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Consultation Workbook of the Ungava beluga whales

Information on the Beluga

Species information

The Beluga, Delphinapterus leucas, is a medium-sized toothed whale, which becomes completely white when it reaches sexual maturity. Adult males attain a length of 4.5 meters and females 3.5 meters. Both are similar in appearance. Young are born a dark grey and gradually become paler as they mature.

Belugas are also known as white whale, béluga in French, and qilalugaq or siqsuaq in the Inuktitutt, Inuvialuktun and Inupiat dialects.

Biology

Belugas have a mean lifespan in the range of 15 to 30 years, although they may live beyond the age of 40. They are sexually mature at the ages of 5-7 years. Scientific evidence suggests that females are capable of giving birth, on the average, every 3 years. They feed on a variety of fish and invertebrates. Little is known of their mating behaviour as it occurs in the winter offshore areas. Polar bears, killer whales and Inuit hunters are their main predators.

Habitat

Belugas spend the summer in coastal and offshore areas. Their distribution is centred on certain river estuaries, which they visit shortly after ice break-up and where they moult. They frequent these areas occasionally throughout the summer months. In the autumn they begin migrating to other locations, including certain deep-water areas, where they can feed intensively. They then continue to move to areas where pack-ice is of about 40%-80% cover, and spend the winter there.

Distribution

Currently available evidence supports the division of Canadian belugas into seven populations, based on disjunct summer distributions and genetic differences (Figure 1 in the Appendix):

1)    the St. Lawrence Estuary population occupying the area of the estuary centered around the Saguenay River mouth;

2)    the Ungava Bay population occupying the whole of Ungava Bay in the summer;

3)    the Eastern Hudson Bay population occupying the area from Kuujjuaraapik to Inukjuak, in the area of the Little Whale and Nastapoka Rivers during the summer months;

4)    the Western Hudson Bay population occupying the areas of the Seal, Nelson and Churchill Rivers and further north to Southampton Island and Roes Welcome Sound during the summer and early autumn months;

5)    the Eastern High Arctic – Baffin Bay population spending its summers in the Lancaster Sound, Barrow Strait, Prince Regent Inlet and Peel Sound areas of the Canadian high Arctic

6)    the Cumberland Sound population which seems restricted to the Cumberland Sound area and concentrates in Clearwater Fiord during July and August;

7)    the Eastern Beaufort Sea population occupying the Delta of the Mackenzie River and migrates into the Amundsen Gulf and as far north as Viscount Melville Sound during late summer.

Migrations of all the populations occur from overwintering areas in areas of open water to their spring and summer calving and feeding areas, which are usually river estuaries.

This consultation workbook is about the Eastern Hudson Bay and Ungava Bay Beluga populations. The information found in the following sections will mainly deal with these two populations.

Population sizes and trends

Both the Eastern Hudson Bay and Ungava Bay Beluga populations experienced intensive commercial hunts conducted primarily by the Hudson Bay Company in the mid 1800s to early 1900s. There is evidence that both populations suffered serious declines as a result of this commercial activity. The recording of Beluga harvest statistics from the Nunavik Inuit, which began in 1974, shows that catches for some communities began declining in the late 1970s. In response, Makivik Corporation and the Department of Fisheries and Oceans began to work together on research projects in Nunavik. Aerial surveys were conducted in 1981, indicating that the number of Beluga estimated to be summering in eastern Hudson Bay and Ungava Bay could not tolerate continued high levels of harvesting. Surveys in 1985, 1993 and 2001 indicated that the situation had deteriorated. An additional concern is the low reproductive rate -- an interval of one calf every three years.

The situation is complicated further by the fact that these two populations mix with the much larger western Hudson Bay population during the spring and fall migrations through Hudson Strait. Of importance, these mixed beluga populations continue to be heavily hunted during these migrations without hunters knowing from which population animals are ultimately being removed.

There are large differences in both the extent of the range and size between Beluga populations. The Ungava Bay population (Figure 2 in the Appendix) is too small to estimate. It might already be extirpated. It is important to mention that belugas are often observed in the Ungava Bay without knowing precisely from which population they come from. The Eastern Hudson Bay population (Figure 3 in the Appendix) is declining rapidly in size and number to around 2,000 individuals. Recent harvest levels could cause this population to be extirpated in less than 10 years. COSEWIC has re-examined these two populations in May 2004 and determined that both are endangered.