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Balancing Act – The Modern Whale Hunt in Canada
A Commentary by Robert J. Galbraith, February 26, 2016 (updated March 1).

See Photo Galleries and related articles at these links:
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Beluga Whale Necropsy Autopsy
Filling the Bellies of Whales
St. Lawrence Beluga Whale Population on Road to Extinction
Whale Watching the Breath of Life for North Shore Communities

In April 2015, it was announced that the United States was seriously considering removing the humpback whale from the endangered species list as the whale’s numbers continued to climb worldwide. Once the ‘poster boy’ for the ‘Save the Whales’ environmental movement, the frolicking humpback was hunted to the brink of extinction after two centuries of relentless commercial whaling that continued well into the 20th century.

Humpback numbers have now rebounded and are said to be back to near pre-commercial hunt numbers, at around 100,000 animals worldwide.

So does this mean we will soon see the widespread slaughter of whales become a reality again? Well no; at least not for the foreseeable future.

In Canada, there has not been a commercial whale hunt since the last whaling station closed in Blandford, Nova Scotia, in 1972, when the hunt was officially terminated by the Government of Canada.

However, the reality is that Canada continues to kill more than a thousand whales each year, with the federal governments’ blessing and with native backing. This was intended as a sober compromise between the stability of whale numbers and the continuation of an ancient native culture, both issues that should be accepted as a necessary compromise, and benefiting all interests, including the survivability of whale species.

The aboriginal Inuit people of the Canadian Arctic are the only Canadians allowed to legally hunt for whales. They have pursued them for over a thousand years and the hunt is a part of their culture, as much as the meat and blubber was and still is an important part of their diet.

It is the federal governments’ Department of Fisheries and Oceans Ministry, (DFO), collectively with the governments of Nunavut and to a lesser degree Nunavik that decide on the quotas for the Canadian whale hunt. However, the rules and guidelines for the hunt are set under the strict direction of the DFO.

Nunavut is a separate territory within Canada, with its own government that has powers similar or equal to a province. The region of Nunavik (Inuit territory of Northern Quebec), is still a part of the province of Quebec. Like neighbouring Nunavut, it is the DFO that sets the quota and the rules for the hunt here as well.

In Canada, the biggest and rarest of the whales that the Inuit are allowed to hunt is the bowhead whale, a circumpolar species of whale that can reach up to 18-20 metres in length and weight 109 metric tons or just over 100,000 kg’s. There are believed to be 7660 bowhead in the Canadian Arctic (2015 DFO). This population is said to grow at approximately 3% per year (IWC).

Estimating the size of the world’s whale numbers involves modern science and a healthy plate of guesswork, due the vastness of the world’s oceans and the lack of resources needed to conduct thorough population studies. So any whale numbers declared are in the ballpark and very far from exacting (the numbers seen here are from the International Whaling Commission and the Department of Fisheries and Oceans Canada). With some species, we have no idea of their population numbers because of their elusive, secretive nature (Orca whales being in this category).

There is also the fact that different organizations and governments have differing numbers for whale populations. Trying to get a grasp on basic numbers of a species is a minefield for the journalist, and this is why we see so little in the public media concerning the status of our wildlife, or the abuse of it. Even the scientists who study cetaceans show conflicting results in population studies.

Because of the time involved in researching a story like this one, and no budget for the journalist, the public is short-changed or completely unaware when it comes to important issues concerning the preservation, or harvesting, of our wildlife. Then there is the politics, which distorts any real truth of a situation or threat, for political gain (such as budget cutting in the field of science, to the great detriment of a species – like the situation with the crash of the St Lawrence population of beluga and the lack of funds or scientists to conduct an adequate, thorough investigation into falling numbers).

Many of our best scientists or researchers work on a shoestring budget and are being continually squeezed for funding, which results in incomplete analysis, while a population crashes. But the efforts by some scientists could be called Herculean, due to their dedication and devotion to their calling of trying to get a clear understanding of the threats that certain species are up against.

In 2014, the Inuit quota of bowhead kills for the season was increased from 3 to 5 a year (4 in Nunavut and 1 in Nunavik). New population results were released in 2015 from a culmination of recent studies by the DFO, including an extensive aerial survey of Canada’s Arctic whales, conducted in 2013. But the results have been slow in coming.

The bowhead hunt remained prohibited while under the designation of “endangered,’ by the Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada (COSEWIC). Then as bowhead numbers were shown to be rebounding by the mid-nineteen-nineties, the federal government bent its own rules a little, allowing for an extremely limited bowhead hunt by the Inuit. It was also during this period that the Inuit were seeking the power of self-governance from the federal government.

Since the early 1900s, when the commercial bowhead hunt ended, the species had been subject only to sporadic hunting by the Inuit (we’re talking about a mere handful here). Since then, up until the 1990’s, very few bowhead were taken by the Inuit.

The refusal by the federal government of not allowing the Inuit to hunt the bowhead in these earlier years, prior to 1996, were influential in the push for Nunavut to becoming a separate territory, with the dream of greater autonomy over decisions concerning those peoples’ destiny and self-governance, including wildlife issues.

This dream bore fruit in 1999, with the final signing of the Nunavut Land Claims Agreement (NLCA) and the formation of the new Territory of Nunavut. This agreement between Canada and the Inuit, finally gave the Inuit the constitutional right to hunt bowhead and other whale species.

The first officially sanctioned hunt in decades took place in 1996, when one whale was allowed to be harpooned; the first in over 2 decades. (Native people have hunted the more populous beluga and narwhal on a regular, yearly basis right up to the present). This supply of protein is a very important part of the Inuit diet, along with walrus, seal, fish and caribou.

By April 2009, the bowhead’s status was downgraded from ‘Endangered’ to a species of ‘Special Concern,’ in Canada. This status opened the door for another increased quota of bowheads, to 3 kills in 2012, then 5 in 2014. (A 2008 DFO study noted that our Arctic population could withstand up to 18 bowheads being harvested yearly, which only helped support the idea behind the increased quota).

The meat and blubber from the 5 bowhead is distributed among some of the 28 isolated communities, where possible, in Nunavut (pop. 32,000) and to a much lesser degree, in the 15 communities in Nunavik, (pop. 10,000).

Besides the massive bowhead, the Inuit are also allowed to kill 400-700 belugas each year from an estimated population of between 72,000 and up to 140,000 living in Canadian waters. This whale; also referred to as the ‘white whale’ or ‘sea canary,’ can grow to a length of 4 metres and weigh up to 1,400?kg or more. Most of the hunt is a cooperative hunt, involving small vessels and a small number of hunters engaged in the hunts.

Along with the beluga harvested, between 400 and 700 narwhal (also referred to as unicorns of the sea because of the male’s long spiralling tusk) are also taken each year using high power rifles, with the hunter hiding behind the pack ice of the Canadian Arctic. Recent studies put the population at around 100,000 animals.

But the real number of narwhal kills may be hundreds more than reported, as 30% or higher, of those ‘struck and lost,’ are never recovered. They are shot from the pack ice then retrieved by a grappling hook, thrown from the edge of the ice. Most of the pot shot whales swim off wounded to die or sink out of reach, (reference; http://ngm.nationalgeographic.com/print/2007/08/hunting-narwhals/hunting-narwhals-text).

This form of hunting and animal waste is ridiculous and shows that the Inuit, at this present time, cannot be left alone as the solitary voice to set the quotas. (This part of the modern hunt does not include the use of traditional seal skin kayaks and bone-tipped spears, which ensured a low loss rate). The Inuit are human beings and as such, are subject to the same vices as any other human being, such as greed and ignorance.

(Similarities can be seen in Canada’s commercial seal hunt, which the author supports and has documented. The only way to guarantee that the seal does not suffer long, or escapes wounded to die elsewhere, is to dispatch it quickly by clubbing the seal directly on the head. Many people feel this method is inhumane and that a rifle should be used instead of a club. If this was the case, then we would be cruelly butchering the seal population, and like the narwhal, most of the shot animals would be wounded and disappear below the pack ice and die before being retrieved. To aim a rifle from a boat and hit the seal in the brain (about the size of a walnut), especially when both are moving, would be miraculous and would take extreme marksmanship. If we are to harvest any animal, it must be done humanely and quickly to alleviate any undue suffering, and with respect for the animal).

The sale of narwhal ivory is allowed within Canada (used by native carvers for jewellery and other artisan trades), but to sell it out of country requires CITES (the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora) approval. Currently, all narwhal tusks harvested in Nunavut can be sold internationally because we have the science information to confirm sustainable hunting practices. But just because the above method of hunting narwhal is largely out of sight, and the population can rebound from it, doesn’t mean that it is right. It is up to the community leadership to protect the narwhal and other species from this sort of undue slaughter.

Narwhal can reach up to 5 metres in the larger males, not including its 2-3 metre ivory tusk, while weighing in at 1,900 kg (females are smaller and lighter in weight). Besides it meat and blubber, the narwhal’s ivory tusk is in much demand by native and foreign carvers. Hunters can get over $1000 per tusk.

The numbers of beluga and narwhal to be taken yearly are allotted by the regional Hunting and Trapping Organizations, under the eye and direction of the Nunavut Wildlife Management Board, the NWMB. They in turn, are under the direction of the DFO, though not to the strict extent of the bowhead.

The meat and blubber from the hundreds of beluga and narwhal harvested are shared locally (particularly to the elders of the community) due to the smaller size of these whales and the great distance between communities. Each community has a game warden, to ensure the rules for this hunt (beluga and narwhal) are carried-out properly and within NWMB rulings.

Protection for the world’s whale populations came in 1986, when the International Whaling Commission, (IWC, the international body responsible for rulings concerning world whale survival and management) banned all commercial whale hunting worldwide. (Some species, like the bowhead, had received protected status from hunting since a 1966 moratorium was enacted to preserve their surviving numbers. Other species, like the right whale have been protected since the 1930’s).

Without a blanket law protecting all whale species, rare species were still being taken by accident or by rouge whaling nations, like Russia, who under-reported their catch numbers for decades, sticking a finger in the eye of the international community. So a total ban was introduced and this was very much needed to protect a number of species from outright extinction. The IWC, (made up of 88 member nations), decided to include a caveat into the 1986 ruling that made an exemption allowing for a very limited number of whales to be killed.

This was allowed under the Aboriginal Subsistence Whaling (ASW) ruling, which gives accredited aboriginal peoples the right to hunt whales for cultural and nutritional requirements, with the consideration that the hunts do not threaten to unbalance the stock and that parts of the whale are not sold commercially.

Surprisingly, Canada was, but is no longer a member of the IWC, even though they have a similar vision involving the survival of the world’s whales. Canada was a member from 1949 until 1982, after which they had a disagreement and withdrew from the organization. Once again, whales became political pawns, as they still are.

Canada felt the IWC was moving towards policies that didn’t support aboriginal sustainable harvests. At some high political level, Canada decided to withdraw from the IWC, because of the lobby group’s position. The pro-commercial whaling nations, such as Canada, accused the IWC of basing these decisions upon “political and emotional” factors rather than upon scientific knowledge.

This politicking was going on while Canada was playing its own game of internal politics by seeking to appease the Inuit with a carrot (or whale) on a stick, to keep their whaling culture from extinction itself. As mentioned beforehand, the Inuit were seeking autonomy from Canada and their charter or constitution demanded the lawful right to hunt whales, including the bowhead.

The Canadian system for the hunt has been transforming more into a community-based management system that emphasizes local by-laws on hunting, for beluga and narwhal. It aims to re-establish ethical codes of conduct to reduce hunting losses and keep better tabs on harvest numbers and hunters. Tags authorizing a hunter to take a whale (specifically the beluga and narwhal) are distributed by local hunters and trappers associations. Hunters are expected to respect the local by-laws, to better preserve stocks.

This system of management will eventually see the Inuit take more responsibility for tracking and handling these hunts as the Canadian government, over the long term, passes-on this responsibility to the people of Nunavut.

Countries that allow for an aboriginal hunt (under the IWC’s ASW mandate) include the USA (Alaska and Washington State) partnering with the Russian Federation (67 bowheads and 140 greys per year), the native people of West Greenland (10 humpbacks, 178 minke, 19 finback, 2 bowhead per year), Eastern Greenland (12 minke per year) and St. Vincent and the Grenadines (5 humpback per year).

The total IWC bowhead whale hunt allows for 69 animals total to be taken yearly from the world’s Arctic waters. Canada strictly controls its own version of the ASW hunt and as mentioned takes 5 bowhead per year, for a total of 74 bowheads being taken from the world’s oceans each year.

While Japan was forced to close their own whale hunt after the 2014 season, they killed 250 minke in the season 2013-2014, under the alleged guise of scientific research. They presently capture (for aquariums) and kill hundreds of dolphins each year along their own coastline, which they herd into bays and slaughter by stabbing them with lances.

Two other nations continue to have a commercial hunt for whales, openly defying the IWC rulings. These nations include Norway (500 minke whales taken per year), and Iceland, who last year killed 137 endangered fin whales and 24 minke (from their governments allotted quota of 230 minke). In 2015, Iceland shipped 1,700 tons of fin whale meat to Japan, for their consumers.

Around 3000 dolphins, porpoises, beluga and orca are kept in captivity worldwide, for human entertainment and profit. Those who run these marine-themed establishments say that they serve an important role in educating the public about the plight and beauty of whales, while their detractors say these facilities are akin to whale prisons.

Even though the aboriginal hunt and the ‘rouge pirate hunt’ still take a very modest number of whales per year (compared to world populations), times certainly have changed for the better since the late-18-hundreds and into the 19-hundreds, when tens-of-thousands of whales were being killed each year across the world’s oceans, thanks to the invention of the bow-mounted exploding harpoon by Norwegian, Sven Foyn, in 1864.

The introduction of the Sven gun to the hunt revolutionized whaling. The Sven gun increased the safety and efficiency in the whale hunt and also allowed the whalers to pursue the larger and speedier baleen whales (something they hadn’t been able to do before this invention), like the fin whale, the second largest whale species (the blue whale being the largest).

This method of whaling was a major game changer. There was no longer a need to launch smaller boats (from the mother ship) to purse individual whales with hand-held, non-explosive harpoons; a very dangerous method of procuring whales. The industry advanced from hand-thrown harpoons, to the more successful canon-fired exploding harpoons, fired from the bow of the ship. It was the beginning of the end for many of the world’s whale populations as the slaughter continued unabated, at a much higher success and profit rate.

Before the Canadian government decides on a whale quota for the Inuit, it must know how many whales make up a population, their habitat and requirements for survival and any trends that may affect their survival or numbers.

In Canada, the DFO provides the scientific research for this information, which can take years to conduct and analyze in the short and unpredictable 2-month-long Arctic summer, which is often plagued by fog, variable winds and other unpredictable weather, and that is at the best of times.

The Arctic is one of the most difficult (along with Antarctica), if not the most difficult environment to study animal life in the world, and logistically, it is extremely expensive to conduct studies under these extreme conditions and the vastness of the regions needed to be covered.

It is expected that Canada will continue to allow an increase in the numbers of bowhead that can be hunted in Canadian Arctic waters, with the backing of modern science, technology and the Inuit. The preliminary results of the 2013 aerial survey show a substantial increase in bowhead numbers, (these latest results may be the reason why former Fisheries Minister, Gail Shea agreed to increase the quota from 3 to 5 bowhead, for the 2015 season).

One of the agreements under the Nunavut Land Claims Agreement (NLCA), (co-signed with the government of Canada in 1999) was that whale hunting be a given right under the Inuit constitution. It allows for, by law, a bowhead hunt by the Inuit people; and as whale numbers increase, the Inuit will have a legal right to demand an increase in the bowhead quota.

There are a number of reasons for this expected increase in Canadian quotas. Firstly, the most recent scientific studies show that the bowhead population has been steadily increasing and are now recovered enough to allow for more of this species to be hunted.

The Nunavut land-claims organization, Nunavut Tunngavik Inc., wants the territory’s wildlife board to consider increasing — or scrapping altogether — the quota on hunting bowhead whales. They say the population can handle an increased hunt.

Regardless, just how much whale can the native population eat? Will 10 bowheads be enough; as well as the hundreds of beluga and narwhal harvested? Eventually, it may be hoped that native needs will balance out to an acceptable number acknowledged by all parties.

In the next few years, we will have a much better grasp of the whale populations of the Canadian Arctic as information is analysed and new studies conducted, along with the input of native hunters’ organizations. Some of the most pressing threats to the whales of the Arctic include a receding ice sheet and the growing numbers and spread of orcas (killer whales) in the north, which prey upon even the largest whales and their calves.

The second reason for the expected increase in quotas is political as much as it is cultural. It was written into the NLCA constitution allowing for a native whale hunt, under the laws of Canada, but the numbers must warrant this increase.

In order to meet its mandate and the obligations under the NLCA, the Canadian whale hunt is a joint responsibility co-managed by the Inuit under the Nunavut Wildlife Management Board (NWMB) and the DFO. The fisheries ministry conduct the scientific studies and make sure the hunt is carried on safely and that the whale suffers as little as possible during the hunt. For this reason, the bowhead has to be dispatched by a special exploding harpoon head, which results in a quick death for the whale and lessens the chance of it suffering for too long, or escaping with mortal wounds. (This whale has a two-foot thick layer of blubber under its outer skin).

Including the exploding harpoon, there is also a strict set of rules under which the hunt must be followed and not diverted from. This includes the use of spotter and chase boats and a safety team, should something go awry.

Before any increase in quotas is allowed however, the Inuit have to conduct their own study, to augment the DFO scientific research. It is called the ‘Inuit Knowledge Study’, showing sightings, location and concentrations of bowhead whales observed by native groups living in the area. This paper is forwarded from the NWMB to the DFO.

If the DFO agrees with the increase (which is decided upon by pouring over the Knowledge Study and DFO science), the request is forwarded to the federal fisheries minister who either allows or disallows the request.

If the ruling federal government doesn’t want to end up in a courtroom with the Inuit challenging treaty rights and the quagmire that accompanies such courtroom drama, the Feds have to keep their heads up and try to balance the right decision between native needs and whale needs, while trying not to rock-the-boat in the communities. These are the elephant in the room of Canadian whale politics.

Many Inuit hunters believe there is too much politicking in the whale hunt and they have seen an increase in especially the bowhead numbers over the past few decades. Others have contempt or a disregard for scientific studies and say they are forced to rely on them too much. It is a difficult task trying to please all parties, but disagreements can and are being worked out all the time, with the bridge between the Inuit and the southern researchers getting narrower, to the benefit of all involved.

Canada may never allow for another commercial whale hunt, but as whale numbers continue to increase worldwide, and the pressure to allow for a limited commercial hunt continues to come up, it seems only a matter of time before it is seriously considered by the IWC.

Man hunts all kinds of animals. It is part of many people’s tradition and right, by law, to be allowed to hunt. So if there are clearly enough whales to allow for a limited commercial whale hunt, then we must allow for a commercial hunt, under the strictest controls; otherwise, we are hypocrites who pick and chose which animal is allowed to be killed and which are not, out of vanity or some other misplaced human emotion.

A limited minke, humpback or finback commercial hunt may work if conducted openly and transparently, with recognized, non-partial observers on board the hunting vessels.

The problem that arises from allowing a limited commercial hunt is in policing it or keeping it in line. This would not be easy and would require financial and political will and backing. As well, it must be understood that keeping track of animal movements on the world’s oceans is a daunting task even with modern technology, so policing the oceans would be difficult to say the least.

The situation is exasperated by the fact that the Russians and other nation members of the IWC under reported their catches and lied to the IWC about their catch sizes in the past. So this also is part of the problem, whale poaching, and how do you police that?

So it may be imagined that a limited commercial hunt could be allowed, with specific species, as long as the hunt is strictly governed and that those who break the laws, would be severely reprimanded and disallowed the ability to hunt.

The reality is that we almost lost a number of whale species from over hunting and if the 1986 moratorium never came in to play (and those before that), then whale extinctions would have. So how does the IWC cater to these nations which we know didn’t play by the rules and because of this, law abiding nations were also punished as part of the blanket moratorium?

These untrustworthy or cheating nations must be kept at bay and never truly trusted, such as Japan, Russia, Iceland and Norway. They should be on the lowest rung of influence.

Keeping a possible commercial whale hunt in mind, Canadians must always remember what happened to our former, vast fisheries of the Grand Banks, which were looted into extinction by some of these very same, pirate nations. The Banks were once thought impossible to be emptied of their supposedly never ending fish supply; but they were, with modern fish tracking technology and the use of mother factory ships. Not only were the fish stocks annihilated, but the province of Newfoundland saw an exodus of its population, as the source of their livelihood was raped by unconcerned foreign fleets.

The above is an example of what can happen if the whale hunt is not thoroughly policed, (should a commercial hunt be allowed) if that is possible at all.

The future of the world’s whales is all about common sense, science and sustainability, and while some whale species, like the 40-ton humpback continue to rise, other species have remained at extremely low numbers and are not growing, even though they have not been hunted for decades. It should be understood that some whale species are way more prolific than others.

Perhaps the greatest threat to Canada’s Arctic whale population is not from the harpoon but from a changing climate. Should the melting of the Arctic ice continue at its present rate, Arctic species (including land predators like the carnivorous polar bear) will be up against their greatest enemy yet; the loss of the habitat and prey that they need to survive upon?

Like a duck out of water; a bowhead, beluga or narwhal without ice or an Arctic environment, will be doomed to extinction. Only time will tell which way the balance will tip, but all voices must be included in any further talks aimed at expanding any whale hunt, because in Canada we may not only lose this precious resource, but it will further erode the culture and rights of the People of the North.