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Protecting Arctic Blue Corridors

From the elusive narwhal to the charismatic walrus, the Arctic is home to marine mammals found nowhere else on Earth. It’s also a summer gathering place for tens of thousands of whales that make epic migrations from more southern and tropical waters to feed in the highly productive Arctic Ocean.

“Blue corridors” are migration superhighways that allow whales, seals, walrus and other marine animals to move between locations to find the conditions they need for feeding, giving birth and mating. But Arctic whales and seasonal visitors to the Arctic face growing threats on their journeys.

The WWF report, Protecting Blue Corridors, outlines a new collaborative conservation approach to identify the most important habitats for whales and the migratory connections between them – ultimately to assist the development of global and regional management plans to safeguard whales throughout their migratory pathways, mitigate threats and provide solutions to governments and industry.

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NEW AND GROWING CHALLENGES FOR ARCTIC WHALES

Sea ice, the natural barrier that once held industrialisation of the Arctic at bay, is disappearing from the Arctic Ocean as the planet heats up in the climate crisis. Previously the last undisturbed ocean on earth, shipping, fishing and mineral exploration and extraction in the Arctic Ocean now present new threats to whales, walrus and seals. These threats include entanglement and bycatch in fishing gear, ship strikes, risks of oil spills and underwater noise pollution.

As well as swimming this gauntlet for thousands of kilometres, whales are under pressure to adapt to changes in sea ice, prey distribution and the presence of predators such as killer whales, which are encroaching further into the Arctic’s icy waters. While much is still not known about the timing and pathways of Arctic whale migrations, we know they closely follow the retreat and advance of the ice edge. As sea ice melts, some species are shifting the timing of their migrations. In 2018, for possibly the first time ever, bowhead whales in Alaska halted their autumn migration early, remaining north of the Bering Strait all winter.

AN INNOVATIVE APPROACH

As Arctic whales try to adapt to their quickly changing environment, we need innovative, dynamic measures that will give them the best chance of success. Measures to safeguard narwhal, beluga whales, bowhead whales and other marine mammals as they migrate should be flexible in space and time. They could include rules such as temporary fisheries closures, ship speed reductions, or vessel rerouting. The effectiveness of these measures can be greatly improved by local monitoring, better communication, knowledge sharing and cooperation among national governments.

In the Arctic, there is also great potential for Indigenous and local knowledge to be applied alongside western science to inform many aspects of whale migration. For example, the timing of spring migrations for many Arctic whale populations is a critical knowledge gap not easily filled by GPS tracking studies—but many coastal communities have been carefully observing these migrations for generations. Such locally led initiatives could contribute vital information towards dynamic measures to protect migrating whales.

For migratory species, “home” is many different places. Each year, the Chukchi—the Indigenous peoples living in Siberia’s Chukchi peninsula—celebrate the return of gray whales to the Russian Arctic. When those same whales arrive in Mexico, they are celebrated with an International Whale Festival. All along their journeys down the Pacific coast of the U.S.A., the whales are enjoyed by whale watchers. And within the Arctic, Indigenous peoples rely on migrating whales for their culture, traditions, nutrition, income and way of life. The world has a shared responsibility to safeguard these whales and other migratory species at every step of their journeys.

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Melanie Lancaster
Senior Specialist, Arctic species
WWF Arctic Coordinating Team

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