Polar Bears on the Precipice
Commercial International Trade of Polar Bears is Affecting Their Chances of Survival
The polar bear's best chance of survival in the wild through the end of the century -- a timeframe in which it is possible to stabilize anthropogenic climate change -- is in Canadian territory. In fact, 15,000 of the world's estimated polar bear population of 20,000 to 25,000 are managed wholly or jointly by Canada. Yet Canada is the only country in the world where polar bears are hunted for international commercial trade.
Unfortunately, many of Canada's polar bear populations are in decline. And many of the hunting quotas in Canada are unsustainable -- and on the rise. For example, despite opposition from both the International Union for Concerned Scientists and the Canadian federal government, the Canadian Territory of Nunavut tripled its hunting quota for the Western Hudson Bay polar bear population in October 2011.
In 2012, Nunavut increased the hunting quotas again despite renewed opposition. The rise in hunting quotas is motivated in part by soaring international demand for hides. The number of skins offered at auctions in Canada tripled between 2007 and 2012 and auction prices doubled in the same time.
The international body that oversees commercial trade of endangered species, the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES), will be meeting in the spring of 2013 to decide if the world will protect our last remaining polar bears from the second biggest threat to their survival: trade. The international community can no longer wait to act. We must support this proposal to ensure that polar bear harvest is no longer influenced by rising international demand.
The evidence is clear. And it's even clearer since 2009, when the last CITES convention occurred.
Overharvest affects polar bear populations
Legal hunting of polar bears solely for the purpose of international trade and sport occurs only in Canada. Each year, approximately 600 polar bears are hunted in Canada. This level of harvest has negatively affected some polar bear populations. For example, in 2011, unsustainable harvest occurred in the Western Hudson Bay and Southern Hudson Bay populations.
Demand for polar bear skins has increased
Since 2009, the market demand for polar bear skins has strengthened significantly. For example, polar bear hides sold at Fur Harvesters Auction Inc. in Canada in 2012 for more than double the prices obtained in 2007; and the number of polar bear hides offered at auctions in Canada tripled between 2007 and 2012 from 40 hides to 150 hides.
Harvest has increased in correlation with demand
During the same period that demand and prices for polar bear skins has gone up, quotas and harvest have increased to unsustainable levels. For example, in April 2011 it was reported that hunters in Quebec killed 70 polar bears -- more than 17 times the usual number killed in southern Hudson Bay. Eventually, the three jurisdictions that share the southern Hudson Bay population agreed to a joint hunting quota of 60 bears per year, a level many polar bear scientists believe is unsustainable.
The majority of studied polar bear populations are declining
Polar bears live in 19 populations with a total population estimated at 20,000 to 25,000. The IUCN/SSC Polar Bear Specialist Group (PBSG) has determined eight of these populations to be currently likely in decline. Seven populations are too "data deficient" to determine current population trends. Of these, some may also be in decline. Further, data used to estimate the sizes of several populations are either non-existent or dated. For example, for three of the data deficient populations, the current population size is "unknown," while for two others, Laptev Sea (Russia) and Viscount Melville Sound (Canada), a population survey has not been conducted for more than 16 years. Thus, the size of the total species population is actually uncertain.
Of those populations with enough information available to determine trends, a clear majority (66 percent) are in decline. Only three populations are thought to be stable, none of which have been studied within the past six years, and only one small population is thought to be increasing, based on a 12-year-old study.
Polar bear populations are expected to suffer severe declines in the future
Sea ice is essential habitat for polar bear survival. Since 2009, scientists observed a direct correlation between decreased sea ice extent and declining polar bear body condition, size, and survival. Scientific papers published in recent years also demonstrate through observation a direct correlation between reduced sea ice and decreased polar bear recruitment and population size.
On August 27, 2012, the United States' National Snow and Ice Data Center (NSIDC) announced that Arctic sea ice extent reached the lowest level ever recorded, breaking the previous record set in 2007. In fact, Arctic sea ice extent is decreasing more rapidly than predicted by global climate change models. According to modeling conducted by the United States Geological Survey, this decline in sea ice is expected to lead to the extirpation of approximately two-thirds of the world's polar bear populations within the next 45 years, or three generations.
last revised 2/26/2013
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