Polar bear spin reaches epic proportions at Bangkok CITES meeting

As I mentioned here in an update to my March 7th post, Damian Carrington at the Guardian Environment blog had this telling quote about the CITES deliberations that took place prior to the vote to ban polar bear trade (by uplisting its status from Appendix II to Appendix I):

As the debate raged, national delegates from other countries got confused by the strident but conflicting claims. “Where is the truth? Is it true that the polar bear is declining. Is it true that trade is increasing? We need to know,” said the Egyptian delegate.[my bold]

Indeed. Was there “truth” in the presentations heard by delegates? By that I mean, honest presentations of facts so that delegates could make up their own minds, or facts loaded with spin to sway the decision one way or another? I wasn’t there so I can’t say. But we can get some impression of what might have been said from two press releases statements issued after the vote failed by two parties that were actively promoting acceptance of the US-led proposal.[Update: Humane Society Press Release is here]

Four claims that were made after the vote failed:

1) Claim: Polar bear numbers have declined recently over the time that hunting increased.

Says President and CEO of the Humane Society, Wayne Pacelle (March 8, 2013), one of the parties pushing for acceptance of the proposal:

The Canadian hunters sell the hides to auction houses where they go for up to $12,000 each, a price double that of only five years ago and a sure sign of increased market demand. The number of hides sold at auction in Canada also tripled during this time. As polar bears get rarer, demand for their skins is increasing. [my emphasis]

Is the first part of this statement true? Did polar bear get “rarer” in the last 5 years or so? Let’s use 2010 as “now” because it appears that is the latest date for which Pacelle has trade figures. Did polar bear numbers decline significantly (“get rarer”) between 2005 and 2010?

According to the Polar Bear Specialist Group (PBSG), the world population of polar bears was 20,000-25,000 in 2005 and 20,000-25,000 in 2009 – no change. One population had a statistically significant decline (Western Hudson Bay) but another increased (summary pdf here and previous post discussing population changes over time here)(Aars et al. 2006; Obbard et al. 2010). The official global population of polar bears (as of March 2013) is still 20,000-25,000 (PBSG website, accessed March 9, 2013; and personal communication with PBSG chairman Dag Vongraven (Norway), via email, on Jan. 15, 2013).

The truth: Polar bear numbers did not decline over the period when the number of hides traded increased. These two factors are not correlated.

2) Claim: The absolute amount of ice in September (the lowest extent of the year) is a critical factor affecting the polar bear’s ability to survive and reproduce.

A press release issued March 7, 2013 by the US Fish & Wildlife Service, which submitted the CITES proposal, said this:

According to the National Snow & Ice Data Center findings, Arctic sea ice extent reached its lowest point this year, placing September 2012 as the lowest sea ice extent since 1979, both for the daily minimum extent and the monthly average. This ‘real life’ figure is far lower than any of the scientific models predicted. [my emphasis]

No one disputes the truth of the highlighted statement, but is it relevant? The scientific literature is clear: polar bears need ice in spring and early summer (March through June), when they eat as many young seals as they can, packing on as much fat as possible over those few months. The bears then draw on that stored fat during the late summer/fall low-ice season (which varies in length from region to region). The absolute amount of sea ice left in September makes no difference to polar bears because it comes well after the critical spring feeding period.

On Hudson Bay, central Canada, the region affected most dramatically by seasonal sea ice cycles and the only one where polar bear numbers have declined by a statistically significant amount, there has been ample sea ice present well into June for the last 30 years or so – except for two years, 1998 and 2003, when the ice broke up in mid June. In other words, the lowest global sea ice extent on record (September 2012) did not occur in the same year or the same month as the earliest breakup date of Hudson Bay ice (mid June 1998 and 2003): the lowest extremes of global sea ice extent do not correlate with early Hudson Bay breakup dates. See previous post here.

[note that recent breakup dates used by polar bear biologists (2008-2012) for Hudson Bay have not been calculated or published. However, the opening of the Port of Churchill, in western Hudson Bay, is a rough proxy for “ice-free” water because ice on the Bay must be virtually gone before shipping can begin. Opening dates for 2007 and 2009-2012, are: 2007, July, 25 (long-term average opening date); [2008 not available]; 2009, Aug. 12 (latest on record); 2010, July 29; 2011, Aug. 3; 2012, July 15 (only 10 days earlier than average) – in other words, no steady precipitous decline in recent years. For another perspective, see the ice chart summaries for the first week of July, 2008-2012 (below), cropped from Kelsey Eliasson’s graphic of Hudson Bay ice breakup over the period 1971-2012 at Polarbearalley.]

Eliasson_2008-2012-ice-july 1st week_subset_Mar 10 2013

The truth: The absolute amount of sea ice left in September is irrelevant to the health of polar bear populations – it is the amount available in June that is critical.

3) Claim: Many polar bear subpopulations are already declining.

The press release noted above issued March 7, 2013 by the US Fish & Wildlife service, also said this:

The Polar Bear Specialist Group [PGSG] reports that 15 of 19 subpopulations are declining or data deficient. [my bold]

This statement is blatantly misleading. According to the PBSG document (Obbard et al. 2010) only one subpopulation has documented a statistically significant decline in numbers. Several others are presumed to be declining due to suspicions of overhunting, poaching or negative effects of declining sea ice, not actual evidence of a decline. For example, the Chukchi Sea subpopulation (shared by the US and Russia), has never had a population survey (and therefore is “data deficient”) but its population trend was assessed by the PBSG as declining based on assumptions of poaching and negative affects of declining sea icewhich a recent survey has now shown to be unfounded (see previous posts here and most recently, with details, here).

The truth: Only one polar bear subpopulation out of 19 has suffered a statistically significant decline in numbers. The PBSG assessment of the other 18 polar bear subpopulations mixes fact with conjecture – and some of that conjecture is now known to be unfounded. Regardless, the official global population estimate has not changed since 2005 (see point 1, above).

4) Claim: If polar bears are not protected by Appendix I status, wanton overhunting will ensue, particularly in Canada.

Another statement made by President and CEO of the Humane Society, Wayne Pacelle (March 8, 2013), one of the parties pushing for acceptance of the uplisting proposal , is this:

It is a painful loss for all of us concerned about polar bears, and we are deeply disturbed to know that even as polar bears suffer the crippling impact of climate-induced habitat loss, Canadians will be able to kill as many polar bears as they like and sell their parts around the world. [my emphasis]

Is this last sentence true? Absolutely not. Canada’s polar bear hunt is a subsistence hunt governed by strict quotas set region-by-region that are adjusted each year in response to the health of the local population. See Lawrence Solomon’s excellent discussion of Canadian quotas from the National Post last week (backup here), my previous post here, this document, and this statement from the Canadian government’s declaration “Polar bears and CITES“:

Polar bear trade [in Canada] does not come from a commercial harvest but from a subsistence harvest. Harvest quotas are based on principles of conservation and Aboriginal subsistence, and are not market driven; an Appendix I listing would have no conservation benefit.

The truth: Canada’s polar bear hunt is not a commercial enterprise and is governed by strict quotas set at sustainable levels.

If the presentations made to CITES delegates last week in support of accepting the US-proposal to transfer polar bears from Appendix II to Appendix I status were as full of spin and devoid of facts as these press releases statements issued by the Humane Society and the US Fish & Wildlife Service, then it is no wonder delegates became confused.

Aars, J., Lunn, N. J. and Derocher, A.E. (eds.) 2006. Polar Bears: Proceedings of the 14th Working Meeting of the IUCN/SSC Polar Bear Specialist Group, 20-24 June 2005, Seattle, Washington, USA. Occasional Paper of the IUCN Species Survival Commission 32. IUCN, Gland (Switzerland) and Cambridge (UK). http://pbsg.npolar.no/en/meetings/

Obbard, M.E., Theimann, G.W., Peacock, E. and DeBryn, T.D. (eds.) 2010. Polar Bears: Proceedings of the 15th meeting of the Polar Bear Specialists Group IUCN/SSC, 29 June-3 July, 2009, Copenhagen, Denmark. Gland, Switzerland and Cambridge UK, IUCN. http://pbsg.npolar.no/en/meetings/

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