This Week in Whales: Belugas Trapped in Russian Ice Floes; Russia Bans Harp Seal Trade; Bad Changes to Canadian Narwhal Tusk Ban?; Trendy Whale Songs...

News in the world of whales this week (or close to it).

  • More than 100 beluga whales are trapped in ice floes in Russia’s far north-east.  The whales face exhaustion and death if a channel doesn’t open up that will enable them to swim to open waters.  Immense volumes of ice advancing into a channel in the Bering Sea are blocking the whale’s path.  The regional governor has asked Russia’s transport and emergencies ministers to send an icebreaker to the channel to free the whales.

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  • Good news, Russia is banning the trade of harp seal products, spelling a possible end for Canada’s seal industry.  Canada currently sends 90% of its seal products to Russia, so the ban should crush the industry.  Of course, Canada is fighting a similar ban by the European Union at the World Trade Organization and has been trying to prop up the industry by helping cut deals with China to import more seal products.  Some industries are meant to die, this is one of them; people’s beliefs and tastes change, that’s the way the market works.  Canada can continue pouring resources into propping up a product that people don’t want anymore, or they can spend the same resources on developing new opportunities for their people. 
  • Meanwhile, negotiations within Canada continue over a narwhal tusk export ban.  A year ago, taking the unusual step of protecting a species, the Canadian Department of Fisheries and Oceans imposed an international trade ban on narwhal tusks from 17 Nunavut communities.  Narwhal are listed as near threatened by the IUCN, noting that “intense hunting (including associated loss due to wounding and sinking) in Greenland and Canada gives cause for concern, particularly given the lack of reliable data on hidden mortality and serious injury.”  Of course, the Nunavut communities engaged in potentially unsustainable harvest of Narwhal were up in arms over the ban and sued the Canadian government to lift it.  The parties agreed to negotiate the issue and word on the street is that the Nunavut believe the ban may be lifted from some communities.  Ugh. 
  • Did you know that whale songs change from season to season to keep up with the latest craze.  According to marine biologist Carter Esch, whale songs work much like fashion; “[s]ome styles come and go as quickly as hot pants and jelly shoes.  Others, like trench coats and corduroys, catch on and become integrated into the collective wardrobe, and still others may endure and span eras, as timeless as a tuxedo.”  While all whales of a particular species generally sing the same song all season long, the song changes year to year and throughout the season.  “We don’t know which whales introduce changes to the song, but we do know that the other singers adopt these changes and end up singing the same tune.”  Cool. 
  • Uh, oh; unusual marine mammal death clusters on four US coasts:  the Atlantic, the Gulf of Mexico, the Bering Sea, and the Chukchi Sea.  Of course, there’s the ongoing stranding of whales and dolphins in the Gulf of Mexico (611 as of December 18), which are increasingly being linked to the BP disaster.  Then, in New England, there’s an ongoing stranding of harbor seals (162 since September), mostly under six months old that is being linked to an influenza virus similar to an avian flu seen in wild birds.  And finally, in the Arctic and Bering Strait, there’s an ongoing stranding of dead and diseased ringed seals (60 dead and 75 diseased since mid-July) likely linked to an unknown disease causing lesions all over their bodies.  And we may have to add walruses to the list soon too.  This is not good. 

Meanwhile, this week in Wales…

A “big cat” is terrorizing and killing lambs in the South Wales Valleys.