Beluga hunt proves unlucky for bowhead

Whale disappears before it can be freed from net



An unsuspecting bowhead whale was snagged in a beluga net outside of Cape Dorset last week, and five days later, was said to be missing.

The trapped bowhead was less than seven metres long, which means it’s likely a very young member of the species. Bowhead whales grow to an average of 15 to 20 metres and live at least 200 years — making them among the longest-living mammals on the planet.

The whale was first reported to the Department of Fisheries and Oceans’s Iqaluit office around noon on Wednesday. At that time, local hunters went out in boats to try to free the whale from the net, which is weighted with anchors.

Their mettle was tested by stormy, snowy weather. Blizzard conditions on Thursday and early Friday made it impossible for DFO to fly in officials to assess the situation and determine what to do with the whale.

“Our first priority is to free the whale,” said Michelle Wheatley, DFO’s acting director for the Eastern Arctic in Iqaluit, last Friday.

A DFO official did arrive Saturday, expecting to issue a licence to allow hunters to harvest the whale humanely. But by that time, hunters had lost track of the whale, and it was not found again.

Bowhead whales have been listed as an endangered species in Canada since 1980. The whales used to number in the thousands in Canadian Arctic waters, but commercial whaling in the 19th and 20th centuries reduced their numbers to a few hundred in the Eastern Arctic. Because of the long lifespan of the mammals, population recovery has been slow.

Since 1999, Nunavut Inuit, under the land claim agreement, have been allowed to hunt a total of five bowhead whales, using special equipment that kills the whales humanely.

In contrast, smaller beluga whales are fairly abundant in the area. Inuit hunters take about 20 beluga each year, with no quota limiting the hunt.

This is not the first time a bowhead has been trapped in a beluga net, Wheatley said, but it may be the first time a bowhead whale’s endurance has been tested by blowing snow and reduced visibility above the water.

DFO plans to investigate the situation further, but as of Friday, Wheatley did not expect charges to be laid.

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