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January Marks New Low for Sea Ice and a Dangerous Future for Belugas

By Dan Hubbell, EIA Wildlife Assistant Policy Analyst

In the new Arctic Ocean, shattering records for low sea ice have become an almost annual occurrence, and January 2016 suggests this year will be no exception. According to the National Snow and Ice Center, the sea ice extent in January was just 5.2 million square miles, roughly 7.1 percent below the recorded average. This is just a year after the Arctic Ocean recorded its lowest maximum ice extent, and had in fact begun to melt a month ahead of schedule. While there are signs that other climate factors—such as an unusually strong El Niño—have contributed to warmer temperatures in the far north this year, there is no question that declining sea ice represents the new normal as climate change continues to warm the Arctic at twice the global rate. As ice cover retreats it is likely to have dire consequences on Arctic marine mammals like the beluga whale.

Belugas are well adapted to life under the Arctic sea ice. Many populations migrate from their summer habitats in warmer coastal waters, like Canada's Mackenzie Estuary, to overwinter near sea ice in places like the Bering Sea. It's clear that at least for many populations, sea ice plays a major role in the population's life cycle. In a 28-year study along western Greenland, belugas migrated further out from shore to chase after the receding ice sheet.

One possible explanation for this behavior is the sanctuary sea ice provides. Lacking a dorsal fin and with a flexible neck that permits them to move their heads vertically as well as laterally, belugas can easily maneuver under the ice. While they are vulnerable to opportunistic polar bears as they come up for air at holes in the ice, they are safe from their other predator, the killer whale. As sea ice has declined, killer whales have continued to migrate north, which has exposed belugas to more frequent attacks. In places like Alaska's Kotzebue Sound, researchers found that the local beluga population had all but fallen silent, likely fearing that their cries would give their position away to roving orcas. Nor is this an isolated occurrence. Just 50 years ago the killer whale was spotted for the first time in the Canadian Hudson Bay. Now they are seen every summer as the waters of the Hudson Strait warm and the ice melts and breaks up.

Ironically, declining sea ice could actually increase the risk of belugas becoming entrapped by ice. Belugas depend on a series of holes in the ice, known as polynyas, to come up for air as they move. As conditions become less predictable, sea ice could suddenly form and trap the whales in place. Trapped in the same ice hole the belugas would either slowly succumb to starvation or be easy prey to hungry polar bears.

The new normal of declining Arctic sea ice will also expose the beluga to increasing pressure from human beings. The opening of the Arctic has been hailed as a trillion dollar discovery by investors. As much as 13 percent of the world's remaining recoverable oil, as well as 30 percent of its natural gas, along with many rare and valuable minerals, all reside in the Arctic Circle. However, development of these resources is expensive, and the current low price of oil has led many companies like Statoil to abandon new leases in the Arctic Ocean.

In the long-term, shipping through the Northern Sea Route above Russia, and even through the Canadian Northwest Passage is likely to increase. More than any natural impacts from whales or the ice itself, industrial pressure represents the greatest and most comprehensive threat to the beluga whale. Noise from ships like ice breakers triggers a "flight" response from belugas at distances up to 50 kilometers. Like all marine mammals, oil spills can also harm belugas. In 2007 a spill in the Russian White Sea drove the beluga population away from their normal habitats, and observers reported seeing more dead belugas than usual in following years. While it is impossible to predict the likely industrialization rate of the Arctic, or how it will unfold, January's new low for sea ice is another reminder that belugas and other Arctic species face a dangerous new world.

There is still time for the leaders of the Arctic states to mitigate the worst impacts on belugas and other species. Many of the impacts of shipping could be reduced with routeing options, effectively traffic lanes for shipping, and a ban on the use of environmentally damaging heavy fuel oil. The most important pieces of key beluga habitat, should also be permanently protected as marine protected areas. EIA will continue to press for lasting protections for beluga whales to ensure a bright future for them and their Arctic home.

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