DFO population estimate now 15 times greater

New bowhead numbers show Inuit are right

By JANE GEORGE

Inuit said for years that the Eastern Arctic's stock of bowhead whales belong to one large and healthy population, while marine biologists at the federal department of fisheries and oceans disagreed.

But new numbers, presented to a public hearing held by the Nunavut Wildlife Management Board in Iqaluit last week, show that scientists were wrong and Inuit were right.

The Department of Fisheries and Oceans now estimates that the Eastern Arctic bowhead whale population is 15 times greater than they thought only eight years ago.

DFO scientist Pierre Richard says Inuit traditional knowledge was right all along, but the problem was that there were no "numbers" to back it up.

It still means, however, that the DFO's numbers have been consistently wrong.

DFO scientists have long believed that bowhead whales numbered only in the hundreds and were divided into two separate populations.

Since 1996, their old figure of 345 bowhead whales was used to determine an Inuit bowhead whale quota in Nunavut of about one every two years.

But the scientists' new, much higher bowhead whale estimate – showing a population that could run as high as 43,105 – supports an annual hunt of between 18 and 90.

This is not the first time that northern wildlife scientists have been so far off target in a population estimate.

In the 1970s, a survey of the Kivalliq's Beverly and Qamanirjuaq caribou herd suggested that its population had crashed down to 105,000 animals.

Scientists believed that the herd would soon be in trouble and that hunting quotas had to be imposed on Inuit.

But Inuit said the herd was increasing and that many animals had migrated to a different range. Within 10 years, Inuit were proven right when scientific estimates of the Beverly and Qamanirjuaq herd rose above 276,000.

The first sign that bowhead whales are more numerous than scientists first thought came from an exhaustive Inuit bowhead knowledge study finished in 2000.

That study was based on interviews with 252 Inuit hunters and elders from 18 communities. In those interviews, most Inuit informants said they see far more bowhead whales now than in the 1950s.

It took more than seven years for the DFO's science to catch up. The DFO's estimates of the bowhead population jumped from 345 in 2000 to about 3,000 in 2003, then to 7,309 in 2007, and now to 14,400.

The DFO's most recent stock assessment from February says this latest number of 14,400 is only a "partial estimate" and that there could actually be as many as 43,105 bowhead whales in the Eastern Arctic.

The DFO also concedes there aren't two populations of bowhead whales in the Eastern Arctic, but one.

Based on tagging and genetic studies, scientists now say that bowhead whales off Canada and west Greenland share the same summering grounds along east Baffin Island and the Canadian High Arctic and the same wintering grounds in Hudson Strait.

The DFO stock assessment says the bowhead whale population, down-listed in 2005 from "endangered" to "threatened" under the federal Species at Risk Act – may have regained its health completely.

This assessment suggests that, based on the most recent numbers, an annual hunt of 18 bowhead whales is realistic and "conservative."

But that information didn't reach the Nunavut Wildlife Management Board early enough to affect its March 6 hearing on whether to increase Nunavut's 2008 hunt by one bowhead whale.

This led Nunavut Tunngavik Inc. to allege that DFO scientists dragged their feet for two years in reporting higher bowhead whale numbers, due to worries about how anti-whaling groups could respond to more hunting.

"They were scared to say they found lots, but they weren't scared to say they didn't find any," said Glenn Williams, NTI wildlife director.

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