A new beluga whale hunting season has opened in Nunavik, and with it comes a new quota.

The beluga quota is up slightly over last season thanks to modest growth in the Eastern Hudson Bay beluga population.

The spring hunt marks the start of a new three-year wildlife management plan that allows a total of 187 Eastern Hudson Bay beluga to be harvested between now and January 31, 2020. The last plan allowed for under 170 to be harvested.

The plan was created by the Nunavik Marine Region Wildlife Board and approved by the federal Department of Fisheries and Oceans and is ostensibly less complicated than the last three year plan, but it remains an intricate conservation project.

Northern Quebec Hunting Boundaries

A delineation of the hunting boundaries for beluga in Northern Quebec. (Makivik Corporation)

Four stocks, two threatened, all hard to tell apart

There are four stocks of beluga swimming around Northern Quebec—the Eastern Hudson Bay population, the Western Hudson Bay population, the James Bay and Long Island population and the Ungava Bay population.

The four stocks are genetically different and spend their summers in different locations.

The endangered Eastern Hudson Bay (EHB) beluga population is what the management plan is designed to protect.

The problem is, whether or not the stocks are visually distinct is not well understood. Part of the three-year management plan is a pilot project to determine just that.

The conservation plan and quota is based on a kind of probability calculus, where the total number of belugas harvested is actually determined by the likelihood that an endangered Eastern Hudson Bay beluga is killed in any given particular time and place.

Essentially, hunters will kill more than 187 beluga over the next three years — Makivik thinks up to 385 — but where and when each is killed will determine exactly how each whale counts against the 187 quota limit.

In communities like Inukjuak, along the Hudson Bay arc, the EHB beluga are expected to be present more often, and in greater numbers, so killing a beluga there counts as one against the 187 total.

But in places like the Hudson Strait, EHB are less common, so killing a beluga there, counts as less against the total.

Because of the law of averages, a beluga there could be worth only one-tenth of a whale against the 187, because the chances are lower that hunters there are harvesting a endangered stock.

To complicate things, it's not just where a beluga is harvested, but when it's harvested that has to be taken into account, as some of the stocks migrate.

In short, what a whale counts as against the 187 quota is a question of where and when it is harvested.

YEAR Most Famous Animals 20161211

The Eastern Hudson Bay (EHB) population is designated as endangered by the Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada. (Darryl Dyck/Canadian Press)

To make the plan practical, the Regional Nunavimmi Umajulivijiit Katujaqatigininga (RNUK), which manages the local hunting associations, has assigned a set number of whales to each community which covers all four stocks.

The idea is that if the community kills this set number of total whales, they won't have killed more than their share of the 187 Eastern Hudson Bay beluga.

Do the stocks look different?

One of the reasons for this complicated quota system is that while these stocks are subtly different on a genetic level, it's generally believed there is no way to visually distinguish an endangered whale from a non-endangered one.

Adamie Delisle Alaku, the executive vice president for resource development at the Makivik Corporation, says he's heard the Western Hudson Bay beluga could be larger and longer, but he's not sure that's the case.

"We do not distinguish, as common hunters, the difference of population, when we see a beluga to us it's a beluga," Alaku said.

Baby Beluga

A beluga swims with a newborn calf. (The Associated Press)

But Kaitlin Breton-Honeyman, the director of wildlife management with the Nunavik Marine Region Wildlife Board has heard otherwise from hunters.

"I think it depends on the level of expertise of the hunter. Certainly we've heard from people who can, but I don't think everyone would say that they have that ability," she said.

Hunters' ability to distinguish between stocks to be tested

Hunters will get the chance to prove their stuff in a pilot project that extends along the Hudson Strait.

If hunters biopsy all the whales they bring in, the samples can be analyzed at a lab to determine if the hunters are successfully killing only Western Hudson Bay beluga.

If a sample is determined to be WHB, then the hunters don't have to count it under the quota—that's the incentive to send in samples.

This scientific information will be used to adjust the next quota and season length for the area.

These changes are not solely based on the whales' looks, but the traditional knowledge of migratory routes.

For example a pilot program that is continuing from the previous management plan extends the hunting season in Kuujjuarapik.

Hunters there can show they're hunting the healthy stock of James Bay beluga instead of EHB by submitting biopsies for testing.

Breton-Honeyman says this plan extends the season from June 1 to June 15, because the goal is not to restrict harvesting rights without solid evidence they should be restricted, but if sampling does show it's EHB being hunted that extension could be rolled back in the future.

Not extinct, but 'extirpated'

The concern for the EHB is not that they will go extinct — they can't because they in themselves are not a distinct species — but they could be "extirpated" from the area.

She says it's been proven that belugas caught in the same place in successive years are genetically related, which means family groups not only return to the same places each year, they take the same route.

"If beluga were no longer in Eastern Hudson Bay, that would be a huge loss for all of those communities," Breton-Honeyman said.

Beluga cam

“We do not distinguish, as common hunters, the difference of population, when we see a beluga to us it’s a beluga,” Alaku said. (explore.org)

Historical commercial whaling the villain

But Alaku says not all Inuit from Nunavik are pleased with the quota system as a way to maintain the stocks.

"The whaling that happened in the 1800s, 1900s was not overharvesting by us, but from the whaling ships and the whaling companies, and we are the ones that are subject to the limitations and the quotas."

He says some Nunavimmiut believe Inuit should be left to manage hunting as they had for generations before the Hudson Bay Company began its whale hunt.

Breton-Honeyman says the land claims agreement has opened quotas up to allow for community input and more flexibility, which she says is at least an improvement.

She agrees with Alaku that the endangered stocks are the ones the whaling companies hunted, citing the Ungava Bay population, which may or may not already be gone.

"Our families and our communities are being affected by this, we [have] a high cost of living and a lot of us would like to have access to belugas, we see belugas passing by, after quotas have been reached or the hunt closed and it's really frustrating," Alaku said.

He called beluga "the caviar of the North", saying that communities will share a beluga catch, meaning that most will max out their quota before the end of the three years, as they did under the last plan.