Nunavut government biologists and Inuit hunters agree that they're seeing skinny polar bears in the territory's Baffin Bay region, but they disagree on what is causing the weight loss.
The biologists told a public hearing in Pond Inlet on Wednesday that the bears' poor body condition is due to shrinking Arctic sea ice, while the hunters argued that the bears are losing weight because there are so many of them competing for limited supplies of food.
The shrinking sea ice, combined with early ice break-ups in the spring and late freeze-ups in the fall, has led to poor body conditions among some polar bears in the Baffin Bay area, said Elizabeth Peacock, the Nunavut government's head polar bear biologist.
"That sort of correlation has been found also in the southern Hudson Bay, in the western Hudson Bay, and also in the southern Beaufort Sea," Peacock told the hearing.
Those conditions combined with overhunting could also be reducing the number of bears in the area, she said.
"Other evidence that we have about the declining body condition of polar bears in Baffin Bay would only indicate that birth rates have decreased and death rates have increased," Peacock said.
"Then our projections should be viewed as conservative projections, and that the declines may have been more severe than what we've actually presented."
The wildlife board is considering the Nunavut government's proposal to reduce the Baffin Bay hunting quota — from 105 polar bears a year to 64 bears or less — or put a temporary outright ban on the hunt there.
The government has argued that the combined hunt in Baffin Bay by hunters in Nunavut and Greenland is unsustainable.
But Inuit hunters who attended Wednesday's hearing said polar bears are getting thinner because there are more of them. With more bears in the area, they are competing for food, the hunters argued.
"There's so many, they're catching less of what they should be eating," said Jypotie Mosesie, a director with the hunters and trappers Organisation in Qikiqtarjuaq.
Mosesie said it's part of a natural cycle to keep the polar bears' population numbers in check, with some polar bears losing out.
The difference in views between hunters and scientists poses a challenge for the wildlife board, which concluded its hearings on Wednesday. It now has to decide what to do with the hunting quotas. No date has been set for a decision.