Noise is bad for narwhals

Photo credit: Dr. Daniel Fink

by Daniel Fink, MD, Chair, The Quiet Coalition

The narwhal is a remarkable animal, a small whale with a single tusk, which is actually a hypertrophied tooth that can grow to ten feet long. Unlike the unicorn, the narwhal is real.

As described in this article in Maclean’s magazine, a general interest magazine in Canada, the horn is packed with millions of nerve endings that the narwhal uses for navigation and to find food under the ice during the arctic winter. They emit clicks and use the echoes to find their food.

The narwhal is important to the Inuit, who hunt it. Unfortunately, as climate change accelerates, previously inaccessible parts of the Arctic can now be reached for mining. On Baffin Island, the Baffinland Iron Mines Corporation started mining in 2014, causing a sixfold increase in underwater noise from ship motors and propellers in Tasiujak, formerly Eclipse Sound.

And that noise is affecting the narwhal population and, in turn, hunting for the Inuit in tiny Pond Inlet, Nunavut, Canada’s newest territory, which is a portion  of the Northwest Territories given to the Inuit to govern independently. There are fewer narwhals, the Inuit report, and they are skinnier, Researchers have found increased cortisol levels in their blubber, indicating stress.

I have actually been to Pond Inlet. It is a special place, very scenic, a very small, bare-bones town, 400 miles above the Arctic Circle, trying to make the transition from a subsistence existence to something slightly more modern. It is the home of Nunavut Arctic College, with a nascent artistic community, but many still rely on hunting and fishing to feed their families.

The Inuit oppose the expansion of Baffinland’s mine because of the effects of the expansion and the increased ship traffic on narwhals and the environment.

I hope they are successful.


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