DFO gives beluga hunters an ultimatum

Manageable limit is seven animals per community, DFO says — and only from the Hudson Strait


Time is running out for Nunavik and the federal government to come up with a beluga management plan both parties can support.

If there’s no agreement by June 15 between Nunavimiut and the federal department of fisheries and oceans, the DFO will impose its own beluga management plan on the region.

“The minister will be obliged to impose a plan,” said Daniel Gagnon, Quebec’s aboriginal fisheries coordinator. “We don’t have any choice. The minister has the mandate to preserve the species. We will have to impose a plan.”

Last week, representatives from the DFO and Nunavik’s communities met in Kuujjuaq where they rehashed their differences about how many beluga Nunavik hunters should kill every year.

Nunavik’s current beluga management plan, reached last spring, increased the region’s total allowable beluga harvest to 360 animals from 290.

But hunters killed at least 395 animals.

Now, the DFO wants Nunavik hunters to kill no more than 100 belugas — that’s seven whales per community — and all of these must come from the Hudson Strait.

In other words, the DFO is calling for a moratorium on all beluga hunting along the Eastern Hudson coast as well in the Ungava Bay coasts.

“A lot of people will go hungry if that is the case,” commented one man.

But biologists maintain the beluga stocks in these two regions face extinction if hunting isn’t cut back drastically.

If Nunavik hunters are willing and able to go to other regions — possibly to Nunavut’s offshore region or to the James Bay where stocks are more healthy — the number of belugas allowed to each community could go up to 18.

“If we go higher than that we put the population of the Ungava and Eastern Hudson bays in danger,” Gagnon said.

Nunavik’s mayors and representatives from hunters and trappers associations who attended the recent meeting on beluga weren’t won over by the DFO’s arguments.

Charlie Alaku, mayor of Kangiqsujuaq, said Nuvummiut in the Hudson Strait communities have serious problems with the DFO’s proposal.

The number of belugas in the DFO proposal took him aback. “The seven will not be enough for our community with 500 population,” Alaku said

Alaku said there is no lack of belugas around Kangiqsujuaq, and some are already showing up.

“I can tell you there’s a lot of beluga here,” Alaku said.

He said he isn’t convinced by the recent DFO survey of belugas that showed the population in some places is down — particularly when elders say there are more belugas than ever.

“Which one am I going to believe? The government and scientists who count belugas or my elders from Nunavik?”

Alaku would like to see a joint recount of beluga stocks carried out by elders and DFO biologists. He’d also like to see Nunavimiut compensated if they can’t hunt belugas.

“We’ll need support by the government,” Alaku said.

That’s because people in his community will have to pay for more qallunaat foods if they can’t rely on having belugas to eat.

Makivik Corporation suggested the DFO pay hunters $500,000 a year as compensation for the reduced hunt — money the DFO says it doesn’t have.

“We don’t have the budget for that,” Gagnon said. “It won’t be as much as they asked.”

Money for gas might be a possibility, Gagnon said. But money isn’t the only issue at stake. Two value systems — the scientific and the traditional ways — are at odds.

For one thing, hunters don’t want to pull up and hunt somewhere else, where they’d be in unfamiliar territory, even if it makes more sense on a scientific level.

Kuujjuaq mayor Michael Gordon said he’d think twice about hunting in a place he didn’t know.

Money wouldn’t stop a boat from breaking down and it probably wouldn’t cover the extra time and energy needed to travel and then transport the catch back in good condition.

Although there are few belugas around Kuujjuaq, Gordon wonders how rules and regulations will be able to stop hunters from hunting.

“If you see the beluga in front of your eyes, you just can’t let it go.”

The difficulty in striking a beluga management program that works shows the need for a wildlife management board in Nunavik, Gordon suggested. This group could be a credible liaison between Nunavimiut and the government — something the beluga management issue needs.

Such a wildlife management board is planned for in Nunavik’s Offshore agreement, which is in its final negotiation stages, but it won’t be in place for a couple of years at the earliest.

The DFO’s position, however, is that if Nunavik doesn’t cut back its beluga hunt now, there won’t be any beluga left to manage.

The current harvest levels will lead to the extinction of beluga around Nunavik within 15 years, warn DFO biologists.

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