NEWS: Nunavut June 02, 2014 - 5:55 am

Nunavut’s next harvesting debate will likely centre on char

NWMB still considering Inuit rights to Southampton caribou


As the Nunavut Wildlife Management Board figures out what to do about harvesting caribou on Southampton Island, another harvesting dilemma is already brewing in the wings.

Jim Noble, the NWMB’s executive director, said May 30 that the board is currently consulting with stakeholders, including Fisheries and Oceans Canada, over potential harvest limits for Arctic char.

This will include a discussion over the number of fish harvested commercially.

The NWMB is considering setting total allowable harvest, or TAH levels, for some populations of char, but as soon as it does so, it must then set basic needs level for Inuit harvesters.

This is precisely what’s bogging down the Southampton Island caribou debate: setting the basic needs level, or BNL.

Under the Nunavut Land Claims agreement, Inuit have the sole right to hunt certain animals in the settlement area such as polar bears, muskox and bowhead whales.

But for seals, char and caribou, for example, anyone may harvest them, subject to licensing and conservation limits.

When the wildlife board sets a TAH for one of those species, it has to also determine how much of that limited harvest should be set aside for Inuit — that’s where the basic needs level number comes in.

But what some people fail to understand, says NTI wildlife consultant Glenn Williams, is that once the BNL is set, it cannot be changed; it can be adjusted upward and then down again but it can never fall below the original BNL number.

And while those adjustments are made by the NWMB, the ultimate authority lies with the Nunavut government, Williams said, which is why, whenever possible, NTI wants to set the BNL as high as possible.

In 1997, the size of the Southampton herd was estimated at 30,381 animals. But in 2007, that fell to 20,582.

By 2013, surveyors estimated only 7,287 animals were left in the herd.

Experts attribute the crash to a disease called brucellosis, low pregnancy rates among females, and the over-harvest of breeding and pregnant females.

Some have suggested personto-person sales of caribou meat are also cutting into the herd’s numbers.

The land claim body and the Government of Nunavut got into a very public spat earlier this month when NTI said it was prepared to take the GN to court over the basic needs level for Southampton caribou.

That dispute had been brewing for months. The land claim body wants the BNL for the Southampton herd to be set at 4,325, but the GN wants it set at 1,906.

(The difference in the numbers comes from whether you include a commercial harvest of caribou which ended in 2007 — NTI includes that number, the GN does not.)

But consider, says Williams: if the Southampton caribou population recovers in 15 years and the TAH is upgraded to 3,000 animals, under the GN’s number, only two thirds of the tags would be reserved for Inuit to hunt.

Everyone agrees the Southampton herd is crashing at the moment and no one wants to over harvest, Williams said. “We have no problem with conservation.”

The reason NTI is adamant about creating a large BNL for Southampton is to protect Inuit hunting rights into the future, he said.

“This is just a fundamental right of Inuit that was established in the land claim,” Williams said. “If it’s not there, people need to know that Inuit won’t have right to first access.”

Noble said NWMB members will meet in Cambridge Bay in a few weeks and plan to discuss the two positions put forward by the GN and NTI on the Southampton herd.

“The problem is that people don’t understand the first setting of the basic needs level is crucial,” Noble said, echoing Williams’ sentiment. “We need to resolve that and make the best decision we can.”

Noble expects public hearings on the issue, which were supposed to occur in early June, will now be held in the fall of 2014.