Second Beaufort Sea Beluga Health Assessment

From left to right Émilie L. Couture-CWHC Québec, Jasmine Brewster-DFO Inuvik, Viviane Casaubon-CWHC Québec

A team from CWHC Québec travelled to the Inuvialuit settlement region again in July to participate in long term studies on East Beaufort Sea beluga whale health. This beluga population is estimated at approximately 32,000 individuals, based on the last published stock assessment (Alaska Marine Mammal Stock Assessments, 2014) and is considered to be stable. This natural resource is of great importance for Inuvialuit settlement region communities which take great interest in beluga health and sustainability of this population in the face of climate change.

The CWHC, in collaboration with the Fisheries Joint Management Committee (FJMC) and Department of Fisheries and Ocean Canada (DFO) is involved in investigations supporting research priorities that were co-established. The current project is the continuation of a health assessment performed in 2015-2016 to monitor the health of belugas harvested as part of subsistence hunting from local communities. Necropsies are performed on harvested whales with samples, analyses and measurements taken. The results will allow for us to better understand body condition in belugas and their reproductive status.  Additionally, we can document the presence of certain organisms like parasites that are of important for human or beluga health and for which repartition and impact can be affected by climate change.

Beluga whale being towed on shore to be weighed.

To help answer these questions, Émilie L. Couture and Viviane Casaubon joined a field team composed of DFO scientists and Tuktoyaktuk community members on Hendrickson Island, in Kugmallit Bay. A total of 21 whales were assessed over a two-week period. Weights were obtained for 12 of these whales thanks to a weighing apparatus adapted to field conditions. It is not an easy task for carcasses that weigh between 520 and 985 kg! While further assessments and analyses are still pending, sampled whales generally appeared to be in good health.

Future leaders and mentor Jim Elias pose with harvested whale being weighed.

This year, future leaders from the Tuktoyaktuk community joined the team. They were able to harvest and traditionally prepare their whales for the community and generously supported research on beluga whale health by allowing their harvest to be weighed and by learning what beluga necropsies involve. In addition, they learned about the Tarium Niryutait Marine Protected Area (TNMPA) and related monitoring and research activities and how community members, notably through their participation in hunters and trappers’ committees and FJMC, are essential to lead in the conservation of this protected area.

Submitted by Dr. Émilie L. Couture – CWHC Québec


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