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The Government of Nunavut is considering cutting the polar bear hunt or suspending it in the Baffin Bay area.

Polar bear hunt in peril

Yumimi Pang
Northern News Services
Published Monday, April 28, 2008

NUNAVUT - The quota for polar bears in the Baffin Bay area could be reduced, or the hunt may be suspended.

Last week the Nunavut Wildlife Management Board held a public hearing in Pond Inlet to consider the Government of Nunavut's proposal to decrease the polar bear quota in the Baffin Bay region due to a suspected decline in population.

Yet Inuit traditional knowledge is in opposition with the Government of Nunavut's data, according to Jayko Alooloo, chairperson of the Mittimatalik hunters and trappers organization in Pond Inlet.

"With our traditional knowledge from Clyde River, Qikiqtarjuaq and Pond Inlet, we're saying there's too many polar bear in the Baffin Bay (area) right now," he said.

He said the possibility of a quota decrease has had the three hunters and trappers organizations in Pond Inlet, Qikiqtarjuaq and Clyde River talking about the possibility of free hunts, where hunters would disregard the quota system entirely. Another possibility is compensation from the territorial government, including financial losses from sport hunts, which bring in an estimated $25,000 per polar bear.

At the hearing, Baffin Bay harvesters from Pond Inlet, Qikiqtarjuaq and Clyde River as well as representatives from the territorial government and Nunavut Tunngavik Inc provided data and information.

In Nunavut, the quota is divided among the three communities with 30 for Qikiqtarjuaq, 45 for Clyde River and 30 for Pond Inlet. This year the quota for Greenland in the Baffin Bay area was 71. Three years ago, Nunavut raised its quota in the Baffin Bay area to 105 from 64 bears.

"The quotas were increased because of Inuit knowledge," said Elizabeth Peacock, a polar bear biologist with the Government of Nunavut, adding that such knowledge indicated increasing polar bear numbers.

"At that time ... we didn't know what the Greenland harvest was. We didn't know that it was so large."

Polar bears in the region have not been counted since 1997, when they numbered around 2,100.

"That is not correct anymore. That's another thing we don't agree with this hearing because we need to have updated information from the GN," said Alooloo.

Peacock said the frequency of the counts is part of a memorandum of understanding between the communities and the Nunavut government.

She said the reasoning behind doing a count every 15 years is that the Arctic was considered a constant environment, where, for example, birth rates would remain stable for a decade. However, she noted the Arctic is not constant, and in Baffin Bay there is evidence of ice decline.

"Yes it would be better to have real time data. However, using our other information about body condition decline, any changes that may have occurred since 1997 would result in lower birth rates, and higher death rates," said Peacock, referring to documented decreases in polar bear body condition supported by Inuit knowledge. "Meaning that our projections are indeed actually conservative and the population might be declining faster."

Alooloo added that as a member of the bowhead whale working group, he is concerned that the polar bear situation may be similar to that of the bowhead whale. Recently the Department of Fisheries and Oceans announced its previous whale figures were too low, and now more closely correspond to figures suggested by Inuit traditional knowledge.

"Not only similar, it's the same, exactly the same," Alooloo said.

Peacock said that she considered the two-day hearing very productive and that the majority of the community came out to express their views. "The whole community (of Pond Inlet) practically came to the community hall in support of not reducing quotas," she said.

"It's something that the Government of Nunavut takes very seriously. We certainly do not advocate reducing quotas with pleasure," she added. "If we thought that the data were too old or not valid, then we wouldn't be here."

The Nunavut Wildlife Management Board was unavailable for comment by press time.

Last Friday, the Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada assessed the polar bear as a species of special concern for the third time, citing concerns including over-harvesting in the northeastern part of the range, particularly between Baffin Island and Greenland, decline of sea ice and oil and gas developments.

"The basis for the special concern listing is that the polar bear is considered highly sensitive to human activity," said chairperson of the committee, Jeff Hutchings.

He said the polar bear is not yet considered threatened or worse since there is insufficient reason to think that the species is at imminent risk of extinction. Findings show that in some areas the polar bear population is declining, in others it is stable, and others still, it is increasing.