WWF-Canada Blog:

IN THE FIELD: Day Five – Community-based monitoring initiatives

The Inuvialuit of Canada’s Western Arctic lead subsistence lifestyles which include harvesting beluga whales. Beluga (qilalugaq, Delphinapterus leucas) has long been a primary food source for the Inuvialuit, and as an important component to their traditional diet, there is concern over beluga health and abundance, as well as the health of their habitat and supporting ecosystem. The beluga whale population in the eastern Beaufort Sea was considered a healthy and robust population and not in danger of over-exploitation by hunters (DFO 2000). However, the community is concerned that with environmental changes, such as climate change and industrial development in the region, that beluga may be exposed to more stressors and more contaminants.

The Paulatuk Hunters and Trappers committee has been working with the Department of Fisheries and Oceans and the Fisheries Joint Management Committee (the regional co-management group responsible for fisheries) to monitor beluga health and have been working together to develop a new regional coastal monitoring initiative.  This will allow the scientists, managers, and community to determine contaminant levels in beluga whales and the overall health of the whales, as well as use the data to establish a baseline for future long-term monitoring.

Three Beluga whales (Delphinapterus leucas). © Robert Michaud / WWF-Canada

Being on the front-lines of climate change and constantly interacting with their land and wildlife makes the Inuvialuit keen observers of change and trends in wildlife and the ecosystem. For example, local hunters have observed changes in the health and diet of other marine mammals such as ringed seals.  Hunters have also noticed that sea ice break-up is happening earlier, meaning that open water has changed the location of beluga occurrence and the timing and place of hunts. Traditional knowledge combined with on-going observations allows hunters to measure change, identify unusual occurrences, and monitor indicators of species health.