Protecting the Arctic

Written evidence submitted by the International Fund for Animal Welfare

1. The International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW) run projects in more than 40 countries around the world and has over 400,000 supporters in the UK.

2. Our submission refers to the threats that global warming and subsequent ice retreat represents to animal species in the Arctic and the present commercial exploitation of these animal populations for commercial gain.

3. We focus on the polar bear, whales (chiefly the minke whale) and the harp seal, and the exploitation of these animals by Arctic nations, particularly Canada and Norway.

4. It is our submission that current levels of exploitation must reduce given the threat faced to populations from the reduction of their habitat, and the significant animal welfare implications.

5. The UK already presents a strong stance internationally against the commercial exploitation of these animals.

6. Any increased commercial opportunities that may result from the opening up of the region must be resisted by the UK in the strongest possible terms.

Norwegian Whaling

7. Despite a moratorium on commercial whaling which came into effect in 1986, Norway continues to kill minke whales in the North East Atlantic with 533 animals taken in 2011. In addition, the catches are much higher than would be calculated under the International Whaling Commission’s agreed mechanism for calculating catch limits. These whales are part of a population which also occurs around the UK and which forms the basis for a whale watching industry in Scotland.

8. Whales and dolphins belong to the group of marine mammals known as cetaceans. They have a special status in international law both as highly migratory species and also as cetaceans in particular. It is thus the responsibility of all countries of the world to work together through the appropriate international regulatory bodies which in this case is the International Whaling Commission (IWC).

9. Although Norway is a member of the IWC, it does not abide by IWC decisions. In 1982 it filed a formal objection against the commercial whaling moratorium and is thus not bound by that decision. After a brief period of ‘scientific whaling’, Norway resumed overtly commercial whaling in 1993 with a commercial catch of 157 minke whales. Since then the catch has increased to a maximum of 639 whales in 2005 and remains now at about 500 animals each year which is around half the catch limit set by the Norwegian government.

10. The Scientific Committee of the IWC has unanimously (including delegates from Norway) agreed a mechanism for calculating catches known as the Revised Management Procedure (RMP) which would be applied should commercial whaling be resumed. Between 1996 and 2000 Norway set catch limits using the approved version of the RMP. However since 2000 it has "adjusted" the RMP to maintain or increase catches each time the catch as calculated by the RMP would have decreased.

11. In addition to setting much higher total catch limits that would be allowed by the RMP, Norway has also allowed catches to be concentrated within certain areas that are most convenient for whaling. This raises concerns over localised depletion. For example, the reported catch in 2010 from the areas west of Svalbard was 270 compared to an RMP catch limit of 58 calculated by the Scientific Committee. If Norway continues to allow whaling off Svalbard in the next few years it is likely that it will move even further away from the agreed scientific basis for setting sustainable catch limits.

12. International trade in whale products has been prohibited by the Convention on International trade in Endangered Species of Wild fauna and Flora (CITES). All the great whales are listed on Appendix I of CITES which bans such trade. However, Norway filed reservations to the listing of a number of species and populations of whales and has thus exempted itself from the CITES trade ban decision. Norway unsuccessfully put forward proposals at several CITES meetings to permit international trade in minke whales. Norway maintains a low level of international trade in whale products, thus undermining the effectiveness of CITES: Japanese Import Statistics show that 100kg of whale meat was imported into Japan in 2011.

13. Norway also promotes the spurious argument that whales compete with commercial fishermen for fish, when overfishing is the real problem. The IWC Scientific Committee agreed in 2003 that, "there is currently no system for which we have suitable data or modelling approaches to be able to provide reliable quantitative management advice on the impact of cetaceans on fisheries or fisheries on cetaceans".

Harp Seals

14. Harp seals have evolved to rely on stable winter sea ice as a place to give birth and nurse their young until the pups can swim and hunt on their own. Recent research, co- authored by scientists from Duke University and IFAW , demonstrates that w arming in the North Atlantic over the last 32 years has significantly reduced the winter sea ice needed by harp seals for giving birth and nursing, resulting in higher death rates among seal pups in recent years. 

15. Sea ice cover in all harp seal breeding regions has declined by as much as 6% per decade over the study period.  The IUCN Red list of threatened species also notes this concern, stating that " climate change impacts are almost certainly going to be negative for Harp Seals in the future" .

16. According to the Canadian Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO), 80% of the pups born in 2011 were thought to have died due to the lack of ice. 2010 witnessed the lowest ice cover ever recorded; with coverag e at about 80% below the expected levels and 70% of the pups were thought to have died. Again, in March 2007, extremely poor ice conditions in the Gulf of St Lawrence in Canada led DFO scientists to predict that pup mortality in the Southern Gulf could be extremely high, "possibly approaching 100%".

17. High ice-related mortality, combined with commercial seal hunts in Canada and Greenland , and bycatch from other fisheries, means that entire year classes of harp seals are likely to be missing from future population surveys. For example, only 600,000 pups were thought to have been born in 2011. If only 20% of these pups survived due to poor ice, 120,000 pups would remain, of which one-third were killed by Canadian hunters. This would leave some 80,000 pups alive to attempt the northward spring migration, where they are subject to bycatch in other fisheries (another estimated 8,500 seal pups killed) and then hunted in Greenland (an estimated 83,000 seals killed). 

18. Clearly these are only estimates , but as the number of seals estimated killed in 2011 exceeds the number that are thought to have been born, clearly this is a species under severe threat. E ntire year classes of pups are being wiped out by a combination of bad ice an d commercial exploitation . This fact will not be apparent, however, until at least five to six years later, when these pups would have reached breeding age, and their absence will be noticed in the population surveys.

19. A recent media report on French-Canadian radio station ‘Le Son de la Mer’ suggests that there are approximately 400,000 unwanted Harp seal pelts in stockpiles in Canada, and the recent announcement that Russia (which makes up 90% of the export market) has now banne d the import of harp seal skins demonstrates that there is no economic reason to continue commercial seal hunting. 

20. Given the continuing cruelty observed during the Canadian seal hunt, the current conservation concerns for the harp seal population, the predictions for yet another poor ice year in 2012, and the likelihood that poor ice years will continue for some time, it seems clear that now is the time to end the commercial seal hunt for good.

Polar Bears

21. Polar bears exist entirely in the circumpolar Arctic sea ice environment within five range States: Canada, Denmark (Greenland), Norway, Russian Federation and the United States. Polar bears are completely dependent on sea ice, their habitat, which they use for hunting prey, reproduction and movement. The threats facing polar bears today range from climate change to oil drilling to over-hunting. The most detrimental threat to their long-term survival is climate change.

22. In 2006, the IUCN listed the polar bear as Vulnerable. In 2008 the United States Department of the Interior listed the polar bear as a threatened species under the Endangered Species Act. It also concluded that "there are no known regulatory mechanisms in place at the national or international level that directly and effectively address the primary threat to polar bears--the range wide loss of sea ice habitat". The best available scientific and commercial information indicates that polar bears are threatened with extinction. There are presently between 20,000 and 25,000 polar bears and the number is decreasing.

23. With lowered and vulnerable polar bear populations throughout the Arctic region, it is concerning that polar bear exports have increased over the last five years. According to Environment Canada, the number of export permits issued for polar bear hides rose from 219 in 2005 to 320 in 2010. According to a series of reports published in April 2011 from CBC News, the hunting of polar bears has become increasingly unsustainable. In winter 2010-2011 alone, Quebec hunters killed 12 times the normal number of polar bears; going from a quota of approximately four polar bears to more than 60 within the same timeframe. It is likely that the increased price of polar bear hides is to blame.

24. Between 2001 and 2010, 31,916 polar bear specimens were traded internationally according to the UNEP-WCMC CITES Trade Database, an increase of 25% from the previous decade (and data may still be added for the most recent decade). These specimens included hundreds of carvings, claws, skins, skin pieces, skulls, teeth and trophies. There is an increasing trend in the trade of polar bears and their parts.

25. The threat of over-utilisation for commercial trade as well as trophy hunting is acutely troubling because the impacts of global warming will only serve to intensify the effects of unsustainable hunting. The last years have exhibited the lowest average sea ice extents in the summer month of September since measurements began in 1979. The best scientific estimates show polar bear populations outside of the Canadian Arctic Archipelago going extinct within 40 years and a greater than 40% probability of extinction in the Archipelago within 95 years. As climate change effects increase, existing unsustainable polar bear hunts will become increasingly unsustainable, and current sustainable hunts will become unsustainable.

26. Unfortunately, many of the populations managed wholly or jointly by Canada are already in decline. The IUCN/SSC Polar Bear Specialist Group has found that half of the 14 subpopulations of polar bears that fall fully or partially in Canada are declining, with only one (M’Clintock Channel) showing an increasing population. While much of this decline is likely driven by climate change, overhunting is a significant issue in Canada – the only country that allows the killing of polar bears for international commercial trade. There is strong evidence that numerous polar bear populations that fall at least partially within Canada are overhunted or experience substantial annual hunting in the absence of scientifically derived population estimates (for example the Chukchi Sea, Baffin Bay, Kane Basin, Western Hudson Bay, Davis Strait subpopulations). Most recently, in October 2011, the government of Nunavut tripled the hunting quota for the Western Hudson Bay population despite opposition from the IUCN/SSC PBSG, which stated that "even the present TAH [total allowable harvest] is not sustainable so an increase only makes the resulting overharvest even less sustainable".

27. In summary, the effect of climate change on polar bears will be devastating. Coupled with overhunting, increased pollution and heightened activity in the Arctic from intensified access and development, the species’ future is even more bleak.

16 February 2012

Prepared 24th February 2012