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'A regime that ignores the role whales play in Inuit life is bound to fail.'

Beluga system needs major fix, scientist says


The Department of Fisheries and Oceans needs to make a huge "sea change" in its thinking for beluga management in Nunavik to work, says an English academic.

"A regime that ignores the role beluga whales play in Inuit life, that pays only ‘lip service' to Inuit knowledge" is bound to fail, says Dr. Martina Tyrrell of the Scott Polar Institute in Cambridge, England.

"Scientists and managers must come to a greater understanding of the social and cultural role that beluga whales play in Inuit society. It is not simply a matter of ‘helping' Inuit to understand the science," she says in her recent research paper called "Sentient Beings and wildlife resources: Inuit, beluga whales and management regimes in the Canadian Arctic."

Tyrrell says the beluga management plan has flopped because it doesn't respect family relations, the importance of individuality in decision-making and the way leadership works in Nunavik.

"There is no leadership in the form imagined by DFO, whereby a leader would coordinate and manage a hunt," Tyrrell points out.

Tyrrell concludes that to improve beluga management in Nunavik the DFO needs to understand there's more than one way of looking at the world.

She says the DFO divides the marine world into resources and resource users. She calls this division "an insult to Inuit who have shared the same social space with beluga whales for their entire lives."

She says Inuit hunters don't view their hunting and predation by animals as being separate. In Arviat, for example, unused portions from belugas they kill become food for polar bears, in a kind of unbroken circle of use.

As an illustration of DFO's failures, Tyrrell cites information about how beluga hunters in Arviat were encouraged to sell maktaaq to Nunavik in 2002. This sale was supposed to stop Nunavik hunters from taking beluga off their coasts.

So, Arviat sold 5,000 pounds of maktaaq to Nunavik for $2.50 pound, an amount which is equivalent to 30 whales, or 10 per cent of the community's annual harvest.

But later hunters worried that selling maktaaq to Nunavik might encourage local over-hunting. In 2005, they turned down a second request to sell maktaaq to Nunavik.

For Quaqarmiut, the amount of maktaaq everyone received under this one-time scheme was seen as a "token gesture." "By far the biggest complaint was the sheer foolishness of the exercise," Tyrrell says.

"Why, some Quaqtarmiut asked me, should they be given the maktaaq of whales hunted in Arviat when they themselves could just as easily harvest from that same population earlier or later in the year?"

That's because science and Inuit traditional knowledge don't distinguish beluga stocks in the same way. While science judges belugas by their DNA, Inuit judge whales by their colour and shape, notes Tyrrell.

This means Inuit see the same belugas everywhere in the Hudson Bay region, while the DFO biologists say belugas in the Eastern Hudson and the Ungava Bay are genetically separate stocks from the larger western Hudson Bay stock and need protection.

From a scientific perspective, beluga-hunting is also seen as reducing population numbers. But "for many Inuit, a failure to harvest whales who present themselves to hunters will result in the same outcome," because traditional knowledge says belugas will abandon unused hunting areas.

Inuit also point to other factors, which affect beluga numbers, such as contaminants, nets and noise pollution.

Scientists continue to be puzzled why beluga in Cook Inlet, Alaska and the St. Lawrence River in southern Quebec are still decreasing in numbers although no beluga hunting takes place.

Tyrrell is now completing more research on beluga management in Nunavik, which looks at the impact that quotas have on villages in the longer history of relations between Inuit and government.

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