Greenland narwhal, beluga in big trouble

Canada-Greenland commission urges reduced quotas now

By JANE GEORGE

Greenland needs to immediately reduce its harvest of beluga and narwhal, or the health of these populations will decline and both Greenland and Canada will suffer the consequences, an international commission says.

That stern advice came from the Canada-Greenland Joint Commission on the Conservation and Management of Narwhal and Beluga, which met earlier this month in Iqaluit.

According to researchers and international marine mammal management bodies, beluga numbers in West Greenland have been cut in half, while the narwhal population there has declined to only 25 per cent of its original size. There may be as few as 1,500 narwhal left — down from a population of about 30,000 not so long ago.

The health of the walrus population in West Greenland, which is probably shared with Canada, is also of concern, the joint management group noted in a news release on its meeting.There has been “significant improvement in the assessment of beluga and narwhal stocks” in Greenland, but the commission said more has to be done to avoid “grave implications for Greenland and Canada.”

That’s because the international community doesn’t see any difference between the populations in the two jurisdictions, so
punitive measures could affect both countries.

Two years ago, Greenland adopted its first hunting regulations for beluga and narwhal hunts, but the quota of 300 narwhal
was still way above the 135 recommended by marine biologists.

Last year, the late-season slaughter of 68 narwhal in Uummannaq, which had already gone over its quota, infuriated conservationists and biologists in Greenland.

The Nuuk newspaper, AG, said the fisheries department granted an additional quota to Uummannaq, although a “serious
over-harvest” had taken place in the northwestern municipality.

According to AG, “first, the biologists recommended a narwhal quota of 135. Then, the home rule government decided to
double this quota to 260, and then it added on 50 to cover over-hunting in Uummannaq.”

Expressing its “grave concern,” the commission said the total narwhal hunt in West Greenland, except Melville Bay, should be reduced, “on an urgent basis,” to no more than 135 to stop the population’s decline.

The commission said there is a “low probability” that narwhal from populations hunted in Canada are also hunted in Greenland.
With respect to beluga, the commission said no more than 100 beluga should be hunted in West Greenland, so there’s an eight out of 10 chance of halting the decline in population by 2010.

The commission said it welcomed the introduction of beluga quotas in West Greenland, but that present quotas of about 300 are still more than twice the recommended level, and are “not sustainable.”

The commission acknowledged the difficulties of implementing a new management system based on quotas in Greenland, especially where no quotas previously existed and where hunters don’t agree with the biologists’ findings.

But the commission said, “in the face of uncertainty and apparently contradictory evidence,” it’s better to manage beluga in a
“precautionary manner” — that is, go with the lowest population estimates when setting quotas.

The current High Arctic beluga catches in Canada are low and appear sustainable, the commission said, and the group praised Canada for how it manages narwhal.

But the commission said there is “a risk” that the narwhal catch levels are not sustainable in Admiralty Inlet, and suggested that more narwhal could be hunted from the more abundant Somerset Island or Eclipse Sound populations.

The commission said more research should be done on walrus, and asked Canada and Greenland to do a joint review of the potentially shared walrus population.

The group also made the following general recommendations to wildlife managers in Canada and Greenland to:

* Incorporate more traditional knowledge;
* Find ways to resolve differences between scientists and hunters on beluga and narwhal stock structure, life history, abundance and trends: “The Commission urges the parties to continue to explore ways to address this important problem”;
* Make better estimates of struck and lost rates;
* Investigate methods to reduce loss rates.

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