Arctic Habitat Conservation Requires Climate Change Action

This article originally appear in Issue 1 of the Hunt To Eat Magazine, released in Winter 2022.

All photography by Kristeen McTavish.

In 2015, I was in Kugaaruk, Nunavut interviewing hunters for my graduate research. We were talking about ringed seal and polar bear ecology and the environmental changes hunters had noticed over the years, including changes to sea ice, climate, and wildlife. We were also running a harvest-based seal sampling program in which hunters took measurements and submitted samples of seals that would be used to understand seal health and learn about the food web. As I spent time learning about the lives of ringed seals, their habitat, diet, behavior, and their importance to communities across the Arctic, I immersed myself in every aspect of seal cultural and environmental history and hunting and cooking techniques. I became obsessed with their biology and ecology. I developed a passionate concern for their conservation, advocating for social-political actions that support seal hunting movements and the use of seal fur products.

I had spent time learning about them from many knowledgeable people and I was keen to engage with their behavior and biology firsthand. As part of my work on these seal research programs, I had been collecting samples of organs and other tissues and butchering seals that hunters submitted. The more I learned about ringed seals from hunters and biologists and ate seal meat, the more I wanted to interact with seals in their own habitat and hunt them myself. I did not specifically desire to kill a seal; however, I thought often and deeply about seal hunting in more than only an academic way.

Historical Ecology of Ringed Seals

Seals emerged as a distinct evolutionary group approximately 50 million years ago. Ringed seals (Pusa hispida) are members of the Phocidae family, known as earless seals, which split from other seal lineages about 33 million years ago. In 1775, a German naturalist named Johann Christian Daniel von Schreber published an extensive multivolume of studies of mammals around the world titled Die Säugetiere in Abbildungen nach der Natur mit Beschreibungen (which roughly translates to Mammals in Illustrations Based on Nature, With Descriptions). Schreber gave scientific names and made illustrations of mammals around the world, including ringed seals, which he called Phoca hispida. Based on more recent molecular evidence that helped scientists clarify their relationship to other seal species and their phylogenetic position, the Latin name for ringed seals was changed to Pusa hispida. Today, ringed seals are the most common Arctic seal. They have a circumpolar distribution, meaning their range extends fully around the northern regions of the planet.

Schreber’s original 1775 depiction of a ringed seal.

Ringed seals can be poetically and scientifically instructive in Arctic habitat conservation and loss due to climate change. Seals have become an iconic example of the rich social-ecological complexities inherent in hunting and conservation. Seals have cultural significance to communities across the Arctic; Indigenous and other northern cultures have hunted seals for thousands of years. Throughout the Canadian Arctic, Inuit hunt and eat seals as an important part of their diet, relying on both their meat and thick nutrient-rich blubber. Hunters and craftspeople sell furs into the commercial market in addition to using their warm, waterproof fur for clothing and other seal skin products for local use.

Arctic Habitat

The importance of protecting habitat has become profoundly apparent in recent decades as we witness dramatic declines in both the quantity and quality of wildlife habitat across North America because of landscape fragmentation, industrial development, resource extraction, environmental contamination and pollution, and changing climatic systems. Importantly, the impacts of habitat loss and the associated loss of biodiversity have disproportionately affected Indigenous peoples and communities of color, who are statistically more likely to live nearest the hardest-hit regions than any other social group.

As hunters, anglers, and conservationists, we understand the importance of habitat protection. We know that wildlife requires healthy habitats for feeding, migrating, and reproducing. Rather than focus narrowly on individual species initiatives, conservation organizations and movements are increasingly focusing on protecting and managing habitat for a wide range and diversity of species.

Habitat protection is a critical need to guarantee a future with healthy wildlife and wild places. To protect habitat, we need to clearly identify the threats to that habitat—the forces that reduce its extent and quality—and determine the conservation measures needed to protect it—the policies, programs, and actions that will slow its decline and enhance its quality. In the Arctic, sea ice forms critical habitat for many terrestrial and marine species and is a fundamental component of the entire Arctic marine food web Research has even documented sea ice as an important migratory platform for caribou. If the Arctic continues to experience a reduction in the extent and quality of sea ice, species such as ringed seals will lose breeding, resting, migration, foraging, and feeding habitat. In the Arctic, as elsewhere, habitat conservation is the key task for effective wildlife conservation and the preservation of hunting traditions. Across the Arctic, climate change is the most profound threat to healthy sea ice habitat.

Climate Change in the Arctic

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) is the United Nations body responsible for conducting regular assessments of climate change and providing advice to policymakers. The IPCC released its sixth assessment report in August 2021, discussing current and potential future states of the climate under different scenarios. The IPCC’s Climate Change 2021 report tells us that we need to reach net zero carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions and strongly reduce methane (CH4) emissions. The science also tells us that it is vital we do not allow global temperature to reach 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels (approximated as the period 1850-1900) to avoid extreme impacts of climate change on human and natural systems. Overall, human actions have caused an increase in global surface temperature by approximately 1.07 degrees Celsius. According to the IPCC, global temperatures are likely to reach 1.5 degrees Celsius warming between 2030 and 2052 if current trends continue.

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In marine environments, human actions have caused ocean warming, acidification, and a reduction in oxygen levels in the ocean. Climate change is causing reductions in Arctic sea ice habitat. Scientists have long noted the potential impacts to Arctic ecosystems from sea ice habitat loss due to climate change. In a 1997 paper titled Observations and Predictions of Arctic Climatic Change: Potential Effects on Marine Mammals, Cynthia Tynan and Douglas DeMaster described effects on Arctic food webs from declining sea ice extent. Sea ice plays a key role in facilitating trophic interactions (the ways in which species interact in the food chain through consumption and predation) in Arctic marine food webs from primary productivity to prey species and up to top predators such as polar bears (Ursus maritimus). At the base of the Arctic food chain, the bottom of the sea ice provides a platform for the formation of ice algae, which is the foundation of the Arctic marine food web. Dense formations of under-ice algal communities provide a food source for species of amphipods and Arctic cod, two important prey species of seals and whales. Researchers have suggested that changes in the extent and timing of sea ice could impact distributions of Arctic cod and, therefore, distributions of marine mammals. Much of the key processes of primary productivity in the Arctic occur at the ice edges, meaning that as sea ice shrinks, there is less area of ice edge and consequently a reduction in primary productivity, which could have cascading effects on other trophic levels of the food chain.

In its Arctic Report Card 2020, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) said that the “substantial decline in extent since 1979 is one of the most iconic indicators of climate change.” Each summer, Arctic sea ice melts and reaches what is referred to as the annual minimum extent in September, followed by a period of freezing and expansion that typically culminates in maximum extent in March. Human influence is likely to have caused a reduction in Arctic sea ice extent (defined as the area of the ocean covered by at least 15% sea ice) of roughly 40% in September and 10% in March.

In March 2021, Arctic sea ice extent reached its maximum value for that year, covering 14.6 million square kilometers. For perspective, consider that Hunt To Eat’s headquarters is in Colorado. At its largest extent, you could fit Colorado on the Arctic sea ice 54 times. It can be difficult to imagine habitat on this scale, so consider that the boreal forest is the world’s largest biome and covers roughly 16.6 million square kilometers in a ring around the entire planet. Considered in context and on a global scale, Arctic sea ice represents a massive and important habitat. In September 2021, sea ice extent reached its annual minimum, covering 4.9 million square kilometers. In 2012, the summer minimum extent of Arctic sea ice reached its lowest level on record. The last 15 years have had the 15 lowest summer sea ice extents on record.

Habitat loss negatively impacts both wildlife and human communities. Arctic climate change has serious impacts on the approximately four million people who live in the Arctic, especially Indigenous communities. In its Arctic Climate Change Update 2021, the Arctic Monitoring and Assessment Programme (AMAP) identifies climate change impacts on Arctic communities related to health and well-being, food security, transportation, livelihoods, industries, infrastructure, and the availability of safe drinking water. For instance, changes in wildlife health due to climate change impacts the availability and quality of traditional and wild foods Indigenous communities rely on and their ability to travel on sea ice to access those foods. Furthermore, the increasing frequency of extreme events such as wildfires, inland and coastal flooding and erosion, and extreme temperature and precipitation events are also affecting Arctic communities.

Impacts of Sea Ice Habitat Loss on Arctic Wildlife

To fully appreciate the importance of sea ice as habitat, we might need to reconsider how we imagine Arctic sea ice. As a habitat and ecosystem, sea ice is incredibly dynamic, experiencing dramatic annual cycles like seasonal changes in other ecosystems in southern latitudes. We sometimes talk about sea ice as one big uniform feature of Arctic ecosystems; however, there are different and dramatic processes of sea ice freeze-up in the fall and break-up in the summer, different types and structures of sea ice, and ice platforms undergo large movements influenced by temperature, winds, and ocean currents throughout the year, both affecting and affected by other ecological dynamics.

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Ringed seals are what is referred to as an ice-associated species, meaning that they depend on sea ice for fundamental components of their life history and survival. Using those same sharp claws, ringed seals hollow out lairs beneath the snow on the ice (similar in structure to how we might think of a beaver lodge). In these lairs, female seals give birth to a single pup in the spring. Ringed seals also haul out on the sea ice to bask in the sun in the spring and rest. Arctic predators, such as Arctic foxes and polar bears, use the sea ice to hunt ringed seals, which form the primary diet of polar bears in many areas throughout the Arctic. Foxes and polar bears find birth lairs and dig out the pup inside before it is old enough to escape through the hole in the ice.

In a 2005 paper titled Climate Change and Ringed Seal (Phoca hispida) Recruitment in Western Hudson Bay, Dr. Steven Ferguson and colleagues reported on research conducted with over 600 ringed seal samples collected from Inuit hunters. They examined ringed seal reproductive success relative to several environmental variables, including snow depth, snowfall, rainfall, temperature in the months pups are born, and timing of spring break-up. The study found that reduced snow depth, warming air temperatures, and earlier spring break-up, which are all documented impacts of climate change, likely have negative impacts on ringed seal reproduction and survival.

More recently, Katie Florko and colleagues published a paper in 2021 titled Predicting How Climate Change Threatens the Prey Base of Arctic Marine Predators. Their study examined potential shifts in prey communities important to ringed seals and other marine mammals due to climate change. They found that abundance and biomass of Arctic cod, which are specially adapted to ice environments because they feed on ice-associated zooplankton that feed on those ice algae discussed above, are projected to decline under climate change scenarios. Further, increased water temperatures are projected to result in decreased body size of fish species. As Florko and colleagues reported, “this decrease in body size, along with a shift from the energy- and lipid-rich Arctic cod to smaller forage fishes, may result in seals feeding on more on ‘junk food’ with unknown demographic consequences, but perhaps including reduced energy reserves (stored as blubber).” The likely magnitude of these changes is directly related to greenhouse gas emissions, with more dramatic changes projected under higher emissions scenarios.

Moving up the food chain, research led by Associate Professor Dr. Greg Thiemann at York University examines Arctic food webs and has shown that ringed seals are the primary prey of polar bears across their Canadian range. Polar bears hunt primarily from the sea ice, so declines in sea ice extent or shorter ice seasons (later freeze-up and earlier break-up) will reduce the amount of time each year that polar bears can hunt the fat-rich marine mammals they rely on. In a 2019 paper titled Correlates of Seasonal Change in the Body Condition of an Arctic Top Predator, Melissa Galicia and colleagues found that “earlier break‐up will reduce hunting opportunities, with potentially profound consequences on polar bear reproductive success and demographic viability.” In the southern portion of their range in Hudson Bay, research shows that declining sea ice has affected polar bear nutrition, causing declines in body condition, reproductive rates, survival, and abundance.

Climate Change Action to Conserve Sea Ice Habitat

In his short story The Lives of Seals, environmental writer Barry Lopez tells of time he spent working with biologists on a research vessel in Alaska. Lopez upends the imagination of the Arctic as desolate, describing how “immense flocks of migrating waterfowl, the open pack ice, pods of feeding gray whales, the long lingering of orange and purple light at dusk, the piggish odor of walrus, the sudden appearance of a polar bear in the water on a foggy morning—all this nourished a sense of the biological richness of the region.” The Arctic is a dynamic ecosystem full of life and it deserves our affection and admiration.

Declining sea ice is a conservation issue much the same as we think about other concerns around habitat loss, such as destruction of sage brush habitat or logging of old growth forests. As a conservation issue, sea ice loss needs to be considered and addressed with the same urgency as other global conservation challenges. However, addressing sea ice habitat conservation has unique challenges. When we consider threats to habitats and associated conservation actions in southern regions, the threats and actions are often direct and right in front of us. If an area of forest habitat is at risk of destruction from logging, the solution seems clear: we can directly protect that forest from logging.

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The main threat to sea ice is global climate change. This means the main cause of habitat loss is indirect and originates in regions far away from the sea ice itself. Part of what complicates this issue is that as sea ice declines, it creates possibilities for other activities in the Arctic that can directly damage the habitat and threaten the ecosystem. For instance, as the sea ice retreats and the ice-free season lengthens, this opens additional possibilities for increased Arctic shipping. Declining sea ice has also dangled the possibility of increased opportunities for resource extraction activities. Underwater noise and ship strikes associated with increased vessel traffic threaten marine life and Arctic ecosystems are more sensitive to harm from things like fuel spills. While ocean habitat can be protected from direct disturbance through the creation of protected areas, such as the Tallurutiup Imanga National Marine Conservation Area in Nunavut that protects 108,000 square kilometers of the Arctic Ocean, reducing the main threats to sea ice habitat requires conservation policies that address climate change.

Just as the main sources of climate change are far outside the Arctic, so too are the conservation actions needed to slow sea ice habitat loss. As hunters, we need to commit to the conservation actions needed to protect all habitats and biodiversity; we need to commit to doing what is best for wildlife and wild places. We need aggressive climate change targets and policies that will reduce the factors contributing to climate change and sea ice loss. As hunters, anglers, trappers, foragers, gatherers, outdoorspeople, and members of the conservation community, we need to recognize the threats to Arctic habitat and wildlife and call for international action on climate change. We need to elect political leaders who run on a platform of climate action and conservation. We as a community want to continue to enjoy the wildlife and wild places we love well beyond 2052. Unfortunately, climate change has incited dramatic political divisiveness. But that time must be over. We need to consider climate change a conservation challenge and believe that our community can inspire the cooperation needed to address it as we have many other conservation challenges in our collective history.

Connections: Research and Hunting

I care deeply about ringed seals. Eventually I had the opportunity to connect the academic to the practical. I shot my first seal in November of 2018, a male ringed seal outside Nain, Nunatsiavut, Labrador. Seal hunting is thrilling in small moments. When hunting from a boat on open water, you look for seals to pop their heads above the water when they come up to breathe. There are long stretches of staring out at vast expanses of open ocean looking for a small, shiny head to break the surface within shooting range and then trying to shoot before it goes back underwater. During the winter, hunting often involves traveling by sea ice to the edges of polynyas (areas of the ocean that remain open water all year due to faster currents) and similarly watching for seals to surface for air, then going out in a small boat to retrieve them. Seals also have sharp claws that they use to create and maintain breathing holes through the sea ice, clawing their way up from the water, sometimes through several feet of ice. When hunting on the sea ice, hunters will look for breathing holes and watch for a seal’s head to appear in the hole as it comes up for air or look for a seal hauled out on the ice and try to shoot before it escapes through its hole back into the water.

After the successful hunt, a dear friend and mentor taught me to scrape, wash, stretch, and dry the hide from the seal I shot as we sat on the floor of her living room in Nain with the frozen Labrador Sea outside her windows. The fur is a memento of one of the most meaningful hunts I have been on, one that brought me into closer connection with a species and habitat very important to me. We made several delicious meals out of that seal. We also shared the meat with friends and family. Every time we ate some of the seal, it was a reminder of the complex environment seals occupy, the important role they play in the broader Arctic social-ecological system, and the need to take strong global actions to protect their habitats from further loss due to climate change.

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