The battle between the Canada Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO) and Nunavut narwhal hunters over the export of narwhal tusks took a new turn this week. According to an article in Nunatsiaq News, a publication serving Inuit communities in the Far North, a group that advocates for the economic and social well-being of the Inuit has withdrawn its legal challenge of the Canadian government’s ban on exporting narwhal tusks.
The ban was announced last December when DFO biologists determined that narwhals were being overhunted in 17 Nunavut communities and a ban was necessary to meet the government’s obligations under the Convention on the International Trade in Endangered Species. The advocacy group Nunavut Tunngavik Inc. immediately challenged the decision in court on the grounds that the ban violated the Nunavut Land Claims Agreement. The group withdrew its challenge this week and instead has decided to try to hammer out an agreement with government officials.
Inuit hunters in the eastern Canadian Arctic kill about 500 narwhals and sell about 120 tusks overseas each year. Tusks can sell for more than $1,000 each.
While most in the Canadian Inuit community argue that narwhal hunting is necessary for the subsistence of the human residents, many observers I spoke to say that the hunt is almost entirely focused on killing male narwhals to sell their tusks. The only time I saw narwhal hunters in Canada, I heard at least nine gunshots and later saw the remains of one narwhal on shore, its tusk removed and very little edible flesh was taken. The hunters reported that they had killed one more narwhal but the whale sunk before they could retrieve it.
I have no problem with subsistence hunting. The time I spent at a narwhal hunting camp in Qaanaaq, Greenland, where the hunters carved up virtually every last piece of the animal they harvested for their dinner table, reinforced that belief. But killing whales to sell their tusks to overseas collectors doesn’t seem right to me, especially if the hunt negatively affects narwhal populations. And no one in the Canadian narwhal hunting community was willing to talk to me about it. The government scientists only hinted at the difficult politics involved, the wildlife managers wouldn’t return my messages or wouldn’t go on record as saying anything substantive, and the hunters themselves, including the local hunters associations, didn’t want to have anything to do with me.
As I wrote in a posting here in March, independent biologist Kerry Finley worries that hunting of narwhals exclusively for their tusks will have serious repercussions on the evolution of the species. “Never in evolutionary history has so much powerful selection pressure been meted against that portion of the population that has survived to adulthood and carries the best genes for survival,” he told me in an email. “Several recent studies have shown that such strong selection pressure has had a profound genetic effect by, for example, reducing the size of the main sexual attractant (e.g. size of bighorn sheep horns in the Canadian Rockies). It also has profound effects on social organization and breeding success.”
So for now I’m siding with the government’s ban on exporting narwhal tusks from Canada. (A similar ban is in effect in Greenland for different reasons.) The ban doesn’t stop the Inuit from hunting narwhals, and they can even still sell tusks to buyers within Canada. While the ban may make the hunters’ wallets a little thinner, the health of the narwhal population may be at stake.