Narwhals in peril
Narwhals are endemic to the Arctic where they divide their time between offshore ice-covered winter habitats and coastal ice-free summering areas. They show little flexibility in migration routes and their remarkable fidelity to summering areas is used to discriminate stocks. Low and declining abundance estimates, combined with increasing catch levels, indicate that several stocks in Greenland are at risk of extirpation. The aggregated global narwhal population may number more than 100,000 individuals, but the species persists as a meta-population with limited or no exchange between neighboring subpopulations. For centuries tusks from male narwhals were economically the most important product of the hunt, but for some 30 years the skin (so-called ‘mattak’) has been the most valuable part of the whales and the retail price of mattak increased from $18/kg in 1990 to $70 in 2020. Naturally this dramatic increase in value has led hunting communities in Greenland to increase their catches of narwhals. At the same time the Government of Greenland is not following scientific recommendations when quotas are set, catches often exceed quotas, quotas, once reached, are often increased, and hunting communities are being subsidized with boats and processing facilities. Given the extreme site fidelity of narwhals, there is nothing to suggest that individuals from other populations can recolonize localities where the species has been extirpated. The loss of a local narwhal population from a specific fjord system is likely to be permanent. The narwhal is regarded as the most sensitive of all Arctic marine mammals to climate change. Narwhals occupy a narrow sea-temperature niche and ocean warming is affecting their distribution. Their responses to climate change are, however, different in kind and on a different scale than mortality from hunting.