Arctic Whales, Walruses, and Polar Bears Win 5-Year Reprieve

President Obama threw a lifeline to the whales, walruses, and polar bears of the Arctic today when he withdrew the publicly-owned Arctic from the 5 year oil and gas leasing program. This builds on his past decision to remove the Atlantic from the plan.

The Arctic is being hit hard and fast by climate change—it’s warming at twice the rate of anywhere else on the planet. Some scientists predict that the permanent Arctic Ocean sea ice may be gone by 2040.  A wonderfully wild and beautiful world of marine species—many of them dependent on ice—is already suffering the consequences.

As the ice has disappeared, the interest of Big Oil in plundering these newly vulnerable waters for short-term profits and dirty fossil fuels has surged. Today, President Obama shut the doors on any drilling from 2017-2022 and gave walruses, polar bears, beluga and bowhead whales—and many more magnificent Arctic creatures—a big win. 

Pacific walrus and calf, Chukchi Sea. Photo: USGS

In the summer, Pacific Walrus moms bring their calves to the shallow Arctic waters to forage for clams and worms. The mom and calf pairs depend on sea ice to rest during feeding trips. As the summer sea ice floes disappear, walruses have been forced to come onto land in giant, concentrated gatherings. In these unnatural conditions, the walruses easily spook and stampede and the smaller calves too-often get crushed in the crowd.

Polar bear and cubs. Photo: Suzanne Miller/USFWS

Polar bears use sea ice as a hunting platform, to rest, and as a place where mother bears go to find a den, hibernate, and birth their cubs (called “denning”). As the Arctic melts, more polar bear mothers are forced to den on land, often near industrial activity. The loss of ice is also forcing bears to swim farther in search of food, and scientists are seeing more skinny polar bears, polar bear drownings, and lower cub survival rates.

Beluga whales. Photo: Brian Gratwicke

More than three thousand beluga whales come to Kasegaluk Lagoon in the Arctic each summer to feed, have their babies, and shed their winter skin. Belugas are known as “canaries of the sea,” because of the magical mix of whistles, squeals, moos, chirps, and clicks they can sing.

Sadly, while the Arctic belugas celebrate, their nearby Cook Inlet cousins suffer. The 5-year lease plan includes a lease sale in Cook Inlet, Alaska, home to an especially endangered population of beluga whales. We will continue to fight to protect these belugas from drilling and exploration for oil.

Bowhead whale. Photo: Kate Stafford/Wikipedia Commons

Bowhead whales can grow up to 59 feet in length. They have a massive triangular skull, which the whale uses to break through the Arctic ice to breathe. Inuit hunters have reported bowheads busting through 2 feet of ice. Most of the western Arctic Ocean’s endangered bowhead whales, the most important subsistence and cultural resource of many Alaskan North Slope residents, migrate along the U.S. Arctic coast.

Many of these populations are not only in a desperate fight for survival against the melting forces of climate change, they are naïve: they have never been exposed to industrial levels of sound and stress before. Allowing drilling or exploration for oil and gas in their home could have devastating consequences. An oil spill in these fragile waters could rocket the entire system to collapse.

An oil spill in the Atlantic could also be catastrophic. The Atlantic is home to the last North Atlantic right whales. These gentle giants were once hunted to the brink of extinct for their oil, and today their population continues to decline. As I’ve written about before, they cannot take another attack on their waters.

President Obama has saved the Arctic and Atlantic waters from drilling for the next five years. He has executive authority to remove ocean areas from any future leasing or exploration plans—forever. We are asking him to secure his legacy and protect the Arctic and Atlantic for all species and for all time.

About the Authors

Giulia C.S. Good Stefani

Attorney, Marine Mammal and Southern California Ecosystems projects

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