Eastern Arctic bowhead whales not threatened after all, government says

Government scientists now suggest that bowhead whales in the Eastern Arctic are again as abundant as they were during the days of the commercial hunt.

Don't worry about saving these whales. They've already been saved.

Reversing years of concern — and drawing cries of "we told you so" from Inuit hunters — government scientists now suggest that bowhead whales in the Eastern Arctic are again as abundant as they were during the days of the commercial hunt.

"It is nice to have worked on a species that seems to have recovered," said Larry Dueck, a marine mammal biologist with the Department of Fisheries and Oceans.

The Inuit are likely to use the new population estimates to argue for a larger bowhead hunt, which currently allows them one whale every two years, said Gabriel Nirlungayuk, director of Wildlife for Nunavut Tunngavik, the organization that oversees the Nunavut land claim.

"Now that the bowhead whale population has come back to historical numbers, there shouldn't be any stopping us," said Nirlungayuk. "I'm pretty confident that Inuit will want to hunt more than what they are hunting right now."

As late as 2005, scientists figured there were just over 5,000 bowheads swimming the Eastern Arctic seas — a population low enough to list them as "threatened" under the Species At Risk Act.

Early estimates were incomplete

But in a submission last December to the Nunavut Wildlife Mangement Board, the Department of Fisheries and Oceans acknowledged that was a drastic underestimate.

The new best estimate is 14,400. That's nearly 300 per cent higher and roughly equal to the 11,000 whales that are thought to have frequented waters such as the Davis Strait and Lancaster Sound during the 19th century, when whales were vigorously hunted for their blubber as the main source of lamp oil.

Earlier population surveys focused on small areas of ocean during narrow time windows, Dueck acknowledged.

"There's never been a really complete estimate of the population. It was the best scientific estimate of the population we had at that particular time. It was the best we could do with the amount of time we were able to put into it."

New survey methods have helped. So have new resources given to wildlife researchers due to legislation such as the Species At Risk Act and agreements such as the Nunavut Land Claim.

"Our current estimates are based on a greater level of effort, covering larger areas, as well as better techniques," Dueck said.

About time, said Nirlungayuk.

"That proved scientifically what Inuit people were saying," he said. "Inuit are saying one thing and the scientific community is saying another thing, and then suddenly the Inuit are proven right. Inuit are almost constantly being proven right."

Mistakes can damage credibility

Nirlungayuk pointed to 1980 when biologists estimated the Beverly caribou herd at only 36,000 animals. Drastic quotas were imposed, only to be revoked when a new survey a couple of years later showed the early number was a fraction of the true population — just as elders had insisted.

Such mistakes can damage the credibility of scientific population estimates regarding other animals subject to quotas, such as polar bears or beluga whales. Such quotas are currently hotly debated by northern hunters and scientists.

"It will hurt the scientific community," Nirlungayak said. "Whether you're a hunter or a Canadian citizen down south, who are you to believe now?"

Dueck realizes how the department's sudden re-evaluation of bowhead whale numbers could reinforce skepticism among those who spend their lives on the Arctic seas and have felt all along the marine mammals were OK.

"I can see how that could be misunderstood if they don't understand the context," Dueck said.

But he also pointed out that the current estimate is actually a range. Technically, scientists are 95 per cent sure whale populations are somewhere between 4,800 and 43,000.

The Western Arctic bowhead population is estimated at 10,500 animals, although that is data from 2001. It is considered to be "of special concern," the lowest designation under the Species At Risk Act.