Sharing health, ecology and cultural interactions

The first Beluga Summit was held in Inuvik in 2016 to review research of the Eastern Beaufort Sea (EBS) beluga, Canada’s largest population of beluga last estimated at 40,000. This three-day summit brought together 80 participants from government, academia, and the Inuvialuit communities to share knowledge, identify information gaps, and build bridges between beluga experts from both scientific and Traditional Ecological Knowledge (TEK) bodies. The summit examined topics on beluga health, ecology and cultural interactions, topics identified by Inuvialuit, the Inuit of Canada’s Western Arctic.

Each summer, in Canada’s western Arctic, thousands of beluga whales gather in the Mackenzie Estuary of the Eastern Beaufort Sea, where they are harvested for subsistence, having great economic, dietary, and cultural importance to Inuvialuit. For more than 40 years, a community-based monitoring program led by the Fisheries Joint Management Program (FJMC), in partnership with Fisheries and Oceans Canada (DFO), has been monitoring the beluga harvest in the Inuvialuit Settlement Region (ISR). The strength and quality of the monitoring program has enabled research on the health and ecology of this beluga population to support co-management of the population. The interests and concerns of the ISR communities shape the research directions of the monitoring program.

In the early years, the program was focused on the core beluga harvesting communities: Aklavik, Inuvik and Tuktoyaktuk. However, in recent years, belugas have been accessible and harvested in all six of the ISR communities. As a result, some communities, like Paulatuk, have initiated new research programs to better understand beluga health and the changes being observed. Given the growing body of data captured both by the program’s scientists and the wealth of knowledge held across all ISR communities, the concept of sharing knowledge on beluga whales was proposed.

Some of the participants at the Beluga Summit event that occurred February 2016 in Inuvik, NWT, which includes scientists, co-management representatives and community representatives from all six of the ISR communities. © Devon Waugh, University of Guelph

The research shared at The Beluga Summit was published as 12 papers in September 2018 in the open access journal Arctic Science. The special edition, co-edited by Jen Lam, Joint Secretariat, John Iacozza, University of Manitoba and Lisa Loseto, DFO, featured papers using western science and TEK that provide the state-of-knowledge on EBS beluga health and ecology. The papers highlight that the belugas are in good condition, based on both western science and TEK bodies of knowledge. For example, measurements of the stress hormone cortisol suggest that these beluga are under low stress. Knowing this, together with the knowl­edge communities have about belugas, strengthens the ability to monitor overall health.

The concept of ‘Change’ was a common theme in the special edition papers: for example, environmental changes are resulting in changes in beluga observations, the most significant being the large number of whales observed in Ulukhaktok in 2014 and the associated behaviours (e.g. feeding on sand lance, not typically found in beluga diet). While a lot is known about these belugas, the observed changes in both belugas and their ecosystems highlighted gaps in knowledge and raised new questions.

Knowledge gaps identified at the Beluga Summit and in the special edition resulted in several new research programs. For example, the need for a new population estimate will be addressed this summer with a new aerial survey program using camera-equipped airplanes and state-of-the-art drones. Recognizing the ecosystem changes that are occurring, such as changing sea ice conditions and the predicted increase in shipping activity helped identify the need for new knowledge about beluga habitat use of the Beaufort Sea. This, in addition to knowledge gaps around beluga diet and foraging behaviour, pointed to the need for a beluga telemetry program.

2018 was year one of the telemetry program, 13 years after the last one took place in 2005. The telemetry program was co-designed with the DFO, ISR communities and co-management boards (FJMC and the Inuvialuit Game Council) and was a success, tagging 14 belugas with three styles of tags and a total of 18 tags (some belugas had a second tag for comparison and helped improve methods). Please visit “Beaufort Sea Beluga” on Facebook to see postings of their movements. Tags have continued to transmit locations and dive data well into the winter season.

Moving into 2019 and 2020, these programs will connect western science with TEK and local observations to build a holistic understanding of beluga spatial and temporal movement in relation to habitat and prey.

New findings from this program will be shared at the next Beluga Summit planned for 2021 in Inuvik.

Lisa Loseto is a Research Scientist from Fisheries and Oceans Canada, writing on behalf of Fisheries Joint Management Committee (FJMC), Inuvialuit Game Council (IGC) and Fisheries and Oceans Canada (DFO).