Those following the 2013 Convention on Trade in Endangered Species (“CITES”) summit might be under the impression that the United States heroically supported polar bears. But the U.S. position on saving the Arctic and its animals is hardly exemplary. In January, the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service issued a rule enabling oil and gas companies to “take” polar bears and Pacific walruses near the Alaska coast over a five-year span, starting June 11, 2013.
So, what about the Marine Mammal Protection Act? How can it allow a green light for exploratory drilling, seismic surveys, platform and pipeline planning, and a general sallying forth to pillage an ecosystem on the brink?
And what about the Endangered Species Act, passed so that “the ecosystems upon which endangered species and threatened species depend may be conserved”?
The Fish & Wildlife Service acknowledges that spills and waste would harm Pacific walruses and polar bears. Yet it claims that any harms will be unintentional, minor, not even worth the trouble of a full Environmental Impact Statement. At the same time, the Service itself has detailed harrowing possibilities. Example: an oiled walrus calf will be “unrecognizable to its mother either by sight or by smell, and be abandoned.”
“However,” continues the government, “the greater threat may come from an oiled calf that is unable to swim away from the contamination and a mother that would not leave without the calf, resulting in the potential exposure of both animals.”
The government says the oil prospecting operations’ effects will be mitigated. But the last thing a nursing walrus or ice-seeking polar bear needs is “mitigation” by way of “observation vessels” in their space.
In short, because the animals won’t be killed directly, the Fish & Wildlife Service is placing oil and gas companies above marine mammals’ lives.
When Did It Become the Marine Mammal Plundering Act?
Over the years, the Marine Mammal Protection Act has been diluted through amendments to allow the harming of marine mammals — even individuals of endangered or threatened species, such as polar bears, or those “warranted” for Endangered Species Act listing, like walruses — if the Fish and Wildlife Service determines the harm affects small numbers, has a “negligible impact” on species, and has no “unmitigable adverse impact” on subsistence use.
But how can disturbances of Arctic mammals ever be negligible? The Central Arctic Ocean ecosystem is already experiencing drastic changes from the loss of summer sea ice, and these mammals are ice-dependent.
Our taxes are being used to facilitate drilling for oil when the government should be helping the U.S. population move past reliance on fossil fuels and support renewable, clean energy. Worse still, this five-year exemption period shielding oil and gas companies from the Marine Mammal Protection Act, it turns out, will not be all. The corporations want the regulations updated and renewed as they go along — especially as and when they strike oil.
Friends of Animals, on our members’ behalf, submitted a formal opposition statement to the Fish & Wildlife Service. We also sent an open letter to the White House Council on Environmental Quality. We maintain that the Marine Mammal Protection Act, which bars the hunting, killing, capture, or harassment of marine mammals, was meant to shield polar bears and Pacific walruses from assaults of this very type. Walruses and polar bears face crisis, we reminded our government, are already coping with diminishing prey (seal) populations, and thus are especially vulnerable to seeping chemicals, oil or waste in their fragile Arctic habitat.
Fiasco in Bangkok
When, in 2008, the Fish & Wildlife Service listed polar bears under the Endangered Species Act, the agency explained that climate change threatens the bears with extinction within 45 years. They also noted that “current summer sea ice losses appear to be about 30 years ahead” of models. What does that mean? The Arctic ice might soon be perpetually melted — gone! — during the summers.
Meanwhile, oil and gas companies, hunting groups, and the state of Alaska too, are pressing the federal government to overrate the financial value of fossil fuels to justify exploratory drilling. The profit-minded interest groups went so far as to sue the U.S. government to pull the polar bears out from under the protections of Endangered Species Act. In March, a federal court upheld the Endangered Species Act protection for polar bears, pointing out that their “threatened” status is certainly warranted; in fact the bears are on a fast track, given current science, to be moved to the higher protections of the “endangered” status. But within days of the court’s decision came an international fiasco in Bangkok.
We had hoped for increased protections for polar bears at the Convention on Trade in Endangered Species this year, given even Vladimir Putin's interest in protecting polar bears. For Russia and the United States became allies in the cause of protecting the bears under the global treaty on endangered species, reviewed in the March conference in Bangkok.
But by the end of the meeting, the 178 nations in the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora declined to deem the threat to polar bears from the rapid melting of sea ice so great that the additional pressure of hunting for rugs should be outlawed. And they took no action to stop that hunting. Polar bears have yet to be moved to Appendix I, the level of protection under the CITES treaty that would ban all international trade in the species and their parts.
Canadian representative said “the relationship between sea ice loss and polar bear declines is subject to uncertainty” and that its export trade – 300-400 polar bears a year as skins, teeth and paws – does not pose a problem for the bear populations.
The International Union for the Conservation of Nature, which provides official advice to CITES, found that to qualify for increased protection, the polar bear population would have to crash to 5,000 animals and be on course to lose 50% of its number in three generations – 45 years. The IUCN predicts the bear numbers will go down more than 30% in that short time, which is surely frightening enough. The IUCN added that the polar bear’s range is not restricted. But it’s not only restricted; it’s melting away. The bears can’t hunt seals where the ice is gone.
It’s in this context that the European Union nations gave in to Denmark and its satellite state Greenland, and condoned further polar bear exploitation. Believe it or not, Greenpeace and the World Wildlife Fund joined in, claiming the Canadian hunt is sustainable.
Steven C. Amstrup, who has studied polar bears and their habitat since 1980, told National Geographic:
But I know that I would like to see the kind of energy that was going forward by various governments to uplist polar bears in CITES, I’d like to see that same amount of energy at the government level to address greenhouse gas emissions. That’s what we really need to do to save polar bears.
Of course we do — which is precisely why Friends of Animals will continue our efforts to stop the prospecting for fossil fuels in the Arctic. But to say that the continued hunting of polar bears isn’t really an issue assumes that individual polar bears and their distinct lives and relationships do not matter — indeed, that their lives have no value except in the aggregate. And there’s the human insensitivity that’s responsible for the environmental problems human beings are now scrambling to address.
Hunting polar bears is an important subject for our energies; wouldn’t it be all the more so for scientists who knows these bears well (in National Geographic, Dr. Amstrup is pictured holding polar bear cubs)? I’m frankly disappointed that Dr. Amstrup, who is chief scientist for Polar Bears International, saw fit to devalue the work of those working to achieve the best for Arctic mammals that CITES has to offer.
The struggle continues.