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Following the melting ice

Atlantic walruses at Digges Islands, Nunavik; October 2013.   Charlie Anirnirq Paningajak

Timing of Nunavik walrus migration is shifting 

Inuit have observed that Atlantic walruses, which follow the melting ice to travel, are now migrating along the eastern coast of Nunavik a month earlier than before the 1990s. This is likely due to changes in seasonal sea-ice coverage. Our team of Inuit and scientists tries to understand the impacts of environmental change on a species that has been harvested by Inuit for generations. 

“Over there. Can you see the aiviit [walruses] swimming?” whispers a local hunter, pointing to the entrance of the bay. My eyes are glued to the binoculars: “Yes, I see them!” After two weeks of waiting, the first migrating walruses have finally arrived around Quaqtaq, Nunavik. 

The hunters we have interviewed the week before explained they observe the earliest walruses in June. They also see most walruses during the first two weeks of July. But this has not always been the case. 

Inuit observations about Atlantic walruses from Nunavik: 

  • Part of the Atlantic walrus population migrates each spring between the Labrador coast to Tujjaat and Akulliq Islands (Nottingham and Salisbury Islands, north of Nunavik), where they spend the summer. 
  • During their migration, they swim in small groups comprised of about five to 15 individuals. They use floating ice to rest. 
  • Atlantic walruses likely use the same migration routes in the fall (October-December) to return to overwintering grounds along the coast of Labrador. 
  • Today, Nunavik Inuit harvest walruses mainly to prepare igunaq, a fermented delicacy made of aged walrus skin, fat and meat. 
To document spatial Inuit observations, participants draw points, polygons (e.g., sites, areas where walruses had been observed) or lines (e.g., walrus migration routes) onto transparent overlays covering base maps. Quaqtaq, Nunavik; June 2013.   Robert Pickles

A month early 

Working together with 33 Inuit Elders and hunters from Inukjuak, Ivujivik, Quaqtaq and Kangiqsualujjuaq, we learned that 

Atlantic walruses are now travelling along the eastern coast of Nunavik a month earlier than prior to the 1990s. 

“They come earlier now since the ice goes away earlier. They come any time at this time [end of June]. But they used to arrive only in August,” explains Elder Charlie Okpik from Quaqtaq. Similarly, hunters from Alaska, in the U.S. reported the spring migration of Pacific walruses occurs about a month earlier today than in past decades. 

Across the Arctic, several marine species have advanced or delayed their migration as sea-ice retreats earlier in spring and forms later in fall. “The migration of all marine mammals has changed now,” summarizes a walrus hunter from Kangiqsualujjuaq. 

In addition to this shift in the timing of walrus migration, Inuit experts report other ecological changes. 

Laura M. Martinez-Levasseur and walrus hunter Johnny A. Oovaut wait for the ice to melt so walruses can migrate along the coast of Quaqtaq, Nunavik; June 2013.   Robert Pickles

The return of walruses 

Our team learned from Inuit hunters that Atlantic walruses are now reoccupying areas they had previously abandoned. 

“This is the photo I was telling you about. Look, there are lots of walruses,” explains Charlie Anirnirq Paningajak while showing me a picture of 30 walruses basking on an island near Ivujivik. “I never saw walruses there before,” adds the harvester from Ivujivik. According to Elders, walruses had abandoned this island because their ancestors used to hunt the animals in their basking area. 

The art of interpreting local observations 

“Perhaps there are walruses there. I don’t know because I have never been there,” says a hunter showing an unmarked area on a walrus distribution map we are creating. More than pointing to a location, he is pointing to an issue: our maps do not differentiate areas that 

hunters never visited from areas they had travelled through without observing any walruses. 

A walrus-free or unmarked area on these maps could mean two things: that there was an absence of walruses or that there was an absence of observations from Inuit hunters. Confusing the two could lead to wrong interpretations. So, we had an idea. Why not ask Inuit hunters to draw the geographic areas they were familiar with, and for which they had direct observational knowledge? 

In doing so, we realized that since the 2000s Inuit walrus hunters have concentrated their direct observations over smaller geographic areas and over shorter periods. It also became clear that Inuit hunters observe the migration of Atlantic walruses within a specific area of the overall migration pathway of this stock. This highlights the spatial complementary of local observations and scientific data, which can be collected at a broader spatial scale. 

Our study not only shows changes in Atlantic walrus distribution and migration in Nunavik, but also sheds light on the importance of documenting the temporal and spatial changes in Inuit land use patterns and harvesting practices to understand the ecology of Arctic species through Inuit observations. 

Two walruses rest on floating ice during their migration in Quaqtaq, Nunavik; July 2013.   Laura M Martinez-Levasseur.

This project was conducted as a partnership between the Nunavik Marine Region Wildlife Board, Trent University, the Department of Fisheries and Oceans Canada, Environment and Climate Change Canada and the communities of Kangiqsualujjuaq, Quaqtaq, Ivujivik, Inukjuak, and their Local Hunting Fishing and Trapping Associations, Northern Villages and Landholding Corporations. 


Martinez-Levasseur LM, Furgal CM, Hammill MO, Henri DA, Burness G. (2021) New migration and distribution patterns of Atlantic walruses (Odobenus rosmarus rosmarus) around Nunavik (Québec, Canada) identified using Inuit Knowledge. Polar Biol 44, 1833–1845. https://doi.org/10.1007/s00300-021-02920-6 

Martinez-Levasseur LM, Furgal CM, Hammill MO, Burness G. (2017) Challenges and strategies when mapping local ecological knowledge in the Canadian Arctic: the importance of defining the geographic limits of participants’ common areas of observations. Polar Biol 40, 1501–1513. https://doi.org/10.1007/s00300-016-2071-2 

VIALaura M. Martinez‐Levasseur and Johnny A. Oovaut
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