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COSEWIC Assessment and Update Status Report on the Atlantic Walrus in Canada

Special Significance of the Species

Walruses are the only living representatives of the Family Odobenidae and an important link in the Arctic food chain between benthic invertebrates and humans. Their importance to Inuit is substantial in both cultural and economic terms. Families spend the summer at traditional hunting camps and in this way help to maintain the Inuk way of life. These cultural values are important but difficult to measure in economic terms. Using various methods, Anderson and Garlich-Miller (1994) estimated the net economic value of products from the 1992 summer walrus hunt to Igloolik and Hall Beach at between $160,000 and $659,000. The lower figure does not consider the effects on Inuit health of substituting foods imported from the south for nutritious walrus meat.

In the past, Inuit used ivory to construct harpoons, to make toggles and handles, to shoe sledges, and to make protective edges on kayak paddles. The thick skin was used to make summer tents and rope. Now, walruses are hunted mainly for their ivory tusks, which are either sold or carved for sale, and for their meat, which is eaten or fed to dogs (Freeman 1964; Schwartz 1976; Anderson and Garlich-Miller 1994; Born et al. 1995). They are killed and eaten on a seasonal basis depending upon availability, which varies among communities (Fleming and Newton 2003). The ivory tusks and the baculum are the property of the hunter who shot the walrus but the meat is typically shared in the community. It may be boiled and eaten fresh, frozen for winter consumption, or aerobically fermented to make igunak (Orr et al. 1986; Anderson and Garlich-Miller 1994). Igunak is made by sewing the meat and blubber of walruses landed in summer into a walrus skin bag, burying it on the beach, and then recovering and eating the contents in the spring after they have fermented and aged (R.E.A. Stewart, DFO Winnipeg, pers. comm. 2003). Care must be taken to ensure that the meat does not ferment anaerobically, for example in sealed plastic bags, to avoid botulism (Proulx et al. 1997). Hall Beach has traded some igunak to other communities and has asked to be allowed to sell it (Cosens et al. 1993). Walruses killed too late in the fall to be made into igunak are frozen and eaten during the winter. Inuit consider molluscs in walrus stomachs to be a delicacy (Dunbar 1949; Reeves 1978, 1995). 

Indians along the coasts of Hudson Bay and James Bay occasionally hunted walrus in the past to feed dog teams, and made rope from the tough hide (Fleming and Newton 2003). They only ate walrus when there was no other food.