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U.S. Commissioner Urges Whaling Commission to Measure Environmental Threats

Whale FinsMay 26, 1999, St. George's, Grenada — Addressing delegates and observers to the 51st International Whaling Commission meeting today, U.S. Commissioner D. James Baker urged the group to better determine how global environmental changes may jeopardize whale stocks throughout the world.

"The threats to whales from global environmental change are extremely widespread, and appear to be increasing," said Baker. "Issues such as increasing levels of chemical contaminants, rising sea surface temperatures and decreasing sea-ice coverage are problems that extend from pole to pole, across most marine ecosystems, and, as a result, affect all whale populations. We must determine more precisely and urgently the potential risks of global environmental changes on whales."

In a 20-minute multimedia presentation to the group, Baker identified some of the potential impacts of environmental change on whales and other cetaceans, including:

  • Chemical contaminants – There is concern about the increasing concentrations of chemical contaminants and heavy metals in the water column, sea-ice, sediments and whale prey species. These contaminants may alter the food web, decrease immune response, and increase sterility, bacterial infections, and cancer in whales. For instance, although DDT was banned in the 1970s, research results indicate that DDT concentrations in some marine sediments and beluga whale tissue samples have shown no significant decline. In addition, stranded beluga whales from Canada's St. Lawrence estuary showed a rate of small intestinal cancers much higher than that observed in all other animals and humans.
  • Human health – There is rising concern about human consumption of whale meat and other marine mammal products that contain high levels of contaminants. Recent studies have shown that PCB levels in some Arctic indigenous people were higher than elsewhere in the world, and that PCBs appear to transfer from mother to newborn, resulting in contamination levels higher than acceptable for adults. In Greenland, where more beluga and narwhal whales are consumed than anywhere else, 95 percent of women there exceed the Canadian guideline limits for PCB contamination of five parts per million.
  • Climate change – The increase in greenhouse gases, such as carbon dioxide and methane, and the correlating rise in global temperatures can cause sea levels to rise as a result of thermal expansion of the oceans and melting of ice. These changes may directly impact whales by altering their habitat, changing reproductive rates and altering migration routes and geographic ranges. Indirectly, these shifts in climate can change the abundance, distribution and composition of cetacean prey species. The best estimates, from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change scientists, predict global temperatures to increase by one to three degrees Celsius, and sea levels to rise anywhere from 15 to 95 centimeters by 2100.
  • Ozone Depletion and Ultraviolet-B (UV-B) Radiation – In 1998, the largest ozone hole in recorded history was measured over Antarctica, covering an area greater than 25 million square miles. Scientists expect the Arctic ozone hole to peak in size between the years 2010 and 2019. Decreased stratospheric ozone concentrations allow greater levels of biologically damaging UV-B radiation to reach the Earth's surface. Increased exposure of whales to UV-B radiation may directly impair whale vision, lower reproductive success and immune response, and increase the likelihood of disease. Indirectly, UV-B exposure may reduce the survival and reproductive capacity of whale prey of zooplankton and fish species.
  • Disease outbreaks – 18,000 harbor seals died as a result of morbillivirus infection in northwest Europe in 1988, and a similar infection killed thousands of striped dolphins in the Mediterranean Sea in 1990-1992.

Gray Whale"We must start now to establish baseline data on the relationship between cetaceans and their environment so that we may better understand the impact of future environmental changes on whale populations, many already fragile as a result of their depleted status," said Baker.

Baker suggested the IWC continue collaborating with other international scientific bodies such as the Arctic Council's Arctic Monitoring and Assessment Program (AMAP), the Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources (CCAMLR) and the Southern Ocean-International Global Ocean Ecosystem Dynamics program (SO-GLOBEC), which are currently conducting research on chemical contaminants, climate change and a number of other issues.

Baker reminded delegates that the commission's long-term financial support is needed in order to support the Scientific Committee's efforts to adequately quantify and provide recommendations to the commission on these threats. Funding will enable the Scientific Committee to initiate research programs, link its efforts to ongoing environmental change research programs and invite scientists with relevant expertise to committee meetings.

"Ultimately, the most important step the commission can take is to supplement the current IWC research fund to ensure long-term financial support for research that can clarify the impacts of environmental change on whales and other cetaceans," said Baker.

In 1998, the IWC proposed that £100,000 be drawn from the commission's reserves to fund environmental programs. Currently, the Scientific Committee has no budget earmarked to study environmental issues. This year, Baker and others are recommending £126,000 be appropriated next year to support research on environmental concerns. Per last year's proposal, £100,000 will come from the commission's reserves.

"With adequate long-term financial support for research on the impacts of global environmental change on cetaceans, many of the gaps in current research may be appropriately addressed, and ultimately wiser management decisions will result from more complete information," said Baker.

Established in 1946, the 40-member International Whaling Commission is the global management authority for the world's whale populations and is charged with providing for the proper conservation of whale stocks. At last year's 50th International Whaling Commission meeting in Oman, the United States raised the issue of environmental threats by leading the passage of a resolution that created a new agenda item on "Environmental Concerns."

Notice to editors: To obtain a hard copy of the multimedia presentation by fax or overnight delivery, call the National Marine Fisheries Service Public Affairs Office at (301) 713-2370.