Move follows critical National Geographic article

Hunters ban filming of whale harvests


Hunters in Arctic Bay have banned film crews from watching them shoot whales at the floe edge following the release of a critical portrayal of their spring narwhal hunt in National Geographic this month.

"That's to protect the people. We don't know who to trust now," said Tommy Kilabuk, chair of the Ikajutit Hunters and Trappers Association.

In May the HTA passed a bylaw that bans film crews from the floe edge after hunters received a draft copy of the article, which portrays the community's spring hunt of narwhal as wasteful, with many whales shot but never retrieved.

The author, Paul Nicklen, describes how he joined Inuit in their hunt for narwhal in Admiralty Inlet in June 2006 and counted 109 shots fired during the hunt, with only nine whales landed in the end.

He describes how he "watched a 13-year-old boy armed with a .30-06 rifle shooting narwhals all day, wounding many but landing none. Elders stood nearby but said nothing."

The article ends by calling on hunters to "rediscover the old wisdom of conserving game. Failure to do so denies their own proud heritage."

But Kilabuk says hunters in Arctic Bay have not strayed from traditional values, and describes the article as "inaccurate" and "damaging."

"We felt we were betrayed. We really did."

He suggests many reasons for the high number of shots fired during the hunt Nicklen joined. Among them is the fact narwhals are hard to hit.

"Narwhals are one of the hardest animals in the world to hunt," he said. "It's not like they're just sitting there, waiting to be shot. They just come and they're gone."

Hunters also use bullets to sight their rifles and snipe at seals. Some shots taken at narwhals hit nothing but water, since the "kill zone" they aim for is below the whale's distinctive horn. Other times, it may take a dozen shots to kill a single whale.

But Kilabuk also says he's gone on hunts where he hasn't taken a single shot, because while the whales were there, none were close enough to accurately hit and retrieve with a hook or harpoon. And he says he teaches his six sons to do the same.

But Kilabuk acknowledges not every young hunter has the insight his children enjoy. Arctic Bay is a growing community of about 700 people. He estimates there are several hundred hunters.

So this spring the HTA taught young hunters how to hunt more effectively, screening a video that showed how to properly shoot a narwhal, as well as towing a plywood cut-out of a narwhal on a qamutik for children to shoot at.

Hunting equipment could also improve. Nunavut Tunngavik Inc. has pointed out that Arctic Bay's hunters often use the wrong kind of bullets to hunt marine mammals.

Bullets with full-metal jackets are preferred because they are more likely to pierce the whale's thick layer of blubber. But often only soft-tipped bullets are available from the co-op store in Arctic Bay, Kilabuk says.

As for honouring tradition, Kilabuk says hunters still abide by an edict passed down by an elder in the 1970s, that forbids them to use boats with outdoor motors near narwhals in the spring.

And while a narwhal tusk may fetch as much as $1,000, Kilabuk says he makes a point of shooting a tusk-less female to provide muktuk for family during the winter.

Joe Tigullaraq, chair of the Nunavut Wildlife Management Board, said he worries that the portrayal of the Arctic Bay hunt will be seen by National Geographic's many readers around the world as representative of all Nunavut hunters.

"We do have 20 other communities in Nunavut that hunt narwhals," he said. "These other communities in Nunavut should not be painted with the same brush."

However, Tigullaraq said he hopes the article's publication may draw attention to flaws in present hunting techniques. "I think it's an opportune time to consider the problems."

Nicklen's article raises questions about the effectiveness of community-based management – a system introduced for seven eastern Arctic communities, including Arctic Bay, in 1999 to allow local hunters to design and enforce their own rules, as an alternative to the hated quota system.

The community-based management system expires this fall, and will be reviewed by the Department of Fisheries and Oceans in the early winter of 2007.

Researchers believe there are between 40,000 to 70,000 narwhal around the Arctic. But counting narwhals is difficult. The animals spend most their time beneath the surface of the water, and are spread over vast distances.

A survey done by DFO suggests the number of narwhal near Arctic Bay have declined from 15,000 in 1984 to 5,000 whales in 2003.

But Pierre Richard, a narwhal research scientist in Winnipeg, says the 2003 survey likely missed many whales, which were simply not in the flight path of the plane at the time of the survey.

"We don't know what's the right answer," he said. "We'd like to re-do the survey of Arctic Bay… then we need to pray for good weather."

Richard also points out that in the spring, large numbers of narwhal from the High Arctic visit Admiralty Inlet, which means Arctic Bay's hunters are not taking whales at that time from a single population.

In 2004, the Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada recommended that narwhal be considered a species "of special concern," in part because of the risk of over-hunting.

Nicklen, the article's author, grew up in Kimmirut. He wrote on the National Geographic website that the narwhal story "was the most stressful thing I've ever done. I feel as if I'm betraying my friends."

"But at the same time I hope that, ultimately, the DFO will work with the Inuit and help them find a better way so that their kids and grandkids can continue their traditions.

"In the end, I told this story because it's obvious that the narwhals do not have a voice, and I've done my best to fairly represent them as well as the Inuit. As a journalist, I have to tell truthful, unbiased stories of what I see, no matter how difficult it may be at times."

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