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Research Document - 2011/125

Harvest advice for beluga in the Belcher, King George, and Sleeper Islands in relation to the eastern Hudson Bay stock

By T. Doniol-Valcroze and M.O. Hammill


Subsistence harvest of beluga whales by Nunavik communities is directed towards a mixture of stocks defined by their summering areas, including the endangered Eastern Hudson Bay stock (EHB). It is critical to estimate as accurately as possible how many EHB beluga are harvested, which is made complex by the fact that EHB beluga are harvested in areas other than the eastern Hudson Bay arc (e.g., Hudson Strait, Ungava Bay).

Beluga whales are harvested in spring and fall around the Belcher Islands, which lie in the centre of the arc of eastern Hudson Bay. Their relationship to other summer stocks is relevant for management strategies but remains unclear. Here, we review information from several sources to determine the impact of different allocation schemes in the Belcher, King George and Sleeper Islands on the EHB stock.

Aerial survey observations showed that the distribution of beluga between the Belcher Islands and the eastern shore of Hudson Bay appeared continuous. Satellite telemetry confirmed that EHB beluga made use of offshore areas in eastern Hudson Bay that extended into both the Nunavut Settlement Area and the Equal Use and Occupancy Area. Moreover, several genetic analyses have confirmed that whales frequenting the Belcher Islands area likely represent a variable mixture of stocks, including a significant proportion of EHB whales. All available information thus indicates that the EHB stock is straddling the limits of Nunavut and Nunavik.

Currently, the harvest in Sanikiluaq is monitored but not controlled, except for a municipal motion prescribing that whales should be taken before July 15th or after September 30th. With an annual harvest of about 30-45 whales, it is estimated that Sanikiluaq takes 4-5 EHB whales per year. These whales are included in the EHB population model and thus this harvest has concrete repercussions on the total allowable takes for Nunavik hunters.

The current management scheme regarding Sanikiluaq harvest does not take into account the possibility of a stock specific to the Belchers. The possible existence of a distinct stock around the Belcher Islands would pose an additional challenge for the monitoring of the EHB stock, for which information comes mostly from aerial surveys. Since it is not possible to distinguish between stocks of beluga from the air, there is a risk that whales from the putative Belcher stock would be counted during censuses of the EHB stock, thereby introducing a bias in abundance estimation (the magnitude of which would depend on the actual size of the Belcher stock, and its seasonal distribution).

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