Arctic pinnipeds and polar bears – Effects of warming and exploitation:
Arctic phocid seals, walruses and the polar bear have an evolutionary history that spans extremely cold glacial periods and also relatively warm interglacial stages during the Pleistocene epoch. However, the rapid warming of the Arctic during recent decades has led to a decrease in the extent and duration of sea-ice cover.
This development, which is predicted to continue in the 21st century, may have severe consequences for Arctic ice-breeding seals and the polar bear. Highly pagophilic seals, like ringed, harp and hooded seals, will likely experience a marked reduction in range and numbers, and so will polar bears. In contrast, other species, like bearded seals and sub-Arctic harbour seals, may increase in range and abundance.
Hunting of seals, walruses and polar bears is still of great importance to the subsistence economy of many coastal communities of the Arctic. However, in historical times most Arctic seals, walruses, and in some areas also polar bears, were severely exploited by commercial sealers and whalers from Europe and North America. In some areas, this exploitation brought the populations to the verge of extinction.
Research in several areas indicates that the greatest challenge to conservation of Arctic pinnipeds and polar bears may be large-scale ecological change resulting from climatic warming, if the trend documented in recent years continues as projected.
In some areas of the Arctic, various pinnipeds and polar bears are still being exploited at relatively high rates and, in case of some walrus and polar bear populations, beyond sustainability. Setting safe catch limits in a warming Arctic should apply the precautionary approach.