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In search of the bowhead

Kugaaruk wants to harvest elusive whale

Pangniqtuuq hunters spent a lot of time sectioning the muktuk from a 13-metre male bowhead whale harvested on Kekerten Island in 1998. - NNSL file photo courtesy of Steven Kooneelusie

Kevin wilson
Northern News Services

Kugaaruk (Sep 10/01) - In all of Kugaaruk hunter Michael Illuitok's 34 years, the bowhead whale has not been hunted in nearby waters.

Nearly wiped out by commercial whaling decades before he was born, the giant marine mammals had not been seen in the region for years.

Then, in the early 1990s the bowhead started to return.

"Two years ago, there were lots of bowheads here," said Illuitok. Pods of between 20 and 30 were visible in the waters off the Kitikmeot hamlet.

Now, Kugaaruk's hunters and trappers, the Nunavut Wildlife Management Board and the Department of Fisheries and Oceans want to know whether there are enough bowhead whales in the area to warrant a limited harvest.

And while one of the scientists who spent the summer seeking out the whales in the region says there are signs of them, her quarry is proving elusive.

"There is a lot of controversy whether this stock of whales has recovered from commercial whaling," said Susan Cosens, DFO's manager of Arctic Stock Assessment.

Juveniles spotted

Cosens and Illuitok, along with other scientists and hunters spent the summer trying to determine whether the whales are members of the Foxe Basin population or the Baffin Bay population. The distinction is important because the Foxe Basin whale population is believed capable of withstanding the loss of a single whale every two to three years. The Baffin Bay whales could only withstand losing one whale every 13 years.

Cosens said several juvenile bowheads were spotted, but no large pods were seen.

The whales are naturally shy, diving deep when they hear planes and veering away sharply when boats approach. However, weather conditions have also hampered Cosens and her colleagues.

"There was a lot of heavy ice in the area (this year), whereas last year there was open water," she said.

Cosens and her colleagues hope to obtain skin samples of a whale near Kugaaruk to compare its DNA with that of the Foxe and Baffin populations. Another plan is to tag two whales with satellite locators.

"If the whales head north, they're Baffin Bay, and if they head south, they're Foxe Basin whales, we think," said Cosens.

Michelle Wheatley, Director of Wildlife Management at the Nunavut Wildlife Management Board, says the bowhead population, "appears to be improving."

The bowhead's meat and blubber are highly prized, as is the baleen, which is used by carvers.

Every other year since 1996, a single bowhead has been landed by Inuit in a different community.

Bowhead facts

- These Arctic baleen whales live in pods, are rich in blubber (a subcutaneous layer 20-inch (50 cm) thick in places), and have two blowholes.

- Bowhead whales grow to be about 15-18.5 metres long and weigh from 72-91 tonnes.

- They are not extremely social and congregate in small pods of about three whales in the spring and pods of about 50 whales in the fall.

- Capable of diving for almost an hour, but dives usually last four-15 minutes. They can go to a depth of 155 m. They are able to swim as fast as 16-19.5 km/h when in danger.

- Tens of thousands of bowhead whales once called the North their home. Commercial whalers discovered the bowhead in the 17th century and by 1946, bowheads were virtually extinct.

- Today, the world bowhead population is estimated to be approximately 7,000.

- A single whale can yield up to 100 barrels of oil.

- Since 1996, three communities in Nunavut have been allowed to harvest a single whale. They are: Repulse Bay - 1996; Pangniqtuuq - 1998; and, Coral Harbour - 2000.