The impacts of climate change on marine mammals: early signs of significant problems

  • Simmonds M
  • Isaac S
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Climate change is now known to be affecting the oceans. It is widely anticipated that impacts on marine mammals will be mediated primarily via changes in prey distribution and abundance and that the more mobile (or otherwise adaptable) species may be able to respond to this to some extent. However, the extent of this adaptability is largely unknown. Meanwhile, within the last few years direct observations have been made of several marine mammal populations that illustrate reactions to climate change. These observations indicate that certain species and populations may be especially vulnerable, including those with a limited habitat range, such as the vaquita Phocoena sinus, or those for which sea ice provides an important part of their habitat, such as narwhals Monodon monoceros, bowhead Balaena mysticetus and beluga Delphinapterus leucas whales and polar bears Ursus maritimus. Similarly, there are concerns about those species that migrate to feeding grounds in polar regions because of rapidly changing conditions there, and this includes many baleen whale populations. This review highlights the need to take projected impacts into account in future conservation and management plans, including species assessments. How this should be done in an adequately precautionary manner offers a significant challenge to those involved in such processes, although it is possible to identify at this time at least some species and populations that may be regarded as especially vulnerable. Marine ecosystems modellers and marine mammal experts will need to work together to make such assessments and conservation plans as robust as possible.

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  • M P Simmonds

  • S J Isaac

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