A freeway through a playground

by Sune Scheller

August 1, 2012

USA ALASKA CHUKCHI SEA 29JUL12 - Acoustician Kelly Newman listens for whale sounds as a Greenpeace boat crew surveys the sea ice in the Chukchi Sea near a proposed Shell drill site north of Point Hope, Alaska. Photo by Jiri Rezac / Greenpeace © Jiri Rezac / Greenpeace

Jiri Rezac / Greenpeace

Guest blog by Kelly Newman, acoustician at University of Alaska

Listen to the calls of a killer whale and join us to save the Arctic.

I have been staring out at the Chukchi Sea for days, looking for a blow, a flip, a jump, anything that moves. I am hoping to find whales and seals while Greenpeace marine biologist John Hocevar and his co-pilots survey the seafloor with a small two-person research submarine in the Shells proposed drill sites.

Unfortunately, we are blocked out of the northern drilling area by sea ice and can only survey the southern drilling site in the Chukchi. We are a little far too from shore to find much charismatic mega fauna though, the belugas and bowheads have already migrated north. I am always up for surprises so we are looking. In the late spring, belugas migrate up the Bering Straight to the MacKenzie River Delta area, and bowheads migrate up to the ice edge. Unbeknownst to them, their return migration route overlaps where Shells drilling is proposed to take place.

In 2007, Greenpeace helped me with my research in the Bering Sea by providing boats and research assistants. I was blown away by their professionalism and genuine good will towards the ocean, so I am grateful to be onboard the Esperanza again. My selfish interest in joining this Arctic ship tour as an independent researcher is to see if killer whales venture up here to take advantage of the rich Arctic fauna. In Point Hope where I joined the ship the mayor regaled me with tales of killer whale attacks on local bowhead whales. At a marine mammal conference a while back, Julien Delarue of Jasco Research presented a poster with the killer whale vocalizations recorded in the Chukchi Sea. Killer whales ranging and behavior in the Bering/Arctic region is still a mystery.

I am studying the killer whales of the Pribilof Islands and have identified ten vocalizations or call types for part of my dissertation work at University of Alaska. Pribilof killer whales travel extensively throughout the Bering Sea, and there is some evidence that they also travel both north and south of the Bering Sea. If I find killer whales up here, and one of their call matches mine, that will tell us more about where they go. Another interesting question is how do predators adapt to altered environments? If predictions of further diminishing sea ice in response to climate change come true, will killer whales enter areas that have less sea ice? Killer whales have increased exponentially in the Hudson Bay, Canada due to changes in sea ice.

Recordings of killer whales

So that is my main interest here. But I also want to see the Arctic regulars. So far we have seen some gray whales, a beluga, a minke whale, bearded seals, ringed seals and possibly one bowhead whale. While the sea ice keeps us out of Beaufort Sea, I will focus on an obscure but very important species that we have seen quite a bit of.

Admittedly, one normally one thinks of polar bears when one hears the word Arctic. It turns out that the most abundant marine mammal in the circumpolar region is the ringed seal (Phoca hispida). They are the polar bears chief food type. When sea ice forms in the fall, ringed seals break the ice with their heads to make a breathing hole which they keep open with their sharp claws. The polar bear will watch the hole (like a hawk) and grab the seal at the opportune time.

Ringed seals are vulnerable to changes in sea ice and they are a key subsistence food for Alaska natives. Ring seals eat arctic cod and invertebrates. All age classes, especially juveniles who have not mastered their fishing techniques, eat invertebrates. The complexity of their diet reinforces the fact that all levels of the Arctic ecosystem must remain intact. Invertebrates, fish and plankton all are vulnerable to the effects of oil development. Scientific work shows that ring seals fall migration route overlaps with oil lease development sites.

Drilling here would impact the every phase of a ringed seals existence, and in turn, its main predator, the Polar Bear, will have less food. Decades of monitoring shows that Arctic species are uniquely vulnerable, ice dependent species. Disturbing the pristine Arctic with drilling operations, even if the feared blow out doesnt come, is a very bad idea. To relate it to a human scenario, allowing drilling would be akin to building a freeway the middle of a kids playground. How would they do? Would they stay healthy and survive? Or would they abandon the site, their preferred habitat, with nowhere else to go?

Join us in saving the Arctic. One voice is not enough.

By Sune Scheller

Sune Scheller is an Arctic campaigner with Greenpeace Nordic.

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