Even the Unicorns of the Sea Can’t Escape Climate Change

As sea ice melts away, it will become easier to hunt narwhals, and that calls for preemptive work to protect them now.

(Photo: Flip Nicklin/Getty Images)

Mar 18, 2015· 2 MIN READ
John R. Platt covers the environment, wildlife, and technology and for TakePart, Scientific American, Audubon, and other publications.

Is it time to start making a commotion about narwhals?

The simple answer is yes, according to a new report from World Wildlife Fund Canada and TRAFFIC, the wildlife trade–monitoring network. In it, the conservation organizations warn that climate change and hunting could soon pose a double-edged threat to the fabled one-tusked whales of the Arctic.

Right now, hunting isn’t a major threat to narwhals—fewer than 1,000 of the “sea unicorns” are harvested every year. That’s less than 1 percent of their total population. But as the world’s temperatures rise, it looks like the hunting of narwhals could too: Less ice means more opportunities to hunt them.

Narwhals use sea ice for protection against predators such as killer whales. With less of it forming in the ocean, the species is more likely to end up closer to shore, and that could mean more chances for hunters.

Only two groups of people are legally allowed to hunt narwhals: the indigenous communities of Canada and Greenland. Both have done so for centuries, and the law allows the tradition to endure—just as other native communities have been allowed to continue whale hunts, despite the international whaling moratorium.

“For many Arctic communities, these activities satisfy cultural and nutritional needs, supporting food security and contributing to the economic stability of households,” said Rachel Kramer, program officer with TRAFFIC in Washington, D.C.

While narwhal meat and hides are far less important than they used to be, the whales’ horns, skulls, and teeth provide many households with a critical source of income. An unbroken narwhal tusk can fetch anywhere between $2,765 and $12,500. That can soar to as high as $25,000 for a full skull and horn combination from a rare double-tusked narwhal. (Yes, such a thing exists.)

But this is just the tip of the narwhal tusk iceberg. Carved tusks, just like ivory, can bring in even more money.

Most of this trade is legal, but illegal products have started to pop up in recent years. In 2011, an international investigation called Operation Longtooth uncovered a smuggling ring that illegally imported 250 narwhal tusks into the U.S. over a period of several years.

The authors of the report found that import/export codes and descriptions for narwhal products vary from country to country—some call them “tusks,” while others call them “carvings” or “pieces.” At least a portion of these variations in terminology appear to serve a nefarious purpose. “In some of our wildlife market monitoring work, we’ve found intentional mislabeling and use of misleading terminology to facilitate sales of certain illegal wildlife products,” Kramer said. “Such mislabeling can make it hard to quantify the full extent of trade in certain illegal products.”

But instead of waiting around until we’re certain narwhals are in grave danger, conservation efforts should start now, while sea ice still exists. The authors call for better methods to track narwhal products being traded and more thorough records of how many narwhals are harvested each year and where they come from. Getting this done now will prepare governments to identify and block illegal trade when more narwhal products become available on the market.

That won’t completely eliminate the threats, though.

Even with the full effect of climate change on narwhal populations yet to be uncovered, the report found that it will undoubtedly pose multiple challenges. Most important, as ice sheets recede, the narwhals will have fewer places to hide from hungry killer whales, the only other predators besides humans that they fear. Beyond that, prey species such as cod, halibut, and squid could move to new locations if sea ice disappears, leaving the narwhals with nothing to eat.

All of which helps to illustrate why it’s important to learn more about narwhal hunting and trade as soon as possible. If we wait too long, there might not be many narwhals left to protect.