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COSEWIC Assessment and Update Status Report on the Bowhead Whale in Canada

Special Significance of the Species

The Hudson Bay-Foxe Basin population is probably endemic to Canada, but the Bering-Chukchi-Beaufort population and the Davis Strait-Baffin Bay population are not. McLeod et al. (1993) state that the bowhead is a relict species (both geographically and evolutionarily) that probably arose during Pliocene time in the northern hemisphere. Tynan and DeMaster (1997) list the bowhead as a possible indicator species for climatic change in the northern hemisphere, and is therefore of special interest for scientific reasons. The bowhead is a monotypic species, with its closest relative being the right whale (Eubalaena australis). The bowhead is listed as endangered worldwide, although the Bering-Chukchi-Beaufort population constitutes more than 90% of the world’s remaining individuals (Marine Mammal Commission 1999).

Bowhead whales are killed by subsistence hunters in Alaska and Russia, and a smaller hunt by Inuit takes place in the Canadian Arctic. The International Whaling Commission regulates Alaskan and Russian hunts. In Canada, bowhead hunting is co-managed by Fisheries and Oceans Canada and Wildlife Management Boards created under land claims agreements. These include the Fisheries Joint Management Committee in the Inuvialuit Settlement Region and the Nunavut Wildlife Management Board in Nunavut.

The bowhead had great significance to the early human communities along the shores of the Arctic. The hunting of bowheads for subsistence was well established in Hudson Bay and Foxe Basin long before the British and American commercial whale fishery became established (Reeves and Mitchell 1990). The archaeological record indicates that various species of whale have been hunted in northern regions of Canada for at least 2,000 years (Freeman et al. 1998). From about A.D. 1100 to 1440, the ancestors of today’s eastern Canadian Arctic Inuit hunted bowhead whales (Freeman et al. 1998). The bowhead whale was one of the most important species harvested by Inuit, whereby one whale could provide enough food, oil and building material for an entire camp, for a year (NWMB 2000).

Commercial whaling had a profound impact on the Inuit and the wildlife on which they subsisted. During most of the commercial whaling period, the Beaufort Sea and Nunavut Inuit obtained abundant supplies of bowhead muktuk and meat as a by-product of the commercial whaling operations (Freeman et al. 1992; NWMB 2000). This ease with which supplies of muktuk could be obtained from the commercial whalers caused a suspension of traditional bowhead hunting. For Inuit, who had become accustomed to the now-familiar pattern of living near the whaling stations, the eventual closing of the whaling stations brought about real hardship (Freeman et al. 1998). Severe depletion of the bowhead population undermined the importance of these animals to Inuit subsistence (Reeves and Mitchell 1990).

The present significance of bowheads to humans can be expressed in terms of their future potential as a renewable subsistence and aesthetic resource (Reeves and Mitchell 1990). Most Inuit are concerned about losing Inuit knowledge of the bowhead whale and techniques for hunting it (NWMB 2000). The Inuit have a strong desire to preserve their culture, so intimately linked with bowheads and whaling, and many believe that resuming the bowhead hunt may help to preserve their culture (NWMB 2000).

Limited numbers of bowhead whales have been hunted since 1990. Inuvialuit of the western arctic landed one bowhead in 1991 and another in 1996 under licence from DFO. One bowhead from the Davis Strait-Baffin Bay population was reported landed in 1993, and five are known to have been removed from the Hudson Bay-Foxe Basin population since 1993.