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Monodon monoceros

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Taxonomy [top]

Kingdom Phylum Class Order Family
ANIMALIA CHORDATA MAMMALIA CETARTIODACTYLA MONODONTIDAE

Scientific Name: Monodon monoceros
Species Authority: Linnaeus, 1758
Common Name(s):
English Narwhal, Unicorn Whale
French Narval
Spanish Narval

Assessment Information [top]

Red List Category & Criteria: Near Threatened ver 3.1
Year Published: 2012
Date Assessed: 2008-07-01
Assessor(s): Jefferson, T.A., Karkzmarski, L., Laidre, K., O’Corry-Crowe, G., Reeves, R., Rojas-Bracho, L., Secchi, E., Slooten, E., Smith, B.D., Wang, J.Y. & Zhou, K.
Reviewer(s): Brownell Jr., R.L. & Cooke, J.
Justification:
The narwhal was assessed previously (1996) as Data Deficient. The aggregate circumpolar population of narwhals is probably greater than 80,000 (all ages). At the global level the species does not qualify for a threatened status under any of the criteria, although there is substantial uncertainty about numbers and trends in large parts of the range and clear evidence of decline for specific subpopulations (NAMMCO/JCNB 2005). The intense hunting (including associated loss due to wounding and sinking) in Greenland and Canada gives cause for concern, particularly given the lack of reliable data on hidden mortality and serious injury. Given that uncertainty, and the fact that cessation of national and international, taxon-specific conservation programs that currently monitor and manage hunting could result in the narwhal’s qualifying for threatened status (under criterion A) within five years, the species should be listed as Near Threatened. The narwhal is unquestionably a conservation-dependent species.

Across the global range of the species, subpopulations are subject to differing levels of threat and warrant individual assessment. Therefore, a caveat for the global listing as Near Threatened is that it assumes national and international management authorities will continue to monitor and manage harvest levels. Hunting with modern equipment in specific parts of Greenland and Canada represents the most long-standing and consistent threat to narwhals throughout their range. Several small and/or depleted subpopulations (e.g. West Greenland and Hudson Bay) warrant individual assessment as an immediate priority.
History:
1996 Data Deficient (Baillie and Groombridge 1996)
1996 Data Deficient
1994 Insufficiently Known (Groombridge 1994)
1990 Insufficiently Known (IUCN 1990)
1988 Insufficiently Known (IUCN Conservation Monitoring Centre 1988)

Geographic Range [top]

Range Description: Narwhals primarily inhabit the Atlantic sector of the Arctic. The principal distribution is from the central Canadian Arctic (Peel Sound – Prince Regent Inlet and northern Hudson Bay) eastward to Greenland and into the eastern Russian Arctic (around 180°E). They are rarely observed in the far eastern Russian Arctic, Alaska, or the western Canadian Arctic. In summer, Narwhals spend approximately two months in high Arctic ice-free shallow bays and fjords; they overwinter in offshore, deep, ice-covered habitats along the continental slope (Heide-Jørgensen and Dietz 1995). The whales migrate annually between these disjunct seasonal areas of concentration, with the migratory periods lasting approximately two months (Koski and Davis 1994, Innes et al. 2002, Heide-Jørgensen et al. 2002, Dietz et al. 2001, Heide-Jørgensen et al. 2003).

The map shows where the species may occur based on oceanography. The species has not been recorded for all the states within the hypothetical range as shown on the map. States for which confirmed records of the species exist are included in the list of native range states.
Countries:
Native:
Canada; Greenland; Russian Federation; Svalbard and Jan Mayen
Vagrant:
Germany; Iceland; Netherlands; Norway; United Kingdom; United States
FAO Marine Fishing Areas:
Native:
Arctic Sea; Atlantic – northeast; Atlantic – northwest
Range Map: Click here to open the map viewer and explore range.

Population [top]

Population: The global population is probably in excess of 80,000 animals. The narwhals that summer in the Canadian High Arctic constitute the largest fraction, probably in excess of 70,000 animals (Innes et al. 2002; NAMMCO/JCNB 2005). In addition, some thousands of narwhals probably summer in the bays and fjords along the East Baffin Island coastline (NAMMCO/JCNB 2005). Another summering aggregation, centred in northern Hudson Bay, numbers about 3,500 animals (COSEWIC 2004). Two summering aggregations in West Greenland (Inglefield Bredning and Melville Bay) total over 2,000 animals (Heide-Jørgensen 2004, NAMMCO/JCNB 2005) and in East Greenland a rough estimate of the total number of animals in the summering aggregations is >1,000 (Gjertz 1991, NAMMCO/JCNB 2005). Surveys in Central West Greenland in late winter estimated 2,800 animals in 1998 and 1999 (Heide-Jørgensen and Acquarone 2002), however, these surveys covered unknown proportions of whales from different summering aggregations in West Greenland (likely Inglefield Bredning) and possibly Canada. Some areas in Canada with summering aggregations remain unsurveyed, although these likely contain small numbers.

The estimated generation length for the narwhal according to Taylor et al. (2007) is 24 years, which means that the 3-generation window is 1936-2008.
Population Trend: Unknown

Habitat and Ecology [top]

Habitat and Ecology: In all areas of their occurrence, Narwhals prefer deep or offshore waters (Hay and Mansfield 1989). Narwhals from Canada and West Greenland have high site fidelity to the winter pack ice of Davis Strait and Baffin Bay in regions along the continental slope with high gradients in bottom temperatures, predictable open water (< 5%) and relatively high densities of Greenland Halibut (Laidre et al. 2004a). The wintering grounds may be the most important habitat for narwhals. Intense benthic feeding behavior has been documented between November and March in Baffin Bay and Davis Strait (Laidre et al. 2003, Laidre and Heide-Jørgensen 2005a), in contrast to low feeding activity during the summer period. This suggests a major portion of the annual energy intake is obtained in winter (Laidre et al. 2004a, Laidre and Heide-Jørgensen 2005a). This may also be true for the Greenland Sea, but has yet to be documented.

Fish, squid, and shrimp make up the Narwhal’s diet (Hay and Mansfield 1989; Heide-Jorgensen 2002), especially Arctic fish species, such as Greenland halibut, Arctic Cod, and Polar Cod (the latter of which are often associated with undersides of ice) (Laidre and Heide-Jørgensen 2005a). Narwhals feed mostly in deep water and possibly at or near the bottom. Dives of up to nearly 1,500 m and 25 minutes are documented (Laidre et al. 2003), and there are some seasonal differences in the depth and intensity of diving (Laidre et al. 2002, Laidre et al. 2003). Predators include Killer Whales, Polar Bears, and possibly occasionally Greenland Sharks and Walruses (Hay and Mansfield 1989).
Systems: Marine

Use and Trade [top]

Use and Trade: This species is hunted in Canada and Greenland for human and animal food, and for tusk ivory.

Threats [top]

Major Threat(s): Narwhal populations are potentially threatened by hunting, climate change, and industrial activities. Narwhals were never the targets of large-scale commercial hunting except for a brief period of perhaps several decades of the early 20th century in the eastern Canadian Arctic (Mitchell and Reeves 1981). They were hunted opportunistically by commercial whalers, explorers and adventurers in many areas. For many centuries, narwhals have been hunted by the Inuit for human food, dog food and tusk ivory (Born et al. 1994). The mattak (skin and adhering blubber) is highly prized as food and provides a strong incentive for the hunt (Reeves 1993), but in recent years the cash value of ivory and the need for cash to buy snowmobiles have both greatly increased. Potential future threats include habitat degradation from oil exploration and development (e.g., in West Greenland) and increased shipping in the high Arctic (NW and NE passages), all of which is bound to increase with the dramatic, ongoing reduction in sea ice.

In West Greenland, catches have declined since 1993 with no significant sex bias. Heide-Jorgensen (2002) estimated the annual catch rate at 550 between 1993 and 1995. In 2004, the estimated catch in West Greenland was 294 (NAMMCO/JCNB 2005), including whales that were struck and lost. In contrast to West Greenland, there has been an 8% increase in catches in East Greenland since 1993 (NAMMCO/JCNB 2005).

The narwhal is actively hunted only in Canada and Greenland. In the eastern Canadian Arctic, the average reported landed catch per year from selected communities was 373 between 1996 and 2004 (NAMMCO/JCNB 2005). In Canada the majority of the communities take a greater proportion of males than females throughout the seasons. Annual catch statistics in Canada substantially underestimate the total numbers of Narwhals killed due primarily to the incomplete reporting of whales that are struck and killed but lost (IWC 2000; NAMMCO/JCNB 2005; Nicklen 2007).

Narwhals supplied various staples in the traditional subsistence economy. Today the main products are mattak and ivory (Reeves 1993, Reeves and Heide-Jørgensen 1994, Heide-Jørgensen 1994, Nicklen 2007). Narwhal tusks from Canada and Greenland are sold in specialty souvenir markets domestically and also have been exported. However, in Greenland, the export of tusks is currently banned. In Canada, the quota system that had been in place since the 1970s was replaced by a community-based management system implemented in the late 1990s and early 2000s (COSEWIC 2004). The hunt is managed by local hunter and trapper organizations with harvest limits established in some communities. Compliance has been questionable (COSEWIC 2004). Under this system, removals from some summering aggregations are probably sustainable, however, there is concern that removals from other summering aggregations may not be (NAMMCO/JCNB 2005). In Greenland, a quota system was introduced in 2004 by the Greenland Ministry of Fisheries and Wildlife. The quota was set at 300 Narwhals (of which 294 were taken), divided among municipalities of West Greenland. Compliance reportedly has been good (NAMMCO/JCNB 2005) although there is concern that catch limits may be set too high (IWC 2007, p. 52).

The effects of climate change on Narwhals are uncertain. Narwhals are well adapted to a life in the pack ice as indicated by the fact that there is very little open water in their winter habitat (Laidre and Heide-Jørgensen 2005b). They spend much of their time in heavy ice and are vulnerable to ice entrapments where hundreds can become trapped in a small opening in the sea ice (savssat) and die. This occurs when sudden changes in weather conditions (such as shifts in wind or quick drops in temperature) freeze shut leads and cracks they were using. When entrapped whales are discovered by hunters, they normally are killed. A recent assessment of the sensitivity of all Arctic marine mammals to climate change ranked the narwhal as one of the three most sensitive species, primarily due to its narrow geographic distribution, specialized feeding and habitat choice, and high site fidelity (Laidre et al. in press).

Conservation Actions [top]

Conservation Actions: The species is listed in Appendix II of CITES and CMS Appendix II.

The European Union (EU), with stronger CITES rules than other countries, has established an import ban on tusks (active since December 2004). Although Denmark belongs to the EU, it is unclear whether the ban on trade in narwhal ivory between Greenland and Denmark is being enforced.

Citation: Jefferson, T.A., Karkzmarski, L., Laidre, K., O’Corry-Crowe, G., Reeves, R., Rojas-Bracho, L., Secchi, E., Slooten, E., Smith, B.D., Wang, J.Y. & Zhou, K. 2012. Monodon monoceros. The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. Version 2014.2. <www.iucnredlist.org>. Downloaded on 23 September 2014.
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