Killer whale predation of Nunavut narwhals on the rise as Arctic warms

Study estimates killer whales consume as many as 1,500 narwhals per year

A recently published research study estimates that there are between 136 and 190 killer whales resident in eastern Arctic waters in the summer, and that these visitors are able to consume between 1,076 and 1,504 narwhals per year. (Photo courtesy of Kyle Lefort)

By Jane George

Watch out narwhals: the occurrence of hungry killer whales, known as arluut in Inuktitut, in the Canadian Arctic is on the rise, and it is likely that their use of the region will only increase as the ice cover decreases.

The current number of killer whales in the region, under 200 animals, could already be eating as many as 1,504 narwhals during their yearly forays into north Baffin, says a new research paper, called “Killer whale abundance and predicted narwhal consumption in the Canadian Arctic.”

That’s a greater number of narwhals than Nunavut hunters can take in a year under the narwhal management system.

Mark and recapture information was used to estimate the whales’ population.  Sixty-three killer whales were photographed between 2009 and 2018, which helped lead author and researcher Kyle Lefort, a marine biologist with the University of Manitoba, in his analysis of killer whales’ taste for narwhal in a paper published in Global Change Biology.

This information suggested a population of between 136 and 190 whales, Lefort determined.

That number of killer whales could consume from 1,076 to 1,504 narwhals while in Arctic waters, he calculated, drawing on earlier studies and Inuit knowledge about killer whale predation on narwhals.

“Much of what scientists know about Canadian Arctic killer whales is Inuit knowledge,” Lefort told Nunatsiaq News.

“The duration of killer whales’ residency in Canadian Arctic waters, for example, with data collected via Inuit knowledge studies, was used to estimate the population’s seasonal energetic requirements.”

In the late spring, about 95,000 narwhals migrate to summering areas off Baffin Island’s northern coast, returning to offshore overwintering areas in Baffin Bay in the late fall.

Arctic warming may allow killer whales increased access to a longer open-water season.

“Consequently, killer whales may extend their distribution farther into the Canadian Arctic Archipelago, and remain in Arctic waters for longer, as documented in the North Pacific Arctic,” Lefort said in his research paper.

Arctic sea ice is at its third lowest extent ever recorded as of June 1, and “diminishing sea-ice cover could contribute to increases in the number of killer whales visiting Canadian Arctic waters,” Lefort told Nunatsiaq News.

The killer whales could move into previously inaccessible areas, he said, and an earlier breakup and later freeze-up could also contribute to a longer stay in these Arctic waters.

Inuit traditional knowledge already shows a steady migration of killer whales into Nunavut and Nunavik waters.

In 2005, a killer whale attack on narwhals at Kakiak Point in Admiralty Inlet saw a dozen killer whales kill several narwhals over a six-hour period.

More killer whales could mean more narwhal mortality and force narwhals to head further north, into areas with greater sea-ice cover, Lefort said.

And narwhal population declines or shifts in their distribution could have impacts on food security, Lefort noted.

For now, the effects of increased numbers of predators in this marine ecosystem remain “largely unknown,” he said.

Many unanswered questions concerning Canadian Arctic killer whales remain, he said, adding “our team hopes to continue our research to address these unknowns.”

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(11) Comments:

  1. Posted by part time hunter on

    Okay, does DFO want to protect the predators (killer whales) ? Or the narwhals and the belugas… ? Can’t do both…. If i ever come across killer whales, I will intend to kill if I can….. I say, protect the narwhals and the belugas…. since the DFO always say they’re on the verge of endangerment.

    • Posted by Wouldn’t recommend it… on

      If you do that, be prepared to lose any sympathy for Inuit harvesting of whales of any kind, at all, and any time in the future Inuit raise concern about whale populations when it comes to development and shipping, prepare to have that thrown back in the face of Inuit as being hypocrites.

    • Posted by Paula on

      Actually the orcas are endangered and this pod here is lacking research. More research must be done on the orca. We need more protection for orca before it’s too late. We should not care about the food chain in the ocean. It’s their ocean. We actually have no business there. However to see you would kill a cetacean that has a bigger brain then us, mourns deeper then us, and in fact research is showing how they should be considered persons by the law.

      • Posted by Paul on

        Sorry Paula but you sound like you are from the south and maybe live in a city, very different and foreign view about nature.
        As apposed to the ocean being theirs we see it differently, we all share it not just animals, we all belong to nature not just in towns or cities.
        Big disconnection these days with nature and separation with some people.

      • Posted by Hunter on

        It would still be considered an invasive species. 😉

  2. Posted by Hunter on

    I wonder how killer whales taste like, they do catch them in Greenland and say they taste very good.

  3. Posted by Putuguk on

    The Nunavut Agreement sets the management of wildlife in Nunavut. Killer Whales or Orcas are considered wildlife. There is no total allowable harvest (TAH) set for Orcas in Nunavut. In this case, Section 5.6.1 of the Nunavut Agreement states:

    “Where a total allowable harvest for a stock or population of wildlife has not been
    established by the NWMB pursuant to Sections 5.6.16 and 5.6.17, an Inuk shall
    have the right to harvest that stock or population in the Nunavut Settlement Area
    up to the full level of his or her economic, social, and cultural needs, subject to
    the terms of this Article.”

    We can harvest them. We do not have to rely on the sympathy and understanding of others in harvesting wildlife in our homeland. We have no need to reconcile why we may harvest a species and at the same time be concerned over the general health of our environment. A southern environmentalist who would disdain an Inuk for getting an Orca can just go find some other people to co-opt.

    We rely instead on a modern treaty made pursuant to Section 35 of the Canadian constitution.

    • Posted by Darek B on

      Narwhal conservation status show as “Endangered”, while there is insufficient data for Orca.

      To my understanding of history, the peoples of the North have been hunting/fishing for that game (narwhal, beluga, and orca) for thousands of years. The simple fact that these animals are still here and in numbers, is that not the definition of sustainability?

      The only reason these animals are in any danger now is because of the mismanagement and abuse of the environment by us in the South, not by the hunters up North.

    • Posted by Observer on

      There’s a difference between harvesting for need and simply killing the animals because they feed on something you’d rather eat first, which was the statement “part-time hunter” made.

      And you might consider reading the Nunavut Agreement and not only the part that agrees with you. Section 5.6.4: “Any restriction or quota on the amount of wildlife that may be harvested that is in force immediately prior to the date of ratification of the Agreement shall be deemed to have been established by the NWMB, and shall remain in effect until removed or otherwise modified by the Board in accordance with this Article.”

      Canada banned whaling in 1972 meaning the total allowable harvest is zero, and carved out the exceptions for bowhead, beluga, and narwhal. That’s why getting the permission to hunt bowhead again not that long ago was a big deal.

      • Posted by Steve on

        Killer whales are technically not whales despite their name. They belong to the Delphinidae family making them Dolphins.

  4. Posted by Bob’s Your Uncle on

    95,000 Narwhals annually – 1,504 Arluut kills = 93,496 Narwhals

    Mother nature is Mother nature. Often Mother nature is cruel and brutal! That’s LIFE! You can’t have Arluut without Narwhals!

    So what’s the problem here? Nothing really. Just a Biologist sitting down in Manitoba, crunching guestimations, and making broad conjectures and musings on what might be……or might never be…..slow news day….much ado about nothing!

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