Climate change, in part caused by animal agriculture, industrial activity, and hunting could push narwhals to extinction.
Narwhals are one of the world’s most unique ocean-dwelling creatures. Thanks to the long singular tusk—which is actually a tooth—that protrudes from the nose of males, they have earned the nickname “the unicorns of the sea.”
With a population of around 80,000, narwhal status is currently “near threatened,” according to the World Wildlife Fund (WWF).
If sea temperatures rise and hunting continues, they could be on their way to vulnerable status and then endangered. If nothing is done, the unicorns of the sea could eventually be resigned to the history books.
The Threat of a Shrinking Habitat
Narwhals live in the Arctic waters of Canada, Greenland, Norway, and Russia. According to a recent study conducted by researchers from Denmark, the UK, Norway, Canada, and Germany, the survival of the species is dependent on the availability of their habitat, which is shrinking.
By the end of this century, the researchers predict the narwhal’s habitat will have declined by 25 percent. This is due to rising sea temperatures and melting sea ice. The habitat will also shift northwards by 1.6 degrees, researchers predict.
To survive, the study—published in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences—notes narwhals would need to move northward. But this isn’t necessarily a reliable lifeline. It would mean a much smaller habitat, with a greater chance of human encroachment. It would also mean less prey and a more frequent threat from predators, like orcas.
Rising Sea Temperatures and the Meat Industry
The industrial animal agriculture sector produces around 18 percent of all global greenhouse gas emissions.
Greenhouse gases are not only warming up the atmosphere, they’re warming up the ocean too.
According to the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), the ocean absorbs the excess heat from greenhouse gas emissions. The 2013 Fifth Assessment Report—published by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change—revealed that, since the 1970s, the ocean had absorbed more than 93 percent of excess heat from greenhouse gas emissions.
IUCN notes that limiting the global average temperature increase to well below 2 degrees above pre-industrial levels—as laid out in the Paris Agreement on climate change—is “crucial” to prevent “massive, irreversible impacts of ocean warming.”
In 2018, the United Nations Environment Programme labeled meat consumption as the world’s most “urgent problem.”
It noted that there is no “pathway to achieve the Paris climate objectives” without a “massive decrease in the scale of animal agriculture.”
It’s not just the meat industry and greenhouse gases that pose a problem to narwhal populations. WWF also lists one of the species’ main threats as oil and gas development in the Arctic. This increased activity causes a lot more noise than narwhals are used to.
Like many cetaceans, narwhals use noise to communicate. Interference can make it harder for the animals to hunt, avoid predators, and find their mates. It also increases the risk of a collision with a boat.
In 2017, Kristin Laidre, a research scientist at the University of Washington’s Polar Science Center, told National Geographic: “until recently, the Arctic has not been a place with a lot of traffic of any kind. Narwhals have existed relative undisturbed and somewhat insulated from development.”
She added that now “increased shipping, new shipping routes, or exploration and development of offshore oil and gas deposits” means more “overall disturbance for narwhals.”
New human activity brings another risk: disease. According to a study from 2019, published in the journal Nature Communications, as humans come into closer contact with wild animals in the Arctic, there is a larger threat of new viruses.
One of the study’s authors, Tracy Goldstein, told ArcticToday: “animals and people are changing their behavior, coming into contact, and that’s leading to either increased distribution of viruses, as well as a spillover of viruses.”
She added: “suddenly, big ships are going up into the Arctic, into these remote and possibly fragile areas that they haven’t been before, and we have no idea what effect that’s going to have on the health of the environment, and then the health of the animals, and then ultimately the health of the people.”
The Arctic and its creatures are particularly vulnerable due to melting ice, said Goldstein. “It’s vulnerable to introductions of new things that didn’t use to exist there,” she explained. “Because there was ice in place that is no longer there.”
Hunting is another major threat to the survival of narwhals.
Last year, a scientist, who remained anonymous, spoke to the Mirror about narwhal hunting in Greenland. He said that hunters had “almost wiped out” a key population, pushing the species closer to extinction.
He explained: “there is a very serious development with the narwhals on the east coast of Greenland. Not only have these creatures been impacted by climate change, [but] populations are being eradicated due to excessive hunting quotas.”
Inuit people have historically hunted narwhals for their long tusks and their skin, which, according to National Geographic, is a source of vitamin C.
Marine biologists note that there were 246 narwhals in Greenland in 2017. Nearly a decade previous, in 2008, there were around 1,945.
“The Greenland government has known since 2017 that the catch was too high,” the scientist said. “But has done nothing to save them.”
‘The Biggest Danger’
It’s not just narwhals under threat from hunting. According to a study from last year—conducted by Oregon State University and published in the journal Conservation Letters—up to 60 percent of all large animals could go extinct, or be brought to the brink of extinction, in the coming years.
Study author Professor William Ripple told the Independent: “direct harvest for human consumption of meat or body parts is the biggest danger to nearly all of the large species with threat data available.”
He continued: “Thus, minimizing the direct killing of these vertebrate animals is an important conservation tactic that might save many of these iconic species as well as all of the contributions they make to their ecosystems.”