Researchers hope Beaufort Sea beluga tagging will shed light on whale diets, travelling habits

Researchers hope program will provide data to begin a new aerial survey, which will provide an updated population count.

Program to begin next summer after extensive consultation

Researchers say beluga diets and travelling habits are changing, and hope a tagging program this summer will help them figure out why. (Christopher Garner/U.S. Department of Defense/The Associated Press)

People in the Beaufort Delta region of the Northwest Territories are hoping a planned beluga whale tagging program will shed new light on whale habits.

About a month ago, members of the Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO), the Fisheries Joint Management Committee and the Inuvialuit Game Council participated in consultations with the entire Inuvialuit Settlement Region on the program, scheduled to start in the summer of 2018.

Shannon MacPhee, an aquatic biologist with the Department of Fisheries and Oceans, said as far as she knows, this is the first time the department has held so many consultations on beluga whales.

She added she hopes a new round of tagging, which hasn't happened in the region since 2005, fills "knowledge gaps" about belugas, including their travel habits.

"In 2014, there were whales around Ulukhaktok and Sachs Harbor, which is unusual to see so many whales so close to the communities at that time," said MacPhee.

Researchers are looking to embark on a new aerial survey of belugas, which will give updated population numbers. A survey hasn't been done since 1992. (Fisheries and Oceans Canada)

Researchers are also hoping to learn more about the beluga diet. After studying harvested belugas in 2014, MacPhee says her team noticed a change in the belugas' fatty acid composition, which signified their food sources had changed as well.

"[Their diet] was very diverse in that year compared to previous years where their diet was mainly composed of arctic cod," she said.

MacPhee added the tagging program will provide baseline information about beluga behaviour and movement so researchers can design an updated aerial survey, which helps estimate beluga numbers. Macphee says the last aerial survey was done in 1992.

Data could show impact of shipping on belugas

John Noksana Jr., a lifelong Tuktoyaktuk resident and vice-chair for the Fisheries Joint Management Committee, said one of the main concerns he has is how shipping impacts the whales.

John Noksana Jr., vice-chair for the Fisheries Joint Management Committee, said one of his main concerns is how shipping impacts beluga whales. (Submitted by John Noksana Jr.)

"[If] we do this beluga tagging, we could put corridors for areas to be avoided, speed limits and so on and so forth for shipping and oil and gas," he said.

"Whaling is a big part of us and the ocean is a big part of the Inuvialuit."

Pros and cons to tagging

Although tagging can provide much needed answers to many questions, it can also be seen as disruptive.

MacPhee said she's answered questions from residents and members of each community's respective Hunters and Trappers Committee about how the whales would be handled.

Beluga whale meat carved up near Tuktoyaktuk, N.W.T. (Submitted by John Noksana Jr.)

"We have animal care protocols that we follow and we have very clean methods for handling whales," she said. "We want to run a program that people find valuable."

MacPhee says the next step is to continue scientific planning and figure out finer details in the spring.

If approved, the tagging program would last a minimum two years.