Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Challenge dropped in tusk export ban

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Inuit communities in the Far North, a group that advocates for the economic and social well-being of the Inuit has withdrawn its legal challenge of the Canadian government’s ban on exporting narwhal tusks.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.

Sunday, June 12, 2011

Celebrating Fulcrum

 Today was supposed to be my first whale watching experience of the year, but heavy rain and thunderstorms on Cape Cod made the trip a washout. It didn’t stop me, however, from reminiscing about previous trips, especially my multiple encounters with Fulcrum, whose propeller-damaged dorsal fin and unfortunate entanglement in fishing gear made her somewhat of a celebrity in the region.
Photo by Capt. John Whale Watching Tours
            My first sighting of Fulcrum was in September 2005, when we stumbled across her on a routine whale watching trip, and because of her entanglement, we stood guard with her for about two hours as a disentanglement crew from the Provincetown Center for Coastal Studies rushed out to try to remove the ropes and monofilament netting wrapped around her flipper and caught in her mouth. The crew leader later told me it was the “summer of Fulcrum,” as they repeatedly and unsuccessfully tried to remove the gear throughout the summer and fall.
            When Fulcrum disappeared at the end of the season, still entangled, and wasn’t seen the following year, it was assumed that she succumbed to the ropes, which had made it difficult for her to swim and feed efficiently and even more difficult to dive deeply.
            But in 2007, as I traveled with researchers who were surveying the region for humpbacks and collecting biopsy samples for DNA analysis, I was startled from gazing across the calm sea by celebratory shouts of glee from the biologists.  I had joined the team for preliminary research for my book about New England’s rarest marine creatures, Basking With Humpbacks, and I had almost forgotten about my previous Fulcrum experience.  But there she was again, this time with no ropes marring her progress.  And this time she was traveling with her first calf.  Given the stresses she underwent during her entanglement, no one was sure she was even alive and certainly no one expected that she would have given birth so soon.
            It was a good sign, not only for this iconic humpback whale, but also for humpback populations in general, which have rebounded from the era of commercial whaling in the Atlantic to the point where discussions are being held about whether they should be removed from the endangered species list. While that move may be a little premature, it’s wonderful to see these charismatic animals plying the New England coastal waters in healthy numbers.  I just wish the weather had cooperated a little more and I could have seen those healthy whales for myself this weekend.