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Consultation Workbook of the Ungava beluga whales
Through their land claims agreements, Inuit in Nunavik have constitutionally protected rights to harvest, subject to the principles of conservation. Whale hunting is a very important part of the Inuit hunting tradition. In many ways, the skill and knowledge required to hunt walrus and belugas defines an Inuk hunter. Inuit also consider Beluga an important food source. Consumption patterns, however, are changing with dietary preferences, most evident between younger generations and their elders. Consequently, whale meat may become less sought after by Nunavimiut. The skin, or muktuk, remains a delicacy among all generations and is highly desired by all communities.
The Inuit subsistence hunt has continued to remove animals from the same populations since the end of commercial hunting. With the introduction of motors in the 1960s and their increased use over subsequent decades, hunters have been able to cover larger distances in their hunting territories. This, along with a rapidly increasing Inuit population, has resulted in a marked increase in hunting pressure resulting in a continued decline of the Beluga population that summers along the eastern Hudson Bay coast.
Changes in hunting skills
During this same period, Inuit began to express concerns that the expertise and knowledge required to hunt Beluga efficiently were being lost, especially among younger people. Experienced hunters worried that animals were being harassed and use of improper weapons and lack of retrieval skills were causing more wounded animals to be lost.
Disturbance by noise
The tendency for both Beluga populations to return to the same respective estuarine locations in the summer increases their vulnerability. With no other available habitat, belugas return there each year and they must cope with hunting and considerable noise disturbance from motorized boat traffic.
Industrial development is also part of this complex picture. Hydroelectric development has already changed the flow regimes of the La Grande and Koksoak Rivers. Other river systems, particularly the Whale/Mucalic Rivers in Ungava Bay and the Little Whale and Nastapoka Rivers in Eastern Hudson Bay, contain the only estuaries in Nunavik where belugas continue to aggregate.
These areas of important habitat used by Beluga have known hydroelectric potential. Any changes to the freshwater regimes at the estuaries of these rivers could have a major impact on the health of these two populations.
Finally, while it is impossible at this time to predict with certainty what, if any, the effects of climate change on Beluga may be, Inuit and scientists are aware that any changes in water temperature, salinity and the distribution of sea ice could affect Beluga in the future.
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