11th meeting of PBSG Copenhagen, Denmark 1993


The 11th meeting of the IUCN Polar Bear Specialist Group was held in Copenhagen, Denmark, 25-27 January, 1993, under the Chairmanship of Mr. Erik Born of the Greenland Fisheries Research Institute. Scientific delegates attended, representing each of the five circumpolar nations (Canada, Greenland/Denmark, Norway, USA, and Russia) signatory to the International Agreement on the Conservation of Polar Bears and their Habitats. Three indigenous hunters from Alaska, Canada and Greenland, attended as invited specialists on traditional knowledge of polar bears.

The group reviewed progress on research and management of polar bears since the last meeting, held in Sochi, USSR, in 1988. Significant progress has been made in several areas. The extensive use of satellite tracking of female polar bears has made it possible to determine the boundaries of several relatively discrete subpopulations, some of which are shared by different countries and therefore require international cooperation to manage, as directed by the International Agreement on the Conservation of Polar Bears. For example, populations are shared between Russia and Alaska (USA), Canada and Greenland (Denmark), and Svalbard (Norway) and Franz Josef Land (Russia). It is essential to determine the distribution of each subpopulation before its size can be estimated. There appear to be about 15 subpopulations although the boundaries of some, especially in the vast unstudied areas of the Russian Arctic, have yet to be determined.

A review of the worldwide status of polar bear, based on available knowledge was conducted. The state of knowledge of individual subpopulations ranges from good to almost nothing. In summary, the world population of polar bears was thought to be between about 21,000 and 28,000. However, it is vital to remember that polar bears are distributed in geographically distinct subpopulations, each of which must be managed individually.

Hunting polar bears is an important part of the culture and economy of indigenous people throughout the Arctic. However, because polar bears have low reproductive rates, sustainable levels of harvest are lower than in species such as caribou. Harvest levels in hunted populations must be set at very low levels to ensure that depletion does not occur. To be sustainable, the harvest should not include more subadult and adult females than about 1.5% of the population size.

Research on toxic chemicals indicated higher concentrations of PCBs in the vicinity of Svalbard than anywhere else in the Arctic. The reason for this is not understood. Fat samples have been collected from polar bears in a wide range of other locations throughout the Arctic for toxic chemicals analyses, but the results are not yet available. Concern was also expressed about the possible detrimental effects on the arctic marine ecosystem of nuclear waste dumping in the vicinity of Novaya Zemlja in the Russian Arctic. It is considered critical to continue to monitor polar bears to determine possible effects of man-made substances and activities.

Concern was expressed about the possible detrimental effects of climate warming on polar bears. Current models project the first and most significant effects will be detected at high northern latitudes and this will likely reduce the extent of sea ice. If the models are correct, then prolonging the ice-free period will shorten the period during which polar bears in many subpopulations are able to feed on seals and cause nutritional stress. Early signs of impact would include declining body condition, lowered reproductive rates, reduced survival of cubs, and an increase in polar bear-human interactions. Eventually, the seal populations would decline if the quality and availability of breeding habitat is reduced. Rain during the late winter may cause polar bear maternity dens to collapse, causing the death of occupants. Human-bear problems will increase as the open-water period becomes longer and bears fasting and relying on their fat reserves become food-stressed. Tourism based on viewing polar bears in western Hudson Bay will likely disappear. Should the Arctic Ocean become seasonally ice free for a long enough period, it is likely polar bears would become extirpated from at least the southern part of their range. Because the polar bear is at the top of the arctic marine food chain, and ice is an essential component of its environment, it is an ideal species through which to monitor the cumulative effects of change in arctic marine ecosystems.

Several priorities were identified as important for future research and management. These included continuing to identify the boundaries and size of subpopulations; studying the effects of harvest, and the effects of manipulating the sex composition of the harvest on populations; and the relationships between bears, seals, and sea ice conditions.