Warning This Web page has been archived on the Web.

Archived Content

Information identified as archived on the Web is for reference, research or recordkeeping purposes. It has not been altered or updated after the date of archiving. Web pages that are archived on the Web are not subject to the Government of Canada Web Standards, as per the Policy on Communications and Federal Identity.

Skip booklet index and go to page content

Information about the population

Narwhal

Status:  Special Concern

Last Examination by COSEWIC:  Nov 2004

 Biology

The narwhal, Monodon monoceros, is a medium-sized toothed whale that lacks a dorsal fin. At birth they are about 1.60 m long and weigh about 80 kg. Males can grow to 5.40 m and attain ~1935 kg in weight and females to 4.94 m and ~1552 kg. Adult narwhals have only two teeth. In most males, the right tooth remains embedded in the skull and the left forms a straight, spiral tusk that can extend outward for over 3 m.

Females are believed to mature at 5 to 8 years and produce their first young at 7 to 13 years. Breeding appears to peak in mid-April, and calves are born in July and August after a gestation period of 14 to 15.3 months. On average, the calving interval is about one calf every three years until perhaps 23 years of age.

Life span may be about 50 years, but most animals probably to not reach the age of 30. Narwhals feed on polar cod, arctic cod, squid and Greenland halibut (turbot). They primarily feed on polar cod or arctic cod in spring at the ice edge and turbot during the winter. 

Where is this population of whales found?

Recent satellite tracking studies suggests that in winter some narwhals tend to concentrate along the edges of the continental shelf near the southern tip of the deep trough that extends down the middle of Baffin Bay and Davis Strait (Figure 1). As ice conditions permit, they move into waters of the Canadian Arctic Archipelago as far north as Lincoln Sea and as far west as Viscount Melville Sound during summer. But the majority of them migrate through Lancaster Sound to spend the summer in Barrow Strait, Peel Sound, Prince Regent Inlet, Admiralty Inlet and the Eclipse Sound. Some of them spend the summer at Melville Bay and Inglefield Bay in West Greenland.

Some narwhals that spend the winter mainly in eastern Hudson Strait, with some animals wintering in open leads and polynyas (areas free of ice year round) of northern Hudson Bay and western Hudson Strait. In spring they move to waters surrounding Southampton Island. The majority of them spend the summer in Repulse Bay, Frozen Strait, western Foxe Channel and Lyon Inlet.

How many whales are there?

An aerial survey conducted in the Canadian High Arctic in August 1996 which covered part of the aggregation areas (Peel Sound and Prince Regent Inlet) and Barrow Strait produced a population estimate of 45,358 narwhals, including diving animals. Narwhals in the Hudson Bay area likely number about 3,500 animals in summer after correcting for submerged individuals.

Threats to the population

Hunting for maktaq and the commercially valuable ivory tusk could be a threat to narwhals but appears to be within sustainable limits at present. Potential effects of changes in ice coverage caused by climate trends are unknown. In Nunavut waters, narwhal life history parameters and levels of sustainable hunting are not well known, and for those narwhals living in Hudson Bay, there is uncertainty about numbers and trends.  Numbers removed by hunting increased during the 1990s. Community-based management is monitoring hunting and is attempting to regulate removals. Reliable information about numbers that are killed and not recovered is difficult to obtain.

Are they hunted?

Baffin Bay narwhals are hunted by communities in northern Nunavut.Hudson Bay narwhals are hunted mainly by residents of Repulse Bay and, sometimes, residents of other communities.

COSEWIC Reason for Designation:

The Baffin Bay population appears to be large (~45,000), although there is uncertainty about numbers, trends, life history parameters, and levels of sustainable hunting. There is similar uncertainty about the much smaller Hudson Bay population (~2,100 mature individuals). Hunting for maktaq and the commercially valuable tusk ivory represents the most consistent threat to narwhals.  Potential effects of changes in ice coverage caused by climate trends are unknown. The Hudson Bay population could decline by 30% in 30 years if hunting is not closely regulated. Similarly, the Baffin Bay population could be affected if hunting in Greenland is not effectively managed. Numbers removed by hunting increased during the 1990s. Community-based management is monitoring hunting and is attempting to regulate removals. Reliable information about numbers that are killed and not recovered is difficult to obtain.

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

 Adding narwhals 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 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 narwhals are harvested for subsistence, the Plan would assist Hunters and Trappers Organizations to manage the population. Where narwhals are not hunted, it would guide non-consumptive activities such as tourism.

The Management Plan could recommend protective measures for the narwhal population, including:

o       Supporting and implementing recommendations developed by the Canada-Greenland Joint Commission on Conservation and Management of Narwhal and Beluga (JCNB) for the shared Baffin Bay population of narwhals.

o       Assessing risks to the narwhal population that would result from different hunting levels in different locations in different locations.

o       Designating narwhal management zones or habitat protection measures if needed.

o       Developing guidelines to reduce disturbance to narwhals from non-consumptive activities such as tourism and shipping, if needed.

 Hudson Bay-Foxe Basin bowhead whale population

 Status: Threatened

Last Examination by COSEWIC:  May 2005

 Biology

The bowhead whale, Baleana mysticetus, is a large baleen whale, with a barrel-shaped body and a very large head.  Young individuals are entirely brownish black, developing white markings on the chin, fluke tips and tailstock as they mature. At birth they are about 3.5-4.5 m long and weigh about 2,000-3,000 kg. Adult males reach physical maturity at about 12 m and weigh an average of 90,000 kg. Adult females reach maturity at about 13 m and can exceed 18 m at their maximum size.  Adult females are larger than adult males.

Females reach sexual maturity at about 25 years of age. Breeding occurs in late winter or early spring, and calves are born from April to early June after a gestation period of 13 to 14 months. On average, the calving interval is about one calf every three to four years.  Life span can exceed 100 years.

Bowhead whales feed mainly on copepods in areas where the currents are strongest.  Feeding activity may be high around the time of a full moon when tidal variation is greatest.

Where is this population of whales found?

The Hudson Bay-Foxe Basin population is thought to winter mainly in Hudson Strait (Figure 2). During April through May some whales migrate west until they reach northwestern Hudson Bay around Roes Welcome Sound, Repulse Bay and Frozen Strait while others move north into northern Foxe Basin, north of Igloolik. In September and October whales migrate east from Roes Welcome Sound and south from Foxe Basin into Hudson Strait.

How many whales are there?

In 2003, the best partial estimate for this population was about 1000 individuals, corrected for diving animals.

Threats to the population

The greatest threat to this population at this time is an increased vulnerability to killer whale predation as a result of reduced ice coverage.

 Are they hunted?

Based on aerial surveys done in the mid-90s, the sustainable removal rate was estimated to be one whale every two or three years for the Hudson Bay-Foxe Basin population. A non-licensed hunt of a single whale occurred in September 1994 at Igloolik. All subsequent hunts, conducted in August 1996, 2000, 2002 and 2005 near the communities of Repulse Bay, Coral Harbour, Igloolik-Hall Beach and Repulse Bay, respectively, were licensed and resulted in the take of one whale per hunt.

COSEWIC Reason for Designation:

The population was severely reduced by commercial whaling between 1860 and 1915. Recent population estimates are uncertain, but indicate that there could be as few as 300 mature individuals, of which only half might be females. Threats to this small population include illegal hunting [1] and increased vulnerability to killer whale predation as a result of reduced ice coverage.

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

 Designating Hudson Bay-Foxe Basin bowhead whales as “Threatened” and adding them to the SARA List would initiate development of a recovery strategy[2], a document that would establish a recovery goal, identify threats to the whales and define habitat critical to their survival and recovery.  It would outline what should be done to help the population increase in numbers.

The Strategy would support continued recovery of this bowhead whale 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 its habitat while still maintaining a carefully-managed Inuit subsistence hunt.

In the future, a Recovery Team would be established, the Strategy updated and specific recovery actions developed in the Action Plan.

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, thereby allowing someone to do something (e.g. such as limited hunting) providing it does not impede the recovery of the species.

 DavisStrait-Baffin Baybowhead whale population

 Status: Threatened

Last Examination by COSEWIC:  May 2005

 Biology

The bowhead whale, Baleana mysticetus, is a large baleen whale, with a barrel-shaped body and a very large head.  Young individuals are entirely brownish black, developing white markings on the chin, fluke tips and tailstock as they mature. At birth they are about 3.5-4.5 m long and weigh about 2,000-3,000 kg. Adult males reach physical maturity at about 12 m and weigh an average of 90,000 kg. Adult females reach maturity at about 13 m and can exceed 18 m at their maximum size.  Adult females are larger than adult males.

Females reach sexual maturity at about 25 years of age. Breeding occurs in late winter or early spring, and calves are born from April to early June after a gestation period of 13 to 14 months. On average, the calving interval is about one calf every three to four years.  Life span can exceed 100 years.

Bowhead whale feed mainly on copepods in areas where the currents are strongest.  Feeding activity may be high around the time of a full moon when tidal variation is greatest.

 Where is this population of whales found?

Some animals of this population, including cows with calves, move westward through Lancaster Sound in late June and early July, remaining in the inlets and sounds of the High Arctic until September (Figure 3). Others, mainly adults and large adolescents, remain off the east coast of Baffin Island for the summer and fall. Some bowhead whales winter off Disco Bay, West Greenland while other bowhead whales winter in central Davis Strait and southern Baffin Bay in the unconsolidated pack ice and in polynyas.

How many whales are there?

A partial estimate (corrected for submerged animals) for the Davis Strait-Baffin Bay population is between 1539 and 1944 individuals.

Threats to the population

The greatest threat to this population at this time is an increased vulnerability to killer whale predation as a result of reduced ice coverage due to climate change. Entanglement in gill nets has occurred on two occasions in Greenland waters.

Are they hunted?

The current estimate of the sustainable removal rate is one whale per 13 years for the Davis Strait/Baffin Bay population. A licensed hunt occurred in July 1998 in Cumberland Sound. No hunt is currently planned for this population.

COSEWIC Reason for Designation:

The population numbered at least 11,000 animals when commercial whaling began. Whaling reduced the population to less than 30% of its former abundance. Recent estimates indicate that the population is growing and is larger than previously thought, but is likely to still number fewer than 3,000 individuals of all ages. The population qualifies for endangered, but is not judged to be in imminent danger of extinction. Threats include illegal hunting [3] and increased vulnerability to killer whale predation as a result of reduced ice coverage.

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

 Designating Baffin Bay-Davis Strait bowhead whales as “Threatened” and adding them to the SARA List would initiate development of a recovery strategy[4], a document that would establish a recovery goal, identify threats to the whales and define habitat critical to their survival and recovery.  It would outline what should be done to help the population increase in numbers.

The Strategy would support continued recovery of this bowhead whale 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 carefully-managed Inuit subsistence hunt.

In the future, a Recovery Team would be established, the Strategy updated and specific recovery actions developed in the Action Plan.

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 (e.g. such as limited hunting) providing it does not impede the recovery of the species and providing it is included within the Recovery Strategy.



[1] One non-licensed hunt took place in Foxe Basin in 1994.

[2] A Conservation Strategy for bowhead whales in the Eastern Canadian Arctic was developed by the Eastern Arctic Bowhead Advisory Committee and published in 2003. The Committee consisted of representatives from the Nunavut Wildlife Management Board, Fisheries and Oceans Canada, World Wildlife Fund Canada and Qikiqtaaluk Wildlife Board. They developed the Strategy in consultation with hunters from several communities. A paper copy of the Bowhead Conservation Strategy for Bowhead Whales in the Eastern Canadian Arctic can be obtained from the DFO offices in Winnipeg or Iqaluit. An electronic copy is available through the following website: http://www.speciesatrisk.gc.ca/recovery/default_e.cfm

[3] One non-licensed hunt took place in Foxe Basin in 1994.

[4] A Conservation Strategy for bowhead whales in the Eastern Canadian Arctic was developed by the Eastern Arctic Bowhead Advisory Committee and published in 2003. The Committee consisted of representatives from the Nunavut Wildlife Management Board, Fisheries and Oceans Canada, World Wildlife Fund Canada and Qikiqtaaluk Wildlife Board. They developed the Strategy in consultation with hunters from several communities. A paper copy of the Bowhead Conservation Strategy for Bowhead Whales in the Eastern Canadian Arctic can be obtained from the DFO offices in Winnipeg or Iqaluit. An electronic copy is available through the following website: http://www.speciesatrisk.gc.ca/recovery/default_e.cfm