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WWF in Action: Churchill

For the love of whales: avoiding conflict in the Arctic

By Peter Ewins, Senior Species Officer for WWF-Canada

To many, the Arctic is a new frontier of economic opportunity, where rapid climate change is quickly increasing access for ship-based industrial projects. It’s a place where oil and gas resources are largely untapped, where minerals like iron are now set for major extraction, where shorter shipping routes can help reduce costs. But while these opportunities may bring critical new jobs and resources to local peoples, they also bring significant new risks to the people and wildlife that call the Arctic home.
I, along with Artic whale experts from different countries, studied how whale habitats and development activities overlap by comparing the current accurate seasonal ranges for the truly Arctic whales – bowhead, beluga and narwhal – with summaries of oil and gas resources and development, as well as current and projected commercial shipping.

Overall we found that around 60% of the current annual range of each of these three whale species overlaps known oil and gas fields or basins. That means there are serious risks inherent in future developments. We’re not properly equipped to deal with spilled oil in iced waters--there still is no proven method to recover oil, and oil will travel and persist for many years in Arctic marine systems. Plus, acoustic disruption from development is likely to adversely impact whale populations.

But all is not dire! Unlike many other regions, we still do have the option in Arctic marine systems of planning smartly, and to set aside a network of the most important areas for these sensitive whales to persist, without having to encounter these high risks. And we have other tools to minimize our impact on the areas these whales call home – like lighter fuel oils, improved ship design, reduced ship speed, proper navigation charts and operational practices. WWF is working to influence shipping guidelines and advocating for better oil spill prevention and response measures.

Despite the challenges ahead, I believe that security for these whale species, their pristine natural habitats and the livelihoods of local people will eventually be achieved.

Peter Ewins is the senior species officer for WWF-Canada. He leads WWF’s Arctic species conservation work, with a strong focus on flagship species in globally significant regions, such as the polar bear and ice-dependent whales.

Photo © Lin Adler/Natural Habitat Adventures

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