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.