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Loss of sea ice putting migrating beluga whales in danger

Kevin Schafer/Getty Images

(NEW YORK) — The annual great beluga migration is underway, but the whales are facing increasing dangers as the climate warms and human activity decimates their habitat.


Every July, about 57,000 beluga whales make their way from the Arctic to warmer waters further south. In these safe southern havens, the shallow water protects them from predators, allowing them to feed, have babies and molt their skin on the rocks of the riverbeds.

The important role sea ice plays in the beluga whale migration pattern and the overall ecosystem of the Arctic are ever apparent as it continues to melt rapidly.

Known as the world’s refrigerator, the Arctic is losing sea ice at alarming rates. The detriment to polar bears has been well documented due to the loss of feeding opportunities due to the melt. But the melting ice also poses additional risks to beluga whale populations in several ways.

As the sea ice disappears, the belugas are losing their protection from their main predators: orca whales.

Since belugas do not have dorsal fins, they can get up close and hide under the sea ice, away from the killer whales that hunt them, experts told ABC News.

Changing temperatures in ocean waters are also bringing more killer whales farther north, Tracy Romano, chief scientist and vice president of research at the Mystic Aquarium in Mystic, Connecticut, told ABC News.

The sea ice also acts as the base of the food chain in the Arctic, Alysa McCall, director of conservation outreach and staff scientist at Polar Bears International, told ABC News. The algae growing on the sea ice serves as an underwater garden, attracting the fish that beluga whales feed on, McCall said.

In addition, as the sea ice patterns change in the Arctic, belugas may find that the locations of the sea ice are different than what they expect and can get trapped underneath, unable to come up to the surface to breathe, McCall said.

The melting sea ice also has indirect effects on beluga populations. As the sea ice dwindles, it opens up more lanes for commercial shipping. The increase in activity is leading to more noise pollution, which hinders the species known as the most vocal whale in the world.

“They really depend on being able to chit chat with each other under the water, and so we are seeing a lot more activity and shipping that could kind of be fuzzing their communication, which is not good,” McCall said.

The melting is also opening up more possibilities for environmental disasters such as oil spills, the experts said.

An increase in drilling for oil and gas goes “hand in hand” with the increase in accessibility from the lack of sea ice, McCall said.

In 2021, National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) announced that the Arctic was warming twice as fast as the rest of the world. In addition, the last 16 years have had the lowest 16 sea ice extents in the satellite record, according to NASA and the National Snow and Ice Data Center.

Where you can watch beluga whales in migration

Marine life enthusiasts can now watch the migration of tens of thousands of beluga whales from the Arctic through a live cam set up by conservation group Polar Bears International.

One of the favorite spots for belugas is the Churchill River, which runs through Manitoba, Canada, where the waters are shallow. There, they can have their babies and “eat a lot of food” away from the threat of orca attacks, McCall said. The warmer water and the shallower substrates in those estuaries often have pebbles and are shallow, which allows the belugas to rub on the bottom to remove dead skin, Romano said.

During this time of year, witnesses can see thousands of beluga whales “vacationing” in the river, Romano said. The whales are friendly and social, according to McCall.

“It’s a pretty special time of the year,” she said.

On the beluga feed, viewers will be able to see the whales on their journey, with many appearing to smile for the underwater “Beluga Cam.” They often bring their babies right up to the camera, McCall said.

Why mitigating climate change is essential

In the winter, the belugas will make their way back north. But change in their migration patterns and timing could shift due to a warming climate, McCall said.

“We might find over time as we lose more Arctic Sea ice a shift in of beluga whales farther north, and maybe they won’t be able to come as far down south,” McCall said. “We’re not sure yet what that really looks like.”

While beluga whales are listed as “least concern” on the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s Red List of Threatened Species, there are pockets of populations all over the world that are beginning to see declines, including in Alaska and near the Estuary of Saint Lawrence in Quebec, Canada, Romano said.

Beluga whales play a critical role in the Arctic ecosystem and are “great sentinels” for what’s happening in the waters, Romano said. Since they are so high on the food chain, monitoring the species allows researchers to compare how water conditions could impact humans.

“If something is happening to belugas, it could be applicable to humans as well,” Romano said.

Protecting the species would entail protecting the entire Arctic ecosystem as a whole, which will require major climate change mitigation, the experts said.

“We want to be able to recover those populations decreasing in number and enable populations that are stable to thrive,” Romano said.

 

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