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Narwhal Conservation Efforts

The narwhal is a near threatened species of cetacean that lives in the Arctic sea.

Threats To Narwhals

Just like many marine mammals narwhals face a number of threats in their environment from hunting to global warming, we are going to cover a few today:

Hunting

For centuries narwhals have been hunted for their skin, blubber and their impressive ivory tusks. This tradition has continued into the modern day with Inuit communities in Canada & Greenland hunting the narwhal for its skin (which is eaten raw)¹ as well as their tusks which is a lucrative trade fetching $125 (USD) per foot! With the average narwhal tusk reaching almost 10 ft hunters are able to get up to $1,230!² It is worth noting that hunting is not the biggest threat to narwhals, as less that 1% of the population is killed by hunters each year.

Entrapment

This threat comes with the narwhals territory, entrapment is when the air temperature drops all of a sudden and the holes in the ice that narwhals use to breath freeze over leaving the narwhals trapped under the sea ice with no way of reaching the surface for air. This can affect tens of narwhals at a time as they all clamour to the limited number of breathing holes, and many often unfortunately end up suffocating or are trapped for their predators to pick off with ease.²

Global Warming

Narwhals are well adapted to living under packed sea ice, and their migration pattern is tied to the annual sea ice melting & forming. So any changes, like those we have been seeing in recent years, to the rates and timing of the sea ice melting can have a drastic effect on how narwhals breed and feed.² 

Their main food source is Arctic Cod which they compete for with belugas and seals. This could be threatened as this whole food chain relies on the health of phytoplankton which itself relies on sea ice for its energy, clinging to the bottom of the sea ice to produce food. If there is no sea ice or a diminished amount of sea ice then they are unable to produce as much food and in theory this would devastate the the entire food chain and limiting the amount of overall prey available. Less food for narwhals mean lower reproduction rates and increase risk of starvation.² 

Ships (Noise Pollution & Collision)

As with many other marine mammals the narwhal is susceptible to noise pollution. They use whistles to communicate with others in their pod and the noise created by ships and offshore drilling can confuse and disorientate them disrupting their migration patterns and impacting their use of echolocation.²

A study conducted on the reactions of beluga whales and narwhals when coming in contact with ships & marine traffic has found that the beluga whale will be alarmed by the oncoming vessel and speedily get out of its way, where as the narwhal will freeze and do not react as quickly to get out of the way, leading to a number of collisions which can do serious damage and even kill narwhals.²

How To Protect Narwhals

It is estimated that there are between 80,000 and 120,000 narwhals left in the wild, the last assessment made by the IUCN Red List was in July 2017 when there was around 123,000 mature individuals.³ 

There are only two communities in the world who are allowed to hunt narwhals, the indigenous communities of Canada and Greenland, these communities have been hunting the narwhal for centuries and it is considered part of their traditions to do so.⁴ Since 1972 narwhals have been a protected species and it is illegal to import them now to the United States.

The World Wildlife Fund is working to study and research the migrating pattern of narwhals by attaching satellite tags to individuals to follow their movements and find out more about their annual feeding and breeding routines to help better understand them and work out how to best protect them. They have also partnered with Natural Resource Defence Council and Ocean Conservation Research to address the threats to whale and dolphin species from ocean traffic and noise pollution.

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Sources:

1] ORCA - Narwhal

2] Science Buzz - The Effects of Declining Sea Ice on NarwhalsJoseph Giesbrecht, December 2018

3] IUCN Red List - Narwhal - July 2017

4] TakePart - Even the Unicorns of the Sea Can’t Escape Climate ChangeJohn R. Platt, March 18th 2015

5] The Boone Trading Company - Narwhal Ivory

6] World Wildlife Fund - Narwhal

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