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Part 2:  Information About Each Beluga Population

Cumberland Sound Belugas

Status: Threatened

Last Examination by COSEWIC:  May 2004

Biology

The beluga, Delphinapterus leucas, is a medium-sized toothed whale which turns completely white when it reaches sexual maturity. On average, adult males of this population measure 369 cm and weigh between about 450 and 1000 kg and adult females measure 338 cm and weigh between about 250 to 700 kg.

Females reach sexual maturity at about 5 years; males at about 8 years of age. Breeding appears to peak in May and calves are born in late July or early August after a gestation period of about 14 months. Calves nurse for up to two years. On average, the calving interval is about one calf born every three years although local hunters reported that females may give birth annually.

Life span is estimated to range between 15 and 30 years. Local hunters report belugas feed mainly on Arctic cod at the floe-edge in spring and on a variety of fish and invertebrates in summer. Satellite-tagging studies indicate that during the winter, belugas dive to depths of 300 m or more, presumably to feed.

Where is this population of whales found?

The Cumberland Sound beluga population appears to be restricted to the waters of Cumberland Sound off southeastern Baffin Island in Nunavut. Most whales spend the summer near the head of Cumberland Sound, in or near Clearwater Fiord. During the rest of the year, they move to the centre or near the mouth of the Sound (see Appendix, Fig. 1, p. 22).

How many whales are there?

Prior to 1923, the Cumberland Sound population was estimated at over 5,000 animals but their numbers dropped substantially between the 1920s and 1960s because of large commercial catches. Although commercial whaling ceased in 1960, subsistence hunts are still carried out. Aerial surveys, complemented with dive data from satellite-tagged whales to correct for diving animals missed during the surveys, were conducted in the northern end of Cumberland Sound between 1979 and 1999. The most recent survey produced a population estimate of 1,940 belugas. Both scientific data and Inuit knowledge suggest the population has been stable or increasing over the past decade.

Threats to the population

The whales are threatened by polar bears, killer whales and ice entrapments. A variety of human activities (e.g., noise and disturbance resulting from vessel traffic, climate change, contaminants) may also put them at risk.

Are they hunted?

Yes. There is a carefully-managed subsistence hunt.

COSEWIC Reason for Designation:

Numbers of belugas using Cumberland Sound have declined by about 1500 individuals between the 1920s and the present.The population decline is believed to have been caused by hunting by the Hudson Bay Company into the 1940s and by the Inuit until 1979. Hunting has been regulated since the 1980s. Current quotas (41 in 2003) appear to be sustainable. Concerns have been raised about increased small vessel traffic and the associated noise of outboard motors, as well as fishery removals of Greenland halibut, a food of belugas.

What will happen if this population is added to the SARA List?

  • Designating Cumberland Sound belugas, as “Threatened”, and adding them to the SARA List would initiate development of a recovery strategy1, a document that would establish a recovery goal, identify threats to belugas and critical habitat to them, and describe what should be done to help the population increase in numbers.
  • The Strategy would support continued recovery of this beluga population. It would recommend a number of ways to achieve that goal, including using scientific and Inuit approaches, to assess and protect the population and habitat while still maintaining a sustainable Inuit subsistence hunt.
  • In the future, specific recovery actions would be developed in an action plan once a Recovery Action Group had been established.
  • SARA contains automatic prohibitions that make it an offence to kill or harm an individual that has been legally listed as Threatened, or damage or destroy its residence. However the Act allows for some exceptions to the automatic prohibitions under certain circumstances.

1 In anticipation of possible legal listing, a Recovery Team was formed in September 2002 consisting of representatives from the Pangnirtung Hunters and Trappers Organization, Qikiqtaaluk Wildlife Board, Nunavut Wildlife Management Board, Nunavut Tunngavik Incorporated and Fisheries and Oceans Canada. The Recovery Team finished writing the Strategy in March 2004. It is currently being reviewed.

Eastern High Arctic-Baffin Baybelugas

Status: Special Concern

Last Examination by COSEWIC:  May 2004

Biology

The beluga, Delphinapterus leucas, is a medium-sized toothed whale which turns completely white when it reaches sexual maturity. On average, adult males of this population measure 345 cm and weigh between about 450 and 1000 kg and adult females measure 321cm and weigh between about 250 to 700 kg.

Females reach sexual maturity at about 5 years; males at about 8 years of age. Mating probably occurs during late winter to early spring, peaking before mid-April. Calves are born between June and August, with the calving season probably peaking from mid-June to early July.On average, the calving interval is estimated to be one calf born every three years.

Life span is estimated to range between 15 and 30 years. Belugas have a varied diet composed of small fish and crustaceans. In the High Arctic, their main food sources are arctic cod and Greenland halibut (turbot). Satellite-tagging studies indicate belugas dive to depths of 300 m or more, presumably to feed.

Where is this population of whales found?

This Eastern High Arctic-Baffin Bay population lives in the eastern Canadian high Arctic regions of Lancaster Sound, Barrow Strait, Peel Sound and Baffin Bay during the summer, when the water is open. In the fall, these whales migrate to wintering areas either in the North Water polynya, in the northern end of Baffin Bay, or along the west coast of Greenland to as far south as 66° N (see Appendix, Fig. 2, p. 23).

How many whales are there?

An aerial survey conducted in the Canadian high Arctic in August 1996 produced a population estimate of 21,213 belugas, including diving animals.

Threats to the population

The whales are threatened by polar bears, killer whales and ice entrapments. A variety of human activities (e.g., noise and disturbance resulting from vessel traffic, climate change, contaminants) may also put them at risk. For example, heavy hunting occurs in the waters off West Greenland.

Are they hunted?

This population of belugas is hunted by communities in northern Nunavut and West Greenland. The Canadian hunt is relatively small compared with the numbers taken by west Greenland hunters.

COSEWIC Reason for Designation:

The population overwinters in Baffin Bay and west Greenland and may consist of two distinct populations. It is heavily hunted in west Greenland. However, most of the population winters in Baffin Bay and the high Arctic where it is not hunted. Hunting pressure in Canadian waters is low in summer.

What will happen if this population is added to the SARA List?

  • Adding Eastern high Arctic belugas as a Species of Special Concern to the SARA List would result in the development of a management plan, a document to promote conservation of a vulnerable species or population by establishing specific management or conservation measures.
  • The Management Plan would be developed jointly by co-management partners and other agencies and individuals with an interest in this population. In areas where belugas are harvested for subsistence, the Plan will assist Hunters and Trappers Organizations to manage this population of belugas. Where belugas are not hunted, it will guide non-consumptive activities such as tourism.
  • The Management Plan could recommend protective measures for the beluga population, including:
  • Supporting and implementing recommendations developed by the Canada-Greenland Joint Commission on Conservation and Management of Narwhal and Beluga (JCNB) for this shared population of belugas.
  • Assessing risks to the beluga population that would result from different hunting levels in different locations in high Arctic waters.
  • Designating beluga management zones or habitat protection measures if needed.
  • Developing guidelines to reduce disturbance to belugas from non-consumptive activities such as tourism and shipping, if needed

Western Hudson Baybelugas

Status: Special Concern

Last Examination by COSEWIC:  May 2004

Biology

The beluga, Delphinapterus leucas, is a medium-sized toothed whale which turns completely white when it reaches sexual maturity. On average, adult males of this population measure 333 cm and weigh between about 450 and 1000 kg and adult females measure 284 cm and weigh between about 250 to 700 kg.

Females reach sexual maturity at about 5 years; males at about 8 years of age. Mating probably occurs during late winter to early spring, peaking before mid-April. Calves are born between June and August, peaking between late June and late July. On average, the calving interval is about one calf born every three years.

Life span is estimated to range between 15 and 30 years. Belugas have a varied diet composed of small fish and crustaceans. In western Hudson Bay their main food sources are sand lance, capelin and shrimp.

Where is this population of whales found?

In summer, they gather in the estuaries of the Churchill, Nelson and Seal Rivers. From mid-June to late July, belugas migrate from their wintering area in Hudson Strait, along eastern Hudson Bay. They pass east of Mansel Island and west of the Belcher Islands, to arrive at their summer areas. In summer, some whales begin to move as far north as Repulse Bay. During the fall migration, some retrace their spring migration route along eastern Hudson Bay; others move northward and then head east, travelling between Southampton Island and Coats Island, to reach Hudson Strait (see Appendix, Fig. 3. p. 24).  

How many whales are there?

Based on surveys conducted between 1978 and 1987, the Western Hudson Bay beluga population is estimated to be in excess of 23,000 animals. Results from a survey conducted in summer 2004 will be available in the near future.

Threats to the population

The whales are threatened by polar bears, killer whales and ice entrapments. A variety of human activities (e.g., noise and disturbance resulting from vessel traffic, climate change, contaminants, and hydroelectric dams) may also threaten the population.

Are they hunted?

These whales are hunted for subsistence by communities along the western shore of Hudson Bay, around the Belcher Islands and in the waters off Nunavik.

COSEWIC Reason for Designation:

The population appears to be relatively abundant, although it has not been surveyed for 15 years and may consist of more than one population. The population is subject to substantial removals by hunting in parts of its range, and is potentially threatened by shipping and hydroelectric dams.

What will happen if this population is added to the SARA List?

  • Addition of Western Hudson Bay belugas, as a Species of Special Concern, to the SARA List would require the development of a management plan, a document to promote the conservation of a vulnerable wildlife species or population by establishing specific management or conservation measures.
  • The Management Plan would be developed jointly by co-management partners and other agencies and individuals with an interest in this population. In areas where belugas are harvested for subsistence, the Plan will assist Hunters and Trappers Organizations to manage this population of belugas. Where belugas are not hunted, it will guide non-consumptive activities such as tourism or hydroelectric development.
  • The Management Plan could recommend protective measures for the beluga population, including:
  • Developing ways, such as collecting hunt data, to ensure well-managed hunts.
  • Developing procedures to respond to requests by Nunavik hunters to harvest belugas from the Western Hudson Bay population (e.g., by identifying which agencies would process and/or make decisions on such requests).
  • Designating beluga management zones or habitat protection measures if needed.
  • Developing guidelines to reduce disturbance to belugas from non-consumptive activities such as tourism, shipping, hydroelectric development, if needed.