Narwhals (Mondon monoceros) are whales that seem improbable because of their long unicorn-like tusk.
Their tusk is actually a tooth that can grow up to 10 feet long and has up to 10 million nerve endings. Narwhals can weigh up to 4200 pounds and grow up to 18 feet long.
Narwhals prefer cold Arctic Ocean waters, living year-round in the waters and ice around Greenland, Canada, Norway, Alaska, and Russia.
As you can imagine, rising sea temperatures and human behavior pose a threat to their continued existence.
Are narwhals endangered? We’ll look more deeply at their conservation status, what is endangering their existence, and what we can do to help improve their numbers.
Are narwhals endangered? The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) declared narwhals to be a near-threatened species in 2008. So, they aren’t endangered yet.
There are estimated to be more than 100,000 narwhals alive today, which puts their extinction risk in the category of least concern.
However, population estimates are difficult to establish, and some local populations are smaller than others:
- Baffin Bay population = 90,000 narwhals
- Northern Hudson Bay population = 12,500 narwhals
- East Greenland population = 6400 narwhals
Smaller populations within these areas have higher risks of extinction. For example, three narwhal populations in Greenland are currently at risk of going extinct between 2025 and 2028.
The Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) requires export permits for anyone to trade narwhal parts and derivatives.
European Union Wildlife Trade Regulations (EU WTR) and the U.S. Marine Mammal Protection Act (US MMPA) further limit importing narwhal parts to the EU and US with a permit and under very specific circumstances.
Even though narwhals aren’t on the endangered species list, many individual narwhal communities are in danger of extinction.
However, climate change, hunting, and disruptive human behavior may one day land them on the endangered species list.
We don’t have a definitive grasp on what climate change will mean for narwhals, but it’s likely to have a large effect.
The Conservation of Arctic Flora and Fauna (CAFF) has identified narwhals as one of several Arctic marine animals that depend on ice for survival.
Even though they spend up to 3 months each year in coastal, ice-free areas, Narwhals still rely on ice for their survival for:
- Food: Narwhals have a restricted and specialized diet of food sources that live in icy waters, including Greenland halibut, polar cod, Arctic cod (another species CAFF identifies as relying on ice for survival), squid, other pelagic fish, and benthos prey.
- Refuge: Slow-swimming narwhals use ice as a place to take refuge from predators like killer whales.
- Overwintering: Narwhals live under the sea ice in the Baffin Bay-Davis Strait area (between Greenland and Canada) for five months every winter. They only come up occasionally to breathe through surface ice cracks.
Loss of an icy habitat could affect survival rates, reproduction rates, changes in prey availability, decreased health, and increased disease risk.
Narwhals are prized for their flesh, blubber, and tusks. Greenland and Canada are the only countries that currently allow limited narwhal hunting, resulting in an average of 621 narwhal deaths in Canada and 358 narwhal deaths in Greenland per year.
Native populations in the Arctic continue to include narwhal hunting in their traditions. These hunting activities have cultural, social, nutritional, and financial significance.
Illegal imports of narwhal tusks are also an issue. 178-214 tusks or more are illegally exported each year.
An unbroken and uncarved narwhal tusk usually sells on the black market for between $2765 and $12,500, while a double-tusked skull sells for $19,000 to $25,000.
In response to Greenland’s government issuing hunting quotas for 50 narwhals from high-risk populations in 2022, over 30 other wildlife institutions wrote them a letter warning of the risks.
At current hunting quotas, there’s a 30-34% risk that these specific populations can go extinct by 2025 and a 62-74% risk of extinction by 2028.
As the climate changes, more ice-free water has resulted in easier access for ships and industrial operations in Arctic waters. More people in Arctic waters has been bad news for narwhals.
Beyond hunting, these human behaviors in the Arctic negatively affect narwhals:
- Oil and gas development: More oil and gas development in the areas where narwhals live brings pollution, increases the possibility of oil and fuel spills, and creates more noise.
- Other industrial operations: Sand dredging and fisheries have cropped up in the Arctic, bringing more pollution and noise to the area.
- Ocean noise: Noise from oil and gas development, shipping, construction, and military activities mask communication. It can cause collisions with other sea mammals and affect their ability to find mates, navigate, avoid predators, and care for their young.
- Pollution: Narwhal tissue has been found to contain high levels of environmental contaminants from ocean pollution. Microplastics are also an issue for aquatic life.
However, many organizations are advocating for less traffic in the Arctic, especially within the oil and gas industry.
Fortunately, several organizations are already taking action to protect narwhal populations:
- Improving whale protection: The International Whaling Commission regulates whaling and is working toward reducing threats to narwhals, such as shipping, climate change, and bycatch.
- Decreasing ocean noise: The World Wildlife Fund (WWF) is partnering with the Natural Resource Defense Council and Ocean Conservation Research to raise awareness of the effects of ocean noise on sea animals like narwhals.
- Satellite tagging: WWF attaches satellite tags to narwhals to follow their movements to understand them and help them more effectively.
The following links take you directly to actionable websites you can use as a private citizen to help protect narwhals:
- Demand transformative climate action: Call for the passage of the Build Better Act.
- Push to remove Arctic oil and gas programs: Ask Congress to repeal oil and gas programs in the arctic.
- Reduce your carbon footprint: Pledge to cut your carbon footprint to help keep planetary warming below 2.7°F (1.5°C).
- Advocate for stopping wildlife crime: Pledge to advocate against narwhal poaching, share your passions with your friends and family, and urge the government to put a stop to illegal narwhal hunting.
Thus, it’s possible to join your efforts with those of larger organizations to make a difference in narwhals’ future.
Are narwhals endangered? Narwhals are near-threatened rather than endangered. However, there are individual populations of narwhals that are in danger of becoming extinct within the next three to six years if local governments continue to allow narwhal hunting in those areas.
Climate change and human activities such as hunting, oil and gas development, ocean shipping, ocean noise, and pollution put narwhals at more risk every year.
However, extinction isn’t an inevitable end for narwhals. It’s up to us to take action to prevent the extinction of narwhals on a micro and macro scale.
Various organizations around the world are coming to the defense of narwhals. You, too, can help in conservation efforts related to narwhals when you advocate for them and do your part to reduce your carbon footprint.