The Nunavut Wildlife Management Board is deciding whether to increase the number of bowhead whales that Inuit can hunt in Nunavut waters, after hearing from Inuit and fisheries officials Tuesday.

The wildlife board held a hearing in Iqaluit on a proposal by treaty-rights group Nunavut Tunngavik Inc.'s to eliminate the annual quota — also known as the total allowable harvest — on bowheads altogether, citing a rising number of whales.

The Eastern Arctic's bowhead whale population could sustain a hunt of up to 18 whales a year, officials with the federal Department of Fisheries and Oceans told the wildlife board at Tuesday's hearing.

Inuit in Nunavut are allowed to hunt two bowheads this year — up from one whale in past years — but Nunavut Tunngavik wants that quota raised to at least three whales.

DFO officials said an aerial survey it did in 2004 concluded that Nunavut's bowhead population is stable, ranging between 4,800 and 43,000 whales.

But department officials added that now would be too soon to change the existing quota.

Instead, they called on the board to maintain bowhead total allowable harvests at one or two whales a year, until DFO has a more accurate count of the bowhead population and it can give advice on what to do in the long term.

Limited by costs

NTI wildlife consultant Glen Williams pointed that that DFO couldn't survey all of Nunavut during its aerial survey, due to costs.

"Repulse Bay is not included in the survey. Coral Harbour is not included in the survey, and we have harvested bowheads in the summertime from Coral Harbour," Williams told the wildlife board during Tuesday's hearing.

"Cumberland Sound is not included. Hudson Strait, Igloolik and Hall Beach area [are] not included in the survey."

NTI officials said Inuit in Nunavut are seeing more bowhead whales, and are calling on the total allowable harvest to be removed.

They added that Nunavut's Inuit land claim states that hunting levels should only be restricted when it's necessary to protect bowhead numbers.

However, Williams said he's worried the wildlife management board may make a politically motivated decision because of a possible outcry from animal-rights activists.

The wildlife board's acting chairman, Harry Flaherty, said the board will not make political decisions but will work with what it has heard from presenters at Tuesday's hearing.

Flaherty said the board will make a recommendation to federal Fisheries Minister Gail Shea, who will then have 60 days to respond.