Narwhals: the new baby seals

Narwhals may be the next environmental poster mammal, and the Inuit aren’t going to like it

Points of sensitivity

Paul Nicklen/National Geographic Stock/WWF-Canada

Narwhals made a surprise appearance this year at Cambridge Bay, on the south coast of Victoria Island in Canada’s High Arctic. The whales, famous for the single, spiralling tusk sported by the adult males, don’t usually venture that far west. So when dozens of them showed up offshore in late August, the mostly Inuit community of about 1,500 rejoiced. Hunters took to their boats with rifles and harpoons, and landed about 10. Fresh muktuk—the vitamin-rich outer layer of skin and blubber—was, as old ways dictate, widely shared. And photos of smiling hunters posing by dead narwhals were, as contemporary culture demands, posted on Facebook.

That social-media celebration of hunter-gatherer tradition might suggest that narwhal hunting is fitting in surprisingly well in the 21st century. But Inuit groups and federal officials are bracing for international scrutiny of the killing of about 500 of these photogenic marine mammals every year. Unless Canada can prove they are being protected, outcry from abroad is all but certain to become an issue. “Things may not have changed for the people living in the North,” says Steve Ferguson, a federal Department of Fisheries and Oceans scientist, “but there’s a lot more worldwide attention being given to Arctic mammals.”

The key reason for that concern is climate change. As Arctic sea ice shrinks, attention has focused on the fate of polar bears. But a study in the journal Ecological Adaptations, which rated the risk of global warming to 11 Arctic mammals, argued narwhals are more vulnerable. Ferguson, a co-author of that 2008 report, says the narwhal’s unique adaptation to living under the ice makes it especially vulnerable to its disappearance.

The vast majority of narwhals live in the waters off Canada and Greenland. Males weigh on average 1,600 kg and grow to about 4.7 metres long, females 900 kg and four metres. They summer close to shore in bays where the Inuit hunt them, and winter farther out in deep, ice-covered habitats, particularly Baffin Bay, with only limited stretches of open water where they can surface to breathe. Their natural predator, the killer whale, isn’t made for living under so much ice. “But if the ice is lost in Baffin Bay, and all of a sudden killer whales are all over the place, the narwhals may not have another option,” Ferguson says. Indeed, he suspects the narwhals that made a rare appearance in Cambridge Bay last summer had been chased there by killer whales expanding their range.

But scientists are only beginning to understand the narwhals’ movements. The total population is estimated at 80,000, with perhaps 60,000 in Canada. In recent years, federal researchers have identified eight so-called “summer stocks,” or breeding populations. Last year, for the first time, Fisheries and Oceans officials used this new information when deciding how many narwhals could be killed without putting a particular summer stock at risk. That led to sharp reductions in what they deemed to be sustainable harvests for most of Nunavut’s roughly 20 narwhal-hunting villages.

The change meant the communities were denied federal approval to legally export the tusks, which can be more than two metres long and fetch more than $1,000. The Inuit were outraged. Their economic and cultural organization, Nunavut Tunngavik Inc., challenged the new rules in court. NTI dropped the case last June when the government agreed to consider mutually setting quotas.

Those discussions continue, and federal officials plan to tour some of the aggrieved, remote narwhal-hunting communities early in 2012. But hard decisions on the hunt can’t be put off indefinitely. The Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora, known as CITES, is slated to address the narwhal situation at its 2013 annual meeting. A CITES finding that Canada’s conservation rules aren’t good enough could lead to an outright ban on tusk exports, and perhaps turn the narwhal into a cause célèbre among conservation groups that have already made Newfoundland’s seal hunt internationally notorious.

Gabriel Nirlungayuk, NTI’s director of wildlife, stresses that the harvest of about 500 narwhals a year amounts to less than one per cent of the population in Canadian waters. “It doesn’t even raise alarm,” he says. Still, Inuit leaders are wary of how the hunt looks to outsiders. A key point of sensitivity: federal researchers estimate that two or three of every 10 narwhals shot by hunters are “struck and lost.” Nirlungavuk says some Inuit communities, recognizing the problem of wounding but not retrieving whales, have tried to enforce stricter rules, requiring hunters to harpoon narwhals before shooting them: “Struck-and-lost [whales] is a concern.”

Anger among the Inuit over restrictions on tusk exports sparked NTI’s legal clash with Ottawa. But Nirlungavuk says eating muktuk remains more important than selling tusks. “We’re raw-meat eaters, but we like it any which way,” he says. “You can fry it, you can boil it. It’s very good with salad. I’ve got a granddaughter, she’s two years old, and she really likes it.” Nirlungavuk says the dialogue launched by the federal government in return for NTI dropping its court challenge marks progress. “We know what the heck they’re up to now,” he says.

Figuring out what the narwhals are up to will be trickier. In a joint project, Fisheries and Oceans, Inuit and the environmental group WWF-Canada caught nine last summer and fitted them with transmitters, allowing their still-mysterious migrations to be tracked by satellite. “Relative to other large mammals,” says WWF-Canada’s Peter Ewins, “it’s probably one of the least understood species.”

Humans are better understood. And given our enthusiasm for charismatic mammals—from tigers to seals—narwhals could easily be the next to draw mass interest. If that happens, Inuit hunters and federal scientists will need a persuasive tale to tell about how they are conserving arguably the only species with serious potential to compete with the polar bear as a Canadian Arctic icon.

Looking for more?

Get the Best of Maclean's sent straight to your inbox. Sign up for news, commentary and analysis.