Canada bans Baffin Bay polar bear exports

Inuit in Canada are not pleased with the federal government for quietly banning the export of polar bear parts in Nunavut's Baffin Bay area.

Inuit in Canada are not pleased with the federal government for quietly banning the export of polar bear parts in Nunavut's Baffin Bay area.

In a report issued last month, Environment Canada enacted the ban, starting Jan. 1, on the export of fur, claws, skulls and other products from polar bears harvested in Baffin Bay.

In the report, a copy of which was obtained by CBC News, the department says the export of legally-obtained polar bear parts from Canada is "considered non-detrimental except for polar bears taken from the Baffin Bay management unit."

Scientists and Inuit have long clashed over the number of polar bears in Baffin Bay — an area shared by Nunavut and Greenland — with scientists saying overhunting from Inuit in both countries has led to a population decline.

But Inuit hunters have argued that they've seen more, not fewer, polar bears in the region.

"It's ludicrous," said Titus Allooloo, a hunting outfitter who takes sport hunters from around the world to Baffin Bay.

"According to the local scientists, the Inuit traditional knowledge, the population of that particular area is increasing."

Allooloo said he has seen upwards of 10 to 15 polar bears a day when he's in the region.

Environment Canada does acknowledge Inuit observations of more polar bears in Baffin Bay, but says it is imposing the trade ban as a precautionary measure "as there is available evidence for conservation concern," its report states in part.

But Allooloo said the ban will mean a loss of business, as many of his clients come from Europe and won't be able to export their hunting trophies out of Canada.

"This will have a big impact. Like, my company will probably lose around $300,000 a year, which most of it goes into a community," he said.

U.S. proposes trade ban

The federal department's report was prepared while the United States government is proposing a ban on all international trade in polar bear products under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES).

The U.S. has put forward the idea amid concerns that polar bears are threatened by the loss of their sea-ice habitat as a result of climate change.

But this week, the international wildlife trade monitor TRAFFIC stated that an international trade ban is not necessary because climate change, not hunting and trade, is the main threat that polar bears face.

At the same time, TRAFFIC did note that the Baffin Bay bear population in particular may be suffering from both overhunting and a loss of habitat due to climate change.

The 175 countries that have signed the CITES treaty are expected to vote on the U.S. proposal when they meet in Doha, Qatar, in March.

Environment Canada's decision to ban the trade of Baffin Bay polar bear products also comes as the Nunavut government and wildlife regulators try to decide whether to reduce the hunting quota on bears from that area.

Using old data, Inuit argue

The Nunavut government estimates that the Baffin Bay polar bear population has dropped from 2,000 in 1990 to 1,500 today.

However, Inuit have said the government's figures are based on computer models that use old data from 1997, when the last physical survey of Baffin Bay polar bears took place.

There are no plans for an updated survey until 2014.

Officials with Nunavut Tunngavik Inc., the Inuit land-claims organization in Nunavut, accuse the Canadian government of trying to appease the international community by banning polar bear exports from Baffin Bay.

Paul Irngaut, a wildlife adviser with Nunavut Tunngavik, said he had urged Environment Canada to consult Inuit hunters and communities before restricting trade on polar bear parts.

"But they end up not doing that and they went ahead and issued a ban," Irngaut said. "Of course, we're kind of disappointed with that."

The Environment Canada report says officials may re-evaluate the export ban after the Nunavut Wildlife Management Board and the Nunavut government decide whether to reduce the hunting quota in Baffin Bay.

In October, the governments of Canada, Greenland and Nunavut agreed to form a joint commission to ensure polar bear populations in Baffin Bay are managed properly.

With files from Jennifer Hunt