A Changing Arctic
The Arctic Sea is an undiscovered beauty with its crystal blue-green waters and sculptures of ice that look as if Picasso himself created the massive bergs. With such natural beauty, it is hard to believe what lies beneath this surreal waterscape are the greatest killer this world has ever seen. Usually the grand flows of sea ice that freeze in the winter keep these black and white mammals at bay longer. Over the years the shift in the weather has provided for them an earlier season to explore the Arctic waters. Although the melting sea ice is allowing for an increase of killer whale presence in the Arctic, the whales are damaging the ecosystem of the Arctic Sea because they are dominating the top of the food chain, they are competing with the Inuit (Inupiat) for their marine food supply, and they are causing marine mammals to become endangered and possibly extinct.
The killer whale or orca is one animal that can be found in almost any of the oceans or seas around the world, from Antarctica to the Arctic (Pitman, Perryman, LeRoi, & Eilers, 2007; Zerbini, 2007). Their presence in the Arctic Sea has increased over the years due to the warming of the Arctic region. In just the Hudson Bay area alone, from 1990 to 2000 there have been reports of an increase of 79 killer whale sightings (Hidgon & Ferguson, 2009). The killer whales usually make an appearance in July and begin their move back into warmer waters around the end of August. Since the waters have become warmer they are staying a lot longer, even into December. Killer whales are not the only factor in reshaping this ecological environment, but they are becoming a very devastating one. Due to the fact these rather large marine mammals live in such an expansive territory, they do not have a stable food source but eat whatever is available to them. There have been studies done on large whale pods that have suggested that they will stick to one diet, but that particular diet is not the same for each pod (Ferguson, Higdon, & Wetsdal, 2012; Laden, 2012). Most studies have been done on whale pods not living in the Arctic, but with the help of the Inuit (Inupiat) people of the Arctic, researchers have been able to get a little better picture of what these whale pods are devouring. One might think these giants would have an appetite for fish, but marine mammals are what they prefer. Many of the Inuit that have been interviewed as to the eating habits of the killer whale have stated they have not seen them eat fish but have gone after seals, sea lions, otters, walrus, and other more docile whales, such as the bowhead, beluga, and the narwhal (Morell, 2012). The killer whales have been observed as not being very humane in their killings. They tend to play with their food, tossing it between them as if the animal were a rag doll (O’Harra, 2012). They have also been seen taking an unsuspecting polar bear for a meal, too. These adaptable mammals pick and choose their prey depending on the area they are in and tend to go after the more vulnerable marine mammals. An example of an unsuspecting marine mammal would be a seal sunning itself on a piece of floating ice. The whale pod will then works together to create a massive wave knocking the seal from its safe location, giving the whale pod a chance at their prey (Ferguson, Higdon, & Wetsdal, 2012). The Inuit have seen many killer whale pods slaughter other members of a different whale species family, such as the very rare narwhal and the bowhead whale along with the beluga (Morell, 2012). The Inuit or the Inupiat are known as the “People of the Whales”, and since they are not the only ones who use the whale as a food source this increase of killer whale presence gives them a reason to be concerned (Sakakibara, 2010).
The killer whales are now coming into the Arctic much earlier and staying much later than they have in the past. The local native people now have to compete with these pack hunting killers for one of their native ancestral food sources, the whale. Orcas or killer whales have been called wolves of the sea because of their pack like hunting skills (O’Harra, 2012). As a researcher for the Department of Fisheries and Oceans Freshwater Institute, Steven Ferguson has made a very scary observation. Because of the climate change, the killer whales could be the cause of an irreversible change that is being seen in the Arctic ecosystem. Steven Ferguson also states that, “This change of what animals live in the Arctic is likely going to happen with the warming but we didn’t anticipate that killer whales might be removing certain susceptible prey and maybe temperate species will move up to take their place” (Puxley, 2012). This is a very real outcome that could start to take place. The native whales of the Arctic are not the only marine mammals the killer whales are affecting. The killer whales are causing the Inuit to become worried about the seals and walrus populations as well (Mead, Gittelsohn, Kratzmann, Roache, & Sharma, 2010). With the killer whales trespassing into the Inuit way of life, these giants cannot be met with open arms who are trying to take over the Inuit hunting grounds. The Inuit live in an area of the world where they have to rely on the animals of the sea for nutrition. They live in a tundra area where wild plants just don’t want to grow. “In our society, it is always the whale that brings us together,” said Mae Ahgeak, whaling captain’s wife, in her personal interview with Sakakibara in Barrow, Alaska, June 18, 2005. Whales are a very important part of the Inuit subsistence. As Sakakibara stated in her article, “Cetaceousness and Climate Change Among the Inupiat of Arctic Alaska,” “The cultural survival and social ethics are all based on intimate relationships with the whale, and the whale symbolically and physically lies in the heart of human subsistence” (Sakakibara, 2010). This leaves the only option for the Inuit culture to survive is to hunt the hunters who are depleting their way of life (Lougheed, 2010). With the invasion of the killer whales, a shift in the Inuit cultural pattern is again taking place. This time it is not because of the introduction of other peoples and ideas but from an animal that cannot be controlled (Mead, Gittelsohn, Kratzmann, Roache, & Sharma, 2010). A way in which the Inuit people have survived for thousands of years may become harder and harder to pass on to the next generation. Some might suggest that with the introduction of Euroamerican ideals, the significance of the ancestral ways is not as important. But it should not be due to the ancestral food sources being over hunted by the killer whale (Lougheed, 2009). Concerns of the Inuit way of hunting are also being called in to question with the increase of the killer whale presence. Some feel it may not be safe for both the Inuit and the killer whale to be hunting the same areas and hunting the same animals, sometimes at the same time (Ferguson, Higdon, & Wetsdal, 2012). It is not just the Inuit that the killer whale is having a great impact on but all life up in the Arctic north. It seems that all marine mammals that depend on the ice for protection, are trying to find other places to hide, not just from the Inuit but from the killer whales, too. The bigger problem however, is how to keep the killer whales from over killing. Since these marine wolves do not have any natural predators, it is hard keep their numbers under control. This is where the Inuit really come in to help keep the balance. In Canada and Alaska, aboriginal whaling is still legal, and because these great giants can become overwhelming killers, the Inuit are doing their part in the circle of life (Canadian Science Advisory Secretariat, 2007). Some may argue that that is exactly what the killer whale is doing also, just doing their part of the circle of life. It has been suggested that when the food source of an animal runs low, that species will be affected and their numbers will start to drop. In this way giving their prey a chance to reproduce, and get their populations back up to allow the circle to continue as it always has. But what about the animals who are being hunted to their extinction?
Before the longer seasonal appearances of the orca in the Arctic region, researchers tried to get an accurate count of marine populations but were not very successful. They were unable to get an assessment of the climate change that has affected their population numbers. The killer whales’ extended appearance in the Arctic has been a great shock to this very fragile ecosystem. With the melting sea ice, many changes have occurred. One change can be seen with the migration of the beluga whales. The beluga whales prefer to spend their winters in an area where there is a light and moveable sea ice flow. Researchers are now finding where some of these whales have now moved into areas that have deep ice coverage to try to escape becoming the prey of the killer whale (Laidre, Stirling, Lowry, Wiig, Heide-Jorgensen, & Ferguson, 2008). This global change is something everyone needs to be more aware of. The narwhal whale is another one of the animals that are being affected by the killer whale. The area of the Arctic where the narwhal can be found most frequently is around the shores of Greenland. This area, too, has seen an increase in killer whale activity over the years (Heide-Jorgensen, Laidre, Burt, Borchers, Marques, Hansen, & Fossette, 2010; Kwok & Untersteiner, 2011). The narwhal whales rely on the densely packed sea ice flow during the winter months. They have adapted to this type of habitat and with the melting of the sea ice it is disappearing fast (Laidre, Stirling, Lowry, Wiig, Heide-Jorgensen, & Ferguson, 2008). If future generations are to have the experience of seeing one of these unique creatures, more needs to be done to insure the sea ice does not completely disappear (Campbell, Yurik, & Snow, 1988). The narwhals are not the only animals at risk of their populations decreasing. The bowhead whales, which are the most important source for the Inuit subsistence, have had eye witnesses to their killings by killer whales. In 1999, there were a greater number of killer whales in the Arctic since sea ice flows were minimal. A group of Inuit reported discovering at least eight dead whales, one in which was a recent kill which they could still use (Ferguson, Higdon, & Chemelnitsky, 2010). Many other mammals are affected, too, such as the sea otter, stellar sea lions, along with the ringed and bearded seals (Ferguson, Higdon, and Wetsdal, 2012; Kuker & Barrett-Lennard, 2010; Durban, Ellifrit, Dahlheim, Waite, Matkin, Barrett-Lennard, & Wade, 2009). During the spring and summer months, the Arctic waters come alive with marine mammals. The Arctic areas are their breeding grounds and where in the next year their young will be born. When this very delicate balance is interrupted, “with earlier spring break-up of sea ice and reduced snow cover for birth lairs” this has a direct result in reducing the amount of offspring born each year (Higdon & Ferguson, 2010). What happens if these animals are over hunted by other animals, how will they procreate and continue generation after generation? With native Inuit hunting these same animals as part of their subsistence and cultural practices, their culture like the many marine mammals do not stand a chance at being around for much longer.
Researchers are discovering everyday new information regarding the impact of the killer whales on the Arctic. With these new findings, they may be able to find ways to decrease the killer whales effects on this fragile ecosystem, while helping to preserve the culture of the native people and help to bring back the dwindling marine mammal populations that they have affected. With the help of conservationists, along with the people of the world, maybe one day it might be possible for each creature on earth to find that middle ground and coexist.
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