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

Existing Protection or Other Status Designations

The bowhead whale has been protected in Canada from commercial whaling under the International Convention for the Regulation of Whaling (1946). However, the convention exempts Aboriginal subsistence (Reeves and Mitchell 1990). In 1979, Canada banned all hunting of bowheads, without a licence, under the Cetacean Protection Regulations of the Fisheries Act (Reeves and Mitchell 1990). The bowhead whale is now protected under the Marine Mammal Regulations of the Fisheries Act (Cosens 1997a). It has not been assigned a Canadian national (N) rank by the Nature Conservancy, or a provincial (S) rank by the Conservation Data Centres or Natural Heritage Information Centres. The Global Heritage rank is G4 (Moshenko et al. 2003).

The Nunavut Land Claim Agreement, legislated in 1993, contains a provision (5.6.18) that the Nunavut Wildlife Management Board must establish a total allowable harvest of “at least one bowhead subject to conservation requirements”. One estimate of the sustainable removal rate, based on historical bowhead hunts and the assumption that the population was stable or increasing, is one whale per two or three years for the Foxe Basin-Northern Hudson Bay population (DFO 1999) and one whale per 13 years for the Baffin Bay-Davis Strait population (Cosens et al. 1993).

Only five bowheads have been landed in Nunavut since 1993 (NWMB 2000). The first one (not licensed) occurred in September 1994 at Igloolik; the second bowhead hunt (approved by the Nunavut Wildlife Management Board and licensed by the federal Department of Fisheries and Oceans) occurred in August 1996 at Repulse Bay; the third licensed hunt occurred in July 1998 in Cumberland Sound; the fourth licensed hunt occurred in 2000 in the Coral Harbour area (NWMB 2000); and the fifth licensed hunt occurred in the Igloolik/Hall Beach area in 2002 (Galipeau pers. comm. 2005).

The Inuvialuit of the Western Arctic have been interested in re-establishing the harvest of bowhead whale from the Beaufort Sea since 1963. Only two bowheads have been landed, both by the Aklavik Hunters and Trappers Committee (HTC) in 1991 and 1996 (Harwood and Smith 2002). No further licences have been requested by (or issued to) the Aklavik HTC since 1996 (Harwood and Smith 2002). There is a subsistence harvest of the Bering-Chukchi-Beaufort population by the Alaskan Inuit. A quota of 280 bowhead whales was set for 1999-2002, of which a total of 67 (plus up to 15 unharvested in the previous year) could be taken each year (NMFS 2000).

Internationally, the bowhead species has been listed since 1994 as Lower Risk/conservation-dependent on the Red List of the World Conservation Union (IUCN). The three populations in Canada are listed separately on the Red List, as follows: Davis Strait-Baffin Bay, Endangered; Hudson Bay-Foxe Basin, Vulnerable; and Bering-Chukchi-Beaufort, Lower Risk/conservation-dependent. The bowhead is in Appendix I of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), meaning that commercial trade in bowhead products is prohibited. The bowhead whale is listed as endangered under the US Endangered Species Act of 1973 (ESA) and depleted under the US Marine Mammal Protection Act of 1972 (MMPA) (Shelden and Rugh 1995).

In the United States, the Commissioner of the Alaska Department of Fish and Game established a new administrative list of Species of Special Concern to complement the Alaska Endangered Species List. A Species of Special Concern is defined as any species or subspecies of fish and wildlife native to the State of Alaska which has entered a long-term decline in abundance or is vulnerable to a significant decline due to low numbers, restricted distribution, dependence on limited habitat resources, or sensitivity to environmental disturbance (The Alaska National Heritage Program 1998). The Bering-Chucki-Beaufort population is on this Species of Special Concern list.