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Marine Mammal Commission Focuses on Changing Arctic

At yesterday’s start of the Marine Mammal Commission’s annual meeting, experts discussed the ways diminishing sea ice is affecting marine mammals and subsistence hunting.


Now in it’s 40th year of existence, the conference’s setting in Washington, DC was slightly out of the ordinary.

“The marine mammal commission usually holds its meetings out in different parts of the country—whether it’s Hawaii or Anchorage, because we’re aware of the marine mammal issues in particular regions,” said Peter Thomas,  the international and policy program director for the commission.

Day one of the conference focused on how changes in the Arctic environment are affecting marine mammals.

“Our session on the Arctic began with a presentation by Sue Moore from the National Marine Fisheries Service, and her perspective is that we’re really entering what she refers to as a new normal with the loss of seasonal sea ice, and also the loss of the multi-year ice in the high Arctic,” Thomas explained.

Those changes in sea ice conditions impact oceanography and animal populations, but also industry interests, like how energy companies plan for offshore drilling. Jim Kendall with the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management spoke on the timetable for oil production in the Arctic, measured not in years, but decades.

Other economic sectors, Thomas said, are unfolding right now.

“Shipping is increasing in the Arctic, and that brought us into the discussion with Vera Metcalf on the implications of increased shipping to hunters out in the region. And within that discussion it’s clear that it’s critical that the voices of subsistence communities and of hunters are the most essential voices that we need to try and anticipate what to do.”

The Marine Mammal Commission is a small body, but it’s tasked with giving input to large federal entities like the US Geological Survey and Fish and Wildlife. And the concerns from researchers, policy-makers, and marine mammal users brought up during the current conference instruct how agencies set measures protecting walruses, bowheads, seals, and more.

“Thursday we’re going to hold the session on Capital Hill,” said Thomas. “We may hear from some senators or representatives, and we’ll also be reporting on our discussion.”

Today’s presentations focus on whale strandings, and unexpected die-offs like the 2011 sick seals in Alaska. A link to the commission’s agenda is available here.