Skip booklet index and go to page content

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

Existing Protection or Other Status

In Canada, belugas have been managed under the Fisheries Act since 1949. The history of legislation and amendments are reviewed in Reeves and Mitchell (1989). The Beluga Protection Regulations of 1979 (absorbed into the Marine Mammal Regulations of the Fisheries Act in 1993) limited beluga hunting without a permit to Indians and Inuit of Canada.

In 1979, the St. Lawrence beluga population was added to the Beluga Protection regulations of the Fisheries Act. In 1980, the regulations were amended to prohibit hunting and willful disturbance of the St. Lawrence beluga. In 1993, another amendment forbade any disturbance of marine mammals with exemptions under permit. Belugas are protected from being sought out and from direct approaches by commercial whale watching boats, and behavioural guidelines have been developed for vessels that unexpectedly encounter them (Ministère de Pêche et Océans Canada 1992). These regulations have been adopted and incorporated into the law, which has created the new joint federal and provincial Saguenay and St. Lawrence Marine Park.

St. Lawrence belugas have been the subject of continuing research and intense scrutiny under the umbrella of the Interdisciplinary Action Plan for the Survival of the Beluga of the St. Lawrence (Plan de rétablissement pour les bélugas du St.-Laurent) (Bailey and Zinger 1995). They have been listed as Endangered under the Quebec Endangered Species Act.

In the Arctic waters, where the belugas are subject to subsistence hunting, a number of populations are the subject of co-management by Inuit groups, Hunters and Trappers Associations, the Nunavut Wildlife Management Board, and Fisheries and Oceans Canada. In the northern Quebec territories of Nunavik, which comprises many beluga hunting communities (Lesage et al. 2001), a Beluga Management Plan (Anon. 2001a) specifies annual allowable catches, which are implemented by a system of community quotas. Under the current management plan, Ungava Bay and that part of the habitat of the Eastern Hudson Bay population encompassing the Hudson Bay arc are closed to hunting. Current hunting by Nunavik Inuit is limited to Hudson Strait and James Bay.

The Cumberland Sound population has been the subject of co-management action since the 1980s (Richard and Pike 1993). A recovery strategy for this population is being developed by Fisheries and Oceans Canada in collaboration with the Pangnirtung HTA, Qikiqtaaluk Wildlife Board, Nunavut Wildlife Management Board and Nunavut Tunngavik Inc. (S. Cosens, DFO, Winnipeg, pers. com.). Presently the annual allowable catch is set at 41 landed belugas.

The Eastern High Arctic – Baffin Bay population is the subject of scrutiny and continuing research in view of the likely overexploitation in West Greenland (Innes and Stewart 2002). The West Greenland group might well be a separate population (de March et al. 2002, Heide-Jørgensen et al. 2003). The Canada - Greenland Joint Commission on Conservation and Management of Narwhal and Beluga was established in 1991 in order to develop and integrate research and manage the populations of Arctic monodontids whose total range is shared by both countries. This commission has paid close attention to the population of belugas hunted in western Greenland.

The other two largest beluga groups in Canada, the Western Hudson Bay population and the Eastern Beaufort Sea population, appear to be exploited at below sustainable yields, at least during the summer harvests and no quotas or special management plans are imposed on them. It should be noted, however, that the Western Hudson Bay population has not been surveyed for over 15 years, and that catches are substantial and rising. The Eastern Beaufort Sea population has been continuously monitored since 1980s and studied using a community-based harvest monitoring program (Harwood et al. 2002). The Fisheries Joint Management Committee (FJMC) was established in 1986 and worked with the Inuvialuit to implement the Beaufort Sea Beluga Management Plan in 1996 (FJMC 1998, Harwood and Smith 2002).