Walrus populations healthy, northern hunters insist

Committee seeks to add herds to Species At Risk Act list

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Hunters around Nunavut and Nunavik are being consulted this month on whether the Atlantic walrus should be reclassified as a species of special concern, under Canada’s Species At Risk Act.

Their answer, by and large, is that walrus populations are healthy.

That’s at odds with the position of the Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada, which maintains walrus numbers may have significantly declined since the 1930s.

“The species is near to qualified for threatened status and requires an effective plan to manage hunting,” COSEWIC says in an assessment made in April 2006.

“Although quotas have been set in few communities, it is not known if they are adequate to prevent over-hunting.”

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The “species of special concern” designation means that walrus populations are vulnerable, and could become a threatened or endangered species, if care is not taken to develop a management plan for hunting them.

That’s partly because walrus are slow to reproduce: females mature at five to 10 years and give birth to a single calf only once about every three years.

And some fear that hunters in Greenland are taking an unsustainable number – between 300 to 600 walrus a year – that belong to the Baffin Bay population, in order to feed a growing hunger for ivory, rather than meat.

Climate change could also place additional stress on walrus – although the animals do haul up on shore, as well as ice.

“Even if the ice disappears, it’s not going to be hugely detrimental,” said Holly Cleder with the Department of Fisheries and Oceans in Winnipeg, who led some consultations this month.

Walrus are also vulnerable to industrial contaminants, such as persistent organic pollutants. And they may be increasingly disturbed by cruise ships visiting Arctic waters.

Invitation for Applications – Deputy Clerk of the Legislative Assembly of Nunavut

The number of walrus in Canadian waters is unclear. Using counts from the 1980s and 1990s, researchers believe some 15,000 walrus live in the eastern Arctic, in four different populations.

A fifth population, once found off Nova Scotia, Newfoundland and the Gulf of St. Lawrence, was wiped out.

But some populations have never been comprehensively studied. Other surveys were incomplete, or failed to take into account the number of animals submerged beneath the water, out of sight of spotters conducting the counts.

“I’m actually reluctant to say any numbers, because I don’t know,” said Dr. Rob Stewart, a biologist with DFO in Winnipeg, who has studied walrus since 1988.

Some walrus populations could be showing signs of decline, but “we need to get more information,” Stewart said.

The number of walrus hunted in Greenland is another question. “I’d say we need more information,” Stewart said.

If walrus become a species of special concern, a management plan would have to be created within three years.

But approval of a new designation under the Species At Risk Act is a long, complicated process, which these public consultations are one part.

The Nunavut Wildlife Management Board, the Minister of Fisheries and Oceans and the Minister of Environment all also have a say, although the final decision rests with the federal cabinet.

Nunavut’s biggest community, Iqaluit, drew the smallest number of residents to consultations: only about 14.

Meanwhile, tiny Grise Fiord saw about 30 residents show up.
Residents may submit their comments on whether the Atlantic walrus should be added to the Species At Risk Act list by contacting a DFO office, until Feb. 28.

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