Belugas, Narwhals, and Arctic People Victims of Pollution

In Polar Exposure: Environmental Threats to Arctic Marine Life and Communities, the Swiss Coalition for the Protection of Whales and the Global Survival Network present a rigorously researched, compelling report on Arctic environmental issues. In addition to addressing hunting and trade threats to belugas and narwhals, the 20-page report analyzes how "the people and wildlife of the Arctic are paying a high price for the industrialized world's use of pesticides, PCB's, mercury, nuclear energy, and [other] technologies." The report focuses on the plight of two Arctic cetacean species, the narwhal and the beluga, as victims of marine pollution, as indicators of its severity, and as warning signs for the health of the Arctic people who are exposed to some of the highest toxic contamination levels in the world because they eat whale meat.

Narwhal populations are small and located only in the Arctic region. They continue to be hunted for meat and blubber, but also for the ivory teeth of the males whose resemblance to the mythical unicorn has marked them as an ivory source since the beginning of commercial whaling. Belugas are hunted for meat and are also captured for aquarium display. Seventy belugas are currently on display at US aquaria and unknown numbers are kept in Europe, Japan, Israel, and other places far from their natural habitat. The South Greenland Beluga is extinct. Canada's St. Lawrence River population, numbering a mere 500 of the original 5000, is "threatened with extinction." The genetic bottleneck created by the reduced numbers has resulted in inbreeding and associated immune suppression, stunted growth, and reproductive organ failures. Though protected from hunting, this population, like others, remains exposed to a host of industrial pollutants. In general, although Canadian Inuits have a quota system and Greenlanders do not, neither country has heeded warnings from scientists and even the International Whaling Commission (IWC) to take stronger measures to monitor and protect the narwhals and belugas in their waters.

Marine pollution is a critical problem for both species and for the Arctic people who utilize them for food. PCB's and organochlorine pesticides such as DDT remain in the water indefinitely. Furthermore, because the Arctic Ocean, which represents 1.2 % of the world's ocean water mass and receives 10% of all river discharge, has very few outlets into other oceans, deposits brought by river water tend to accumulate. The pollutants "biomagnify" as they move through the food chain. They are stored in the fatty tissues of whales in such concentrations that countries such as Canada consider them highly toxic. Since the meat and blubber of these whales are staples of many Arctic peoples' diets and pose a threat because of the contamination they carry. Mothers pass the toxic load on to their babies, who are disproportionately affected due to their small size and incompletely formed immune systems. Report author Katherine Hanly states: "Health and environmental assessments carried out in Arctic Greenland have concluded that the presence of persistent organic pollutants and accumulation of them in the biosphere is the biggest environmental health related threat to Arctic people today." Mercury is also a big problem. Tests involving other whales' meat has "revealed...that...whale meat significantly affects cognitive function in children" and attributes high rates of "stunted neurological development" to whale meat consumption.

The report concludes with eight recommendations focusing on the importance of IWC oversight of belugas and narwhals, which, as small cetaceans, are not included in the whaling moratorium that has been in place since 1986. The recommendations also stress the importance of the United Nations, World Health Organization, and other organizations pursuing the environmental human health issues in the Arctic and urge Canada to resume participation in the IWC to help make joint policy with Greenland, Russia, and the US, sincethe whales swim in all of these waters.


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