Marine species in the Arctic were always safe from the attack of Killer Whales as the whales could not survive in the ice cold water. But a new study, which was conducted by the Fisheries and Oceans Canada and the University of Manitoba, has found that the whales are now moving northward in search of prey with warming Arctic waters and depleting sea ice.
Researchers spent three years interviewing more than 100 Inuit hunters from 11 different Nunavut communities. They found that the killer whales or Orcas as they are also known are increasingly hunting in waters where they were not previously found. The research has been published in the online journal Aquatic Biosystems.
“Killer whales have been seen more and further into the Canadian Arctic, and when they go there, they eat,” said Steven Ferguson, a marine biologist with Fisheries and Oceans Canada and co-author of the study.
The urgent threat is to other species and their survival which were earlier safe from Killer whale attacks.
“Now it looks like some species might be depleted due to predation by killer whales. That’s something we didn’t expect,” stressed Steven.
The hunters interviewed observed that the orcas were now targeting more narwhals, belugas and bowhead whales, which often grow much larger than them. Sightings were reported as far north as Foxe Basin, north of Hudson Bay, and Lancaster Sound, between Devon and Baffin Islands.
Killer Whales are found in all of world oceans including the Arctic and Antartic but they never came so far northward as their body did not adapt to the ice and cold water. Whales that primarily live in the Arctic, such as narwhals and belugas, don’t have dorsal fins. This allows them to come to the surface of the icy cold water easily to breathe. Killer whales on the other hand have a large dorsal fin.
What the researchers have also found is that now the Killer whale has become a competitor of the Inuit hunters for the same prey.
“These ice-adapted whales and seals are not only food for the Inuit but also part of their culture. So it’s important that they maintain that connection to the environment,” Ferguson said. “The Inuit don’t want to hunt humpback whales or minke whales, with which they don’t have a cultural history and don’t have a taste for.”
Jeff Higdon, a consulting wildlife scientist and co-author of the study however said that there is still no scientific evidence that the killer whale population is increasing in the northern icy waters. This was found through observations reported by locals who have seen more of these predators in the last few years.
“The observations by Inuit hunters are highly accurate,” he said. “There’s no way we could recreate the information we get from local observers who have spent their lives out on the water.”
He also observed that the killer whale movement might also be due to the rise in the population of Beluga in the Foxe Basin since commercial whaling ended several decades ago.