Research Document - 2008/008

Commercial and subsistence harvests of bowhead whales (Balaena mysticetus) in eastern Canada and West Greenland

By J. Higdon


Commercial harvesting of bowhead whales (Balaena mysticetus) in eastern Canada and West Greenland has a long history, starting with Basque whalers in the Strait of Belle Isle ca. 1530 AD. In the late 1600s Dutch, Danish and German whalers began voyaging to Davis Strait, although data are only available after 1719. Danish-Norwegian colonization of West Greenland started in 1721, and these settlers were also active in bowhead whaling. British whalers were in Davis Strait by the mid-1700s and crossed into Baffin Bay in the early 1800s, starting another pulse in bowhead whaling off Baffin Island, in Lancaster Sound, Prince Regent Inlet and the Gulf of Boothia. American whalers were active in Davis Strait in the 1700s and again in the 1800s, and in Hudson Bay after 1860, where they were joined by Scottish whalers. Smaller numbers of whales were taken by other nations, including France. The last commercial whaling for bowheads in the Canadian Arctic was in 1915, when the population was at extremely low numbers and voyages were no longer profitable. The total commercial harvest from 1530-1915 AD was estimated at 57,507-68,736 whales, with highest harvests by the Basques and British.

Inuit in Canada and West Greenland have hunted bowheads for subsistence, and for trade with Euroamericans, for centuries. Small numbers of whales were taken during the 1900s, and there is currently a limited hunt in Nunavut with similar hunts planned in Nunavik and West Greenland. The first culture to be active bowhead whalers was the Thule, which replaced the Dorset culture in the eastern Arctic ca. 1000 AD. There was significant variation in Inuit dependence on bowhead whales, in both time and space, with important bowhead whaling regions including Disko Bay, Cumberland Sound and Somerset Island. The harvest before commercial whaling began (1000-1529 AD) was estimated at ca. 15,000 whales, with a maximum yearly harvest of 36 whales. This was based on the abundance of whale bone at winter houses excavated by archaeologists. After 1500 AD bowhead whaling declined, possibly related to changing climatic conditions, a reduced whale population from Basque harvests, or a combination of both factors. The total estimated harvest between 1530 AD and the end of commercial whaling was 8,460 whales. Inuit whaling declined again after commercial whalers overharvested the bowhead population, and only 56 whales are known to have been harvested (or struck and lost) after 1918. The estimated Inuit harvest is based on scattered data and a number of assumptions. There is some evidence that at least parts of the harvest series are underestimates. Even if harvests were higher they would likely not have been large enough to cause population declines. The long tradition of Inuit bowhead whaling was negatively impacted by commercial harvests.

Combining the commercial and Inuit harvests after 1530 AD results in a total estimated kill of over 70,000 whales (not including struck and lost and known to be incomplete for some nations and eras). Nearly all (ca. 88%) were taken by Euroamerican commercial whalers. While still incomplete, the harvest series is more detailed than previously available data and should improve modelling efforts to estimate pre-whaling population size. However, any modelling should rigorously assess the sensitivity of the results to varying aspects of the harvest series due to the number of assumptions included. The quality of the harvest data varies considerably by nation and era, and the different series were assigned to a 3-point scale for data reliability. Over half the estimated total harvest is considered to be the least reliable, including Basque harvests and most Inuit harvests. Population modelling studies will need to explicitly incorporate this variability in data quality.

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