were found.  By combining the data collected on the aerial survey with satellite images of the sea ice, she determined that just two percent of the area surveyed was open water, and there were 18,000 narwhals there, or 77 narwhals per square kilometer of open water.
Narwhals surface to breathe in narrow opening in the sea ice. Photo by BBC.

“That means you have this large density of animals that need open water to breathe packed into a very small amount of habitat,” she said.  “The overall habitat area is large, but what’s actually usable to them is quite small.”
It is amazing to me that these remarkable animals can thrive in these conditions, where the risk that the ice could freeze over and provide no access to catch their breath seems absurdly high, where the area often appears totally frozen over to the naked eye, but somehow they eke out a living there.
It got me wondering why the narwhals stay there, when just 10 or 20 or 30 miles further south there is far less ice and the living conditions would be much easier. The answer, Laidre said, is partly because that’s simply how they have evolved.  “They really have a niche, they’re totally adapted to this pack ice, more than any other northern hemisphere cetacean, and they don’t have many competitors.  Why go further south when you’re adapted to live in the pack ice and don’t need to go further?”
But there’s more to it than that.  She said that it probably also has a great deal to do with competition and the partitioning of resources.  Narwhals, belugas and bowheads are the only whales that spend their entire lives in the Arctic, but there is a large pool of more southerly whales and marine mammals that come to the Arctic in summer to feed in its highly productive ecosystem.  Those subarctic species avoid the Arctic when it’s dark and ice-covered and miserably cold in the winter but move in during the spring and stay throughout the summer and early fall.  The narwhal has developed a strategy to exploit the ecosystem at a time when there are few competitors in an area where they know they have a reliable food supply available.  When the ice recedes, the Arctic whales move north just as the slew of subarctic species arrive in the area they just left.
“There are also theories that the narwhals avoid killer whales by living in the pack ice,” Laidre said.  “I don’t necessarily think that’s the case, because there are basically no killer whales in the Arctic in the winter.  There’s no good reason to just hide in the ice when, at that time, there is nothing to hide from.”
It’s just one more reason to be in awe of the ice whale of the Arctic.

Friday, April 22, 2011

Narwhals no fan of military, industrial noises

The news this week that the U.S. Navy is going to be allowed to “incidentally” harass marine mammals during tests of their sonar systems and unmanned submarines in the waters around Washington State is certainly worrisome in itself.  But it comes on the heels of an announcement that the Navy plans live fire tests in the Gulf of Alaska where the exercises could cause harm to whales and a report that training by the Navy off San Diego last month has been linked to at least three dolphin deaths.
                While most Americans will recognize the necessity of training by the Navy, there must be places it could be held where cetaceans are less likely to be affected.  A couple dozen species of marine mammals reportedly live in or pass through the area where the Washington State tests are to be conducted, and the Gulf of Alaska is famous for its marine mammal spectacle.
                It can be argued that military sonar has not been proven to negatively affect large baleen whales, but even the Navy admits that smaller toothed whales, especially beaked whales, are particularly sensitive to this type of sonar and are often killed or beach themselves. Although to my knowledge no military sonar tests have been conducted in the range of the narwhal, this species is a small toothed whale and is probably not immune. 
                Every narwhal biologist will agree, however, that narwhals are quite sensitive to even the slightest unnatural noise in their environment.  Inuit hunters told me that if they aren’t especially careful when paddling their kayaks and make a slight splashing noise, any nearby narwhals will dive and disappear.  The noise from the increased shipping and exploratory drilling for oil and minerals that is already resulting from the retreat of Arctic sea ice, while perhaps not killing the animals outright, is certain to cause them to abandon feeding, resting and breeding areas.  And during stressful times when the animals are competing for food and mates, these unnecessary and dangerous noises are the last thing they need. (Shipping noise is also known to be destructive to other marine life, including squid and octopus.)
                These man-made noises are also likely to affect communication by narwhals and their use of echolocation.  Little is known about narwhal vocalizations, though it is believed they have a sophisticated sound-based means of finding food and exploring their environment, much like many other cetaceans.  One scientist even believes that individual narwhals can be distinguished by their unique sounds, somewhat like a human accent or voice.  But those voices are of little use to them if they are being drowned out by military and industrial noises.

Sunday, April 17, 2011

Narwhals and Their Melting World

Last week’s news reports note that scientists now predict that the Arctic will be ice-free in summer as early as 2016.  While that may be somewhat welcome news to shipping companies seeking a more reliable route through the Northwest Passage or for oil exploration companies anticipating a longer working season, or even for those southern Greenlanders looking for a longer growing season, it is not good news for many Arctic marine mammals that depend on that ice as a feeding or resting platform or for a reliable place to find food.  And that certainly includes narwhals.
             A recent research study concluded that narwhals and polar bears are the Arctic species at greatest risk from a warming climate.  While the polar bear situation has been told many times, few reports have described how narwhals will be affected.  Kristin Laidre, a narwhal researcher at the University of Washington, told me that the impact of climate change on narwhals may come from a wide range of factors.  
View from Qaanaaq, Greenland, Aug. 2010

“These include not only sea ice loss, but also changes in ocean regimes, such as altered ocean temperatures, salinity or currents that may change distribution of prey,” she said.  “There are also human impacts.  There is considerable interest in oil exploration and drilling in the Arctic as the region warms and sea ice disappears.  This comes with increased shipping, for example, through the Northwest Passage, as well as other activities that could potentially disrupt migratory routes and feeding areas, such as competition from developing fisheries, noise and pollution…If you’re a species that relies on specific predictable prey resources and you go exactly where they are found, then if something happens and the system changes you have to be able to adapt your behavior.  To some extent, these indirect impacts may make narwhals more vulnerable than the direct impacts of sea ice loss.”
It’s the narwhal’s inflexibility that seems to make it more vulnerable to changes in its marine environment.  They have very specific habitat and dietary needs, and warming waters may move their preferred foods north and away from their preferred habitat.  The northward expansion of southern species of whales, especially killer whales (a main predator on narwhals), could end up increasing competition for food and alter predator-prey relationships.  It could also make them more vulnerable to disease, especially new diseases that may expand their range into the Arctic. The melting ice has also triggered plankton blooms, which provide the basis of the food web, to occur 50 days earlier than they did just 15 years ago.  And that could mean that food availability during important times of year will shift, with uncertain affects on narwhals and other whales.
So while narwhal populations are presently somewhat healthy, the warming climate makes their future precarious.

Monday, April 11, 2011

In Search of the Right Whale

Photos by Cynthia Brown, Provincetown Center for Coastal Studies

Long before I began my research into the life history of narwhals, I spent time learning about what may be the rarest mammal in North America, the North Atlantic right whale, for my 2007 book about endangered species in New England.  Instead of having to travel to the Arctic to see my target species as I’ve done for the last few years, I was treated to great views of right whales somewhat nearby in Cape Cod Bay, thanks to the generosity of Stormy Mayo and the Provincetown Center for Coastal Studies.
                This past weekend I returned to Provincetown with my wife Renay to see if we could get a look at the whales from shore, something she had never seen before despite repeated attempts.  Stormy told me that the whales had been congregating just offshore in the days leading up to the weekend, and he was right.  It only took us a few minutes to see our first right whale, and over the course of three days we saw more than a dozen whales cavorting within binocular-viewing of Race Point and even from our motel room window overlooking Provincetown harbor.
                Right whales breed off the coast of Georgia and northern Florida and migrate north in time to arrive in the waters around Cape Cod in late winter and early spring to feed on the abundance of copepods – shrimp-like crustaceans smaller than a grain of rice – that are found in the area at this time of year.  It’s a treacherous trip for the whales, and the news media has reported several becoming entangled in fishing gear and others dying from ship strikes or unknown causes during the journey this year.  But thankfully many of the whales survived the trip and put on quite a show for us.
                We watched as the whales cavorted in entertaining ways, like tail slapping, spy-hopping and my favorite behavior, skim-feeding – opening their mouths above the water’s surface and skimming food from the top of the water column.  While the whales were sometimes hard to see and even more difficult to count this weekend, from a distance it was easy to see the mist emitted from their blowholes as they surfaced for air and their frequent display of their flukes as they began a deep dive.  Right whales are impossible to misidentify, since they are the only large whale in the area that doesn’t have a dorsal fin, so we were confident of our sightings, though we did see one whale in the vicinity with a dorsal fin, which may have been a sei whale.
                Nonetheless, it was wonderful weekend of marine mammal sightings, which included looks at a pod of harbor porpoises and a gray seal (as well as an unfortunate look at a dead Atlantic white-sided dolphin on the beach).  While there is no guarantee of seeing whales from shore, and there are no commercial whale-watching trips at this time of year, a winter weekend in Provincetown in search of our rarest whale is absolutely worth the trip.