The majestic narwhal is an astonishing creature, boasting a long and enigmatic tusk like that of the mythical unicorn.
An astonishingly large tooth is the defining feature of a narwhal. Reaching up to 10 feet in length and containing a whopping 10 million nerve endings, this tusk gives them an unmistakable silhouette.
Are narwhals endangered? Let’s investigate their conservation standing more closely. We’ll attempt to determine what dangers are jeopardizing them, and contemplate how we can help restore their numbers.
The Beauty of the Narwhal
With impressive dimensions of 18 feet long and weighing as much as 4200 pounds, it’s clear why these animals are so captivating!
The narwhal is a toothed whale that resides in the cold waters of the Arctic Ocean all year round. These creatures can be found near Greenland, Canada, Norway, Alaska, and Russia.
Narwhal Conservation Status
Unfortunately, both human activity and rising sea temperatures threaten the existence of these animals.
So, Are Narwhals endangered? Although the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) listed narwhals as a near-threatened species back in 2008, they have yet to be categorized as endangered.
There are an estimated 100,000 narwhals alive today, which puts their extinction risk in the category of least concern.
Nevertheless, population estimates can be hard to arrive at as certain local populations tend to be fewer than others:
- Baffin Bay population: 90,000 narwhals
- Northern Hudson Bay population: 12,000 narwhals
- East Greenland population: 6,400 narwhals
In some regions, the threat of extinction is particularly dire due to their small population sizes. Take narwhals in Greenland as an example. Three separate populations stand on a precarious precipice with a potential for complete eradication within the next few years – between 2025 and 2028.
In order to legally trade narwhal parts and derivatives, the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) mandates export permits for every participant.
The European Union Wildlife Trade Regulations (EU WTR) and the U.S. Marine Mammal Protection Act (US MMPA) have restricted importing narwhal parts to both the EU and US. But they are allowed with a permit under very limited circumstances.
Why Are Narwhals Endangered?
While narwhals as a species aren’t endangered, many of their small communities are facing the risk of disappearing forever.
Unfortunately, climate change, hunting and human disruption may one day lead to the animals becoming endangered species.
While it is difficult to estimate the implications of climate change on narwhals, we can be certain that it will impose a considerable impact.
It is well-known that narwhals belong to the collection of Arctic sea creatures whose fates are inextricably linked with ice due to CAFF’s (Conservation of Arctic Flora and Fauna) discoveries.
Despite their lengthy stays in coastal, unburdened waters for up to three months annually, Narwhals still greatly depend on ice for survival purposes.
Narwhals consume a specialized diet of food sources that live in icy waters, such as Greenland halibut, polar cod, Arctic cod, squid, additional pelagic fish and benthos prey.
To protect themselves from predators like killer whales, the slow-swimming narwhals take refuge beneath Arctic ice.
Narwhals live in the Baffin Bay-Davis Strait area for up to five months during their hibernation period. During this time, they only come up occasionally through cracks of sea ice just to breathe.
With the destruction of icy habitats, species are at risk for diminished survival and reproductive success, a decreased amount of prey sources, poorer health conditions, and an elevated susceptibility to disease.
Beloved for their flesh, blubber, and remarkable tusks, narwhals are permitted to be hunted in only two countries: Canada and Greenland. Sadly this results in an annual average of 621 and 358 deaths per year respectively due to hunting activities occurring within the borders of these nations.
Hunting narwhals is a critical tradition for indigenous populations in the Arctic. It remains influential in terms of culture, nutrition, and economics. Indeed, this activity has social and financial importance to these communities.
The illegal importation of narwhal tusks is also a serious problem. An estimated 178-214 tusks are illegally exported each year. A single, unbroken and uncarved narwhal tusk usually sells for between $2,700 and $12,000 on the black market, while a double-tusked skull can fetch as much as $19,000 to $25,000.
Acknowledging Greenland’s decision to grant hunting quotas of 50 narwhals from vulnerable populations in 2022, over 30 wildlife organizations sent them a stern warning detailing the potential risks associated with their action.
If we don’t increase hunting quotas, there’s a more than 30% chance that these animals will go extinct in the next seven years.
Disruptive Human Behavior
Arctic waters have recently become easier to access due to the presence of less ice. This allows ships and industrial operations in more frequently. Unfortunately, this influx of humans has been detrimental for narwhals. In addition to hunting activities endangering their population numbers, there are further negative impacts on them from human activity within these icy realms.
The development of oil and gas in the narwhals’ habitat is nothing short of damaging, for it not only results in increased pollution but also increases the chance of hazardous oil or fuel spills. Not to mention, such activities will create unbearable noise levels that can disrupt their natural environment.
Unfortunate industrial activities such as sand dredging and fisheries have recently infiltrated the Arctic region. Thus polluting the environment and disrupting its natural sounds.
Ocean noise pollution has a major impact on marine life with dire consequences. It masks communication between them and can lead to collisions, disrupting their mating habits, navigation capabilities, predator evasion techniques, and even the ability of parents to care for baby animals.
Human activities like oil and gas exploration, shipping operations, construction projects as well as military maneuvers are all guilty contributors of this disruptive noise.
Pollution has become an alarming issue for narwhals, with their tissue containing detrimental amounts of contaminants from ocean pollution. Furthermore, microplastics are now posing a tremendous hazard to aquatic life.
However, many organizations are advocating for less traffic in the Arctic, especially within the oil and gas industry.
How Can We Bolster Narwhal Populations?
Fortunately, a handful of organizations have taken the initiative to work towards preserving narwhal populations:
Improving whale protection
The International Whaling Commission is devoted to preserving narwhals by monitoring whaling and limiting dangers from shipping, climate change, and bycatch.
Decreasing ocean noise
The World Wildlife Fund (WWF), Natural Resource Defense Council, and Ocean Conservation Research are joining forces to spread awareness of the impact of ocean noise on marine creatures like narwhals.
To better protect narwhals and gain a deeper comprehension of their movements, WWF has begun attaching satellite tags to these majestic creatures. Through this initiative, we can help the species in more effective ways than ever before.
Although narwhals are not currently endangered, some local populations could become extinct within the next few years if hunting continues to be allowed in their areas.
Every year, climate alteration and human actions such as exploitative hunting, petroleum production, seafaring traffic, acoustic pollution from ships and maritime sound waves endanger narwhals further.
Nevertheless, narwhals don’t have to succumb to extinction. It’s imperative that we take action at both the personal and global level in order to ensure their survival.
Many organizations globally are taking the initiative to protect narwhals. You can join their efforts by speaking out on behalf of them as well as making conscious choices that reduce your carbon footprint. Together, we can make a difference in furthering conservation initiatives for these majestic creatures!