Nunavik coasts face total bans on beluga hunting

Two major hunting areas could be off-limits because of sharp drop in stocks

By JANE GEORGE

The 2005 beluga management plan, prepared by a co-management committee, recommends to the minister of Fisheries and Oceans that Nunavik’s Eastern Hudson Bay and Ungava Bay areas be completely closed to beluga hunting in 2005, the first time both coasts have ever been closed at the same time.

That means that in 2005, Nunavimmiut may be hunting beluga whales only along Hudson Strait or in Nunavut waters.

Hunters will be able to harvest a total of 210 belugas: 135 from Hudson Strait, and the rest from James Bay and from Ottawa Island, around Sanikiluaq, or along the Western Hudson Bay coastline where a new aerial survey shows there are more than 50,000 belugas.

The plan completely eliminates the beluga hunt in Ungava Bay, where a limited hunt of 12 belugas was allowed last year.

The Ungava Bay beluga population is thought to be nearly extinct.

Belugas are still plentiful in the Hudson Strait, although sampling of beluga tissue from catches there shows one out of every five whales in the Hudson Strait comes from Eastern Hudson Bay, where the population is only about 3,000, down from about 4,200 animals in 1985 to 3,100 in 2004.

To stop the decline, the management plan says the number of belugas killed from this population should be reduced, and that’s why the Hudson Strait quota is still limited in 2005.

These recommendations come from Lumaaq, a beluga co-management committee struck about two years ago.

Lumaaq’s meetings have included representatives from communities along Nunavik’s Eastern Hudson Bay, Hudson Strait and Ungava Bay as well from the Makivik Corporation, the Anguvigaq Hunters and Trappers Association in Sanikiluaq, the Kivalliq Inuit Association, the Nunavut Wildlife Management Board, along with marine biologists and DFO observers.

Lumaaq is a forerunner of a more formal co-management group to be established when the offshore agreement for Nunavik is finally signed off within the next few months.

Last year, the total reported number of belugas harvested in Nunavik coasts reached 148, with three from the Eastern Hudson Bay, 141 from the Hudson Strait and four from Ungava Bay. Hunters took 17 belugas from Long Island in James Bay and none from Nunavut offshore areas, where there was a quota of 30.

A research report prepared by Véronique Lesage and Bill Doidge for the DFO’s Canadian Science Advisory Secretariat on the numbers of beluga whales hunted in Nunavik from 1974 to 2004, says compliance with sampling and management measures has improved over the past three years.

In 2004, Ivujivik, Salluit, Akulivik, Puvirnituq, Aupaluk and Kuujjuaq exceeded their quotas.

And, contrary to the guidelines from the management plan, the capture of mature white belugas also dominated recent hunts. About two out of three belugas were white, and females were generally killed as often, or more often, than males.

Research also shows the beluga hunt from 1993 to 2004 comprised a larger proportion of younger animals than from the mid-1980s: the average age of belugas killed was 9.5 years, compared with 13 years in the 1980s.

“Recent harvests are characterized by an absence of older individuals,” says the research report.

When younger individuals are hunted, this is often a sign that numbers are diminished or heading into a decline.

The Hudson Strait has historically supported the largest beluga harvests, and continued to do so from 2001 to 2004.

In the past, Makivik Corporation president Pita Aatami has urged Nunavik hunters to take beluga quotas more seriously, while acknowledging Nunavimmiut aren’t entirely responsible for the depleted beluga stocks, because belugas were historically slaughtered in great numbers by the Hudson Bay Co. may decades ago.

During the past few months, as the new beluga management plan has been hammered out, the DFO has also asked for comments on a plan to list belugas in Ungava Bay and the Eastern Hudson Bay as species at risk. The deadline for comments was March 31.

A DFO consultation document says the DFO will make an “informed decision” concerning the addition of the Ungava Bay and Eastern Hudson Bay Beluga populations to the “List of Wildlife Species at Risk.”

Canada’s Species at Risk Act, which came into force in 2003, says any species that are listed as threatened or endangered must be protected through harvesting bans or mandatory recovery or action plans – and that these plans can be backed up by law enforcement.

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