3rd meeting of PBSG Morges, Switzerland 1972

PRESS RELEASE: Scientists ask for ban on hunting of polar bears in international waters

Further measures for the conservation of polar bears and recommendations for international cooperation in polar bear management and research were agreed upon at an international meeting at Morges, Switzerland, which concluded Thursday.

Recommendations were made and a protocol drafted covering a ban on hunting of polar bears on the high seas from 1973 onward, except in continuation of the traditional rights of local peoples dependent on this resource.

Further recommendations were made on protection of denning and feeding areas and the management of polar bear populations within national territories.

General principles affecting a possible international convention on the conservation of polar bears were also approved.

The above decisions came at the conclusion of the third biennial meeting of scientists from Canada, Denmark, Norway, the Soviet Union and the United States. The meeting was sponsored by the International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources (IUCN), which has responsibility for collating scientific data on the white bears.

In four days of discussions, the experts reviewed research work of the past two years and conservation action in their individual countries, then laid plans for their international research programme for 1972-73.

The 1970-71 research brought out new data supporting earlier evidence of the discreteness of polar bear populations in the Hudson Bay region of Canada. Recoveries of tagged or marked bears pointed to a distinct boundary between the northern and southern bear populations, and additional data now suggest that the southern area can be further subdivided into three relatively distinct groups.

The ring seal appears to be the principal food of polar bears throughout the arctic icepack. However, a comparison of food habits of mainland and island polar bears in Hudson Bay in summer and autumn by a Canadian research student has shown that the main food of island bears during this period was sea birds; during the same period mainland bears ate large quantities of land and marine vegetation. Details of this study are to be published in the near future.

The group reported good progress had been made in denning surveys and calculation of productivity at denning sites. Further progress has been made in development of census techniques, and methods of estimating populations. No estimate of the total bear population was made by the meeting, but bears in some regions were reported as abundant and in certain regions as needing greater protection.

An estimated total of 900 bears was killed in the entire circumpolar region during 1970-71. This compares with 1300 estimated for the previous year.

Considerable progress on conservation action was reported.

In Greenland a Commission on Conservation Law is due to report soon, and there are strong hopes that a new National Park in North East Greenland will be declared which could protect the main polar bear denning areas in Greenland.

In Canada, polar bears have been protected totally in Newfoundland and along the Labrador coast. A number of provinces now have a system of sealing or identifying polar bear pelts to prevent illegal traffic.

New hunting regulations were introduced on September 1, 1970 in Svalbard (Spitzbergen) and Jan Mayen Island. Kong Karls Land has been given temporary reserve status, and all polar bear sport hunting from ships in the Svalbard region ended last year.

In Alaska, hunting permits for trophies were reduced to 300 in 1971; the unlimited bag for residents who hunt from the ground and use bears for food was reduced to three per hunter. The use of aircraft for hunting polar bears may be banned after 1972.

Total prohibition of polar bear hunting throughout the Soviet Union arctic continued, and more stringent protection for denning areas has been introduced in certain parts of Siberia.

It was recognized that the gradual reduction in polar bear harvests would reduce the recoveries of marked bears in certain regions, and that this situation demanded the design of new forms of tags that would be visible on live animals.

Cooperative international programmes were adopted for the examination of parasite loads and pesticide and PCB residues in bears, using standard techniques at special centres. The parasitic work will be handled in the Soviet Union, while the pesticides work will centre in Canada.

The group recognized the current world interest in the polar bear and in its effective management. To satisfy the need for reliable information, it proposes shortly to prepare a publication on current knowledge of the biology, status and conservation of the bears, including maps of known denning areas, foraging grounds, migration routes and occurrence. The publication would also serve to further identify gaps in present information.

Mr. Thor Larsen of Norway was unanimously elected chairman of the group for the next two year period. He succeeds Dr. Andrew Macpherson of Canada.

Proceedings and working papers of the meeting will be published as an IUCN Supplementary Paper.

11 February 1972