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Oil & Minerals

Ships on collision course with Arctic whales

Climate change, killer whales and now the oil industry may be threatening the survival of Arctic giants
Oil & Minerals
Bowhead whales and oil may not mix (Photo: WWF)

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As more ships from oil and gas companies make their way into Arctic waters, they are increasingly crossing paths with Arctic whales.

An article published last week in the journal ‘Marine Policy’ shows where oil, gas and shipping interests overlap important habitat for Arctic whales. The research was sponsored by WWF and includes several WWF authors, along with many of the world’s experts on Arctic whale research and conservation.

It collects the latest information on where bowhead whales, beluga and narwhals spend their time, especially during the Arctic summer, and how industry interests overlap places important to the future survival of the whales.

“These ice-adapted Arctic whales are already stressed by rapid climate change,” said Pete Ewins, an author of the research and Arctic whale specialist for WWF. “Killer whales are moving into their territory and preying on them, their food sources are moving, and now on top of that, industry is on their doorstep.”

Slowing down could help
The research identifies and maps areas of potential conflict and suggests how such conflicts can be reduced. The risks of oil spills in Arctic waters are singled out the biggest and most difficult risks to manage or avoid.

“It’s not only about declaring some places off-limits,” said Ewins. “For instance, in some cases, simply slowing ships when they’re entering these highly sensitive areas could be enough to reduce impacts. In other cases, the whales are only using these areas for a specified time, so it should be possible to just avoid those areas for that period.”

Ewins said better monitoring of whales could help determine their precise sensitivity to different forms of human activities.