Threats Faced by Arctic Marine Mammals

Marine mammals encounter a myriad of human-influenced threats around the globe. A study conducted by Huntington (2009) performed an assessment of the various threats to arctic marine mammals. The Arctic faces detrimental consequences of climate change: reduced Arctic sea ice, lengthened periods of open water, and raised water temperatures in marginal seas. These changes are expected to continue or even accelerate. Many Arctic mammals like Polar bears and Sea Lions depend on floating icebergs to use as a hunting ground when preying on fish. The temperature of water currents is of large importance regarding nutrient enrichment, directly impacting the rate at which plants create organic substances – primary productivity – that are used by the entire ecosystem. Warmer waters could also create suitable habitats for harmful microorganisms and can contribute to disease prevalence and spread.

Polar bears rely on floating ice. Photo by: Patrick Kientz

Environmental contaminants are substances that are potentially harmful to the ecosystem around them. They are usually naturally occurring materials that become harmful pollutants over time and accumulation. When accumulated at sufficiently high levels, these pollutants are known to interfere with reproduction, immunological and neurological functions, and cellular and sub-cellular processes. Bio-accumulation poses a hazard to the Arctic’s complete ecology. It occurs when animals consume these environmental contaminants and eaten by other animals before breaking down and excreting the toxic substance. In this way, the contaminants move from animal to animal, possibly taking over the entire food web. In many developing countries, garbage dresses the ocean. Nets and plastic bags could cause suffocation and death for animals.

The Arctic is a large pool of rich resources such as oil and gas, creating a niche for itself in industrial development. Oil Spills are a major part of marine pollution. Oil remains in the water for long periods of time and is incredibly toxic to animals who ingest it. Seals and penguins have struggled with oil-covered bodies that stick to their streamlined bodies. Oil drilling has been a source of noise pollution in the Arctic oceans. Mammals such as whales and dolphins have trouble with the noise and choose to migrate to areas less preferred from their homes.

African Penguins coated in oil. Picture by: Jon Hrusa

Shipping is large in the Arctic ocean and is also a source of noise pollution. Traffic, however, can be dangerous and risky for marine mammals such as whales who come up to the surface of the water to take a breath. There have been many incidents of collisions between the two.

As we all may know, hunting is a big game in the ocean. Marine mammals in the Arctic have been hunted for various purposes. Commercial hunting of seals, whether for skins or to reduce competition for commercial fisheries, is likely to pose a greater risk than non-commercial uses such as traditional harvests among indigenous peoples. Marine populations have gone down because of over-hunting.

Commercial Fisheries is catching fish and other marine animals from a commercial point of view and is a large source for most of the world’s seafood. Commercial fisheries extract large quantities of fish from the ocean, potentially altering food webs or reducing the prey available to marine mammals. Over-fishing is when young fish are caught before they reach their sexual maturity and breed. This drastically reduces the populations of many species in the ocean.

“Awareness has to be spread and precautions have to be taken.”

To avoid Arctic marine mammals to join dinosaurs, awareness has to be spread and precautions have to be taken. Anticipating potential threats would allow us to take preventive action. In our current fast-moving world, we have a high demand for energy, oil, gas, transport, and food. Our needs have been attacking the safety of marine mammals in the Arctic, and we have to be educated about the risks they face. Some things you can incorporate in your daily lives are being watchful of your carbon footprint. When possible, choose walking, cycling, or public transport over the use of your own cars. Be mindful of electricity usage in homes. Implementing even the smallest of these positive changes can lead to a big impact and help us and arctic mammals.

So what is your take on the threats faced by Arctic marine mammals? Do you think we missed a threat or didn’t stress on one enough? What are your suggestions to combat this? Let us know in the comments below!


Huntington, H. P. (2009). A preliminary assessment of threats to arctic marine mammals and their conservation in the coming decades.Marine Policy,33(1), 77–82.

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