More endangered bowhead whales in Arctic than expected

Early results from federal survey of endangered bowhead whales in Eastern Arctic suggests numbers 10 times higher than thought.

The population of bowhead whales in the Eastern Arctic is 10 times higher than previously believed, according to preliminary findings by the federal Department of Fisheries and Oceans.

Scientists at the department are conducting a three-year intensive study of the bowhead, which is designated as an endangered species by the Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada.

The whale, which gets its name from the huge head that makes up a large part of its body, can grow up to 20-metres long.

Inuit enjoy muktuk, a delicacy made from the thick blubber that protects bowheads from the frigid waters.

But since commercial whaling put a huge dent into the bowhead population and the whale was designated as endangered, Inuit have had to limit their hunt to one bowhead every two to three years.

Now, results from the survey show the bowhead's future in the Eastern Arctic may not be so bleak.

"We're pretty confident that by the time we adjust for the numbers of animals that are diving that we can't see that we've probably got bowheads in the low thousands," said Sue Cosens of DFO's Arctic Division in Winnipeg.

"And people thought 20 to 30 years ago that we had low hundreds, so the population is in a lot better shape than people thought it was."

Bowhead whales can live to the age of 200. The marine mammals can travel long distances, which makes it difficult for scientists to take a count.

Still, Cosens said her team was able to get a good look at the bowhead's summering grounds in the Eastern Arctic.

"We found whales all along the east coast of Baffin island during August, then we were finding whales all through Prince Regent Inlet and into northern Foxe Basin and down along the coast," she said.

Cosens said it's too soon to say what effect, if any, the numbers will have on the bowhead's status under the federal Species at Risk Act, or what impact it will have on the hunt.

Inuit leaders say they will comment on the findings later this week.