Hunting and fishing isn’t just a time-honoured tradition in the North.

It also is an essential component of conservation science.

The longest-running beluga management program in the world, the Fisheries Joint Management Committee (FJMC), was formally established in 1984, born out of the Inuvialuit Final Agreement. It enforces the responsibilities of hunters, such as quotas, as well as their rights to carry out their hunt.

“The FJMC is the co-management body for fish and marine mammals in the Inuvialuit Settlement Region (ISR),” said Kiyo Campbell, who presented how beluga and char harvests are interconnected with research during the this year’s final Aurora Speakers series on Aug. 25. “Essentially, it’s the bridge between the Department of Fisheries and Oceans and the Inuvialuit.”

However, it goes back much earlier — monitoring of beluga populations originally began in 1973 and the program has been evolving ever since. First, methodology was standardized in 1980, then the program was expanded in the 1990s to include more sampling for contaminants. When it became clear climate change was a significant problem, the program was expanded yet again in 2000 to include sampling of relevant data as well as to involve training youth in the practice to further expand capacity in the region.

Most recently, the program was again expanded in 2019 to introduce extensive surveying on the health of the animals harvested as well as a questionnaire for traditional knowledge keepers to record changes in the beluga’s behaviour, health and how they interact with their environment.

The committee comprises two members appointed by the Inuvialuit Regional Corporation, two from the Canadian government and one chair elected by the four appointees.

Local management not only helps conserve beluga populations for future hunts, it improves the quality of research on the mammals. Hunters return to the same spots each year and see a great deal of important information that scientists may miss during their short jaunts to the Arctic from their labs in the south.

Conversely, bigger picture data like statistics can shed light on subtle shifts in the population that may not be readily apparent to hunters in the moment, which can help inform better management decisions on the water.

Blood and diet

Harvesters are able to collect data on a huge number of different factors, ranging from the whales’ diet, the quality of their blood chemistry, whether they were carrying any diseases or parasites or had picked up pollutants ranging from mercury to leftover PCBs from before the aerosol ban in 1978. Harvesters can also spot signs of stressors on the animal as well as more basic biological facts like the animals sex, age and genetics.

Traditional knowledge can also inform and improve the understanding of data. As an example, the thickness of blubber in harvested beluga has been steadily declining since 2016 when measurements began — this is attributed to harvesters hunting later in the summer than they had historically. However, belugas are still coming in thinner than they used to.

Campbell noted a second phenomenon that could affect future beluga hunts is the temperature of the water at the bottom of the seabed where the beluga frequently feed. It’s warmed up considerably since 1980, when monitoring of the temperature began, up a full 5 C in parts of the Beaufort Sea.

Monitors also collect daily information, including daily weather, unusual species and information on non-harvested belugas, which Campbell noted was previously a hole in the research model.

“One major issue or fallback of a harvest-based sampling program is that the harvesters are obviously going to be targeting the healthier looking whales, so we’re going to be missing a lot of information on the unhealthier whales in the populations. With monitors collecting more information on that kind of thing, we can get a better idea of how overall health might be.”

All this science and regulation is of benefit to the hunt itself too. Campbell said that a historical problem with beluga hunting was the whale sinking after a hunter killed it, forcing hunters to go after another whale to keep their families fed. In the late 1980s, for example, up to 50 whales could be lost in a season. Since the establishment of bylaws and best practices, particularly the practice of harpooning the whale before shooting it and having a hook on board to secure it, the number of whales lost has dropped to nearly zero each year.

Arctic char study to commence next year

It’s not just whales the FMJC is keeping a close eye on either.

As far back as the 1990s, char working groups have been in place to keep track of fish stocks.

“Research and monitoring can inform management,” said Issiac Elanik, who also presented on Aug. 25. “Regular and ongoing engagements with local management boards can greatly enhance research projects and programs.

“Projects should be able to adapt to changing community needs and circumstances.”

Working groups were first established in Paulatuk and Ulukhaktok in 1996. The West Side working group, covering the Tuktoyaktuk, Inuvik and Aklavik area, joined them in 2001.

These working groups decide on annual quotas for harvest per community, based on both scientific data and traditional knowledge. It also oversees a seine net mark and recapture study, which helps provide information on char population numbers and trends, the size of adults, the ratio of males to females and any injuries sustained by the animal.

More recently, a Sachs Harbour char group was established in 2015 and is preparing to expand the scope of the program.

As Sachs Harbour is a particular trouble spot for char in recent years, the Sachs Harbour Hunters and Trappers Committee is developing a research plan to better understand what’s happening. This will be completed in community specific online surveys, with Sachs Harbour being the prototype.

This will lead into the State of Fish and Fisheries in the ISR project, an effort to systematically document traditional knowledge of how marine environments existed in the past and how that’s changing, and to get a better understanding of specific concerns in fisheries management.

Elanik anticipated the program would be underway in the next year.

Eric Bowling

Breaking News Reporter and Digital Editor for NNSL, Eric operates out of Inuvik in the Beaufort Delta. He's four years into his Northern adventure and is eager to learn more about life in the Arctic Circle....

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