Sunday, June 10, 2012

Tusk export ban lifted, issues remain

The Canadian government announced last week that it has lifted the ban on the export of narwhal tusks that it enacted in 2010 to protect the population of narwhals living in the eastern Canadian Arctic.  Seventeen narwhal hunting communities had been affected by the ban, and all but one – Grise Fjord, which has no known narwhals living in its vicinity – can resume exporting the tusks.
Photo by Paul Nicklen
            With a population of about 80,000 narwhals in the region and annual hunting quotas of just 700 animals, hunting by the Inuit communities should not be causing a decline in the narwhal populations in the area.  But government biologists were concerned enough about hunting pressures to enact the ban, so there are probably other issues at play.  One issue that should be in play but doesn’t appear to have been included in the negotiations to lift the ban is the issue of those narwhals that are “struck and lost.”  Because narwhals are known to sink when they die, Canadian narwhal hunters using rifles to hunt the whales are known to kill far more narwhals than they recover. And those that are struck and lost are not counted toward the quota.
An article in National Geographic magazine in 2007 by photographer Paul Nicklen, who grew up among the Inuit on Baffin Island, graphically illustrates the problem and suggests that hunting practices may need to be reviewed and recordkeeping expanded.  He wrote that during one 12 hour span, he counted 109 rifle shots but just nine narwhals were recovered.  One hunter reported that he killed seven narwhals, all of which sank.  “This was not the first time I had heard reports of many narwhals being shot but few landed.  Just weeks earlier, a man I know to be a skillful hunter confided that he had killed 14 narwhals the previous year but managed to land only one… So much ivory rests on the seafloor, said one hunter, that a salvager could make a fortune,” wrote Nicklen. 
At the very least, Nicklen’s observation suggests that wildlife managers should be paying much closer attention to narwhal hunting and, rather than banning the export of tusks should perhaps lower the quotas until a better system can be developed for accurately tracking the number of narwhals killed by hunters. 
There are plenty of arguments that have been made to eliminate any harvest of narwhals in Canada – including a lack of confidence in the government’s narwhal population estimates, the unfair advantage that hunters with rifles have over the defenseless animals, Canada’s unwillingness to follow the recommendations of the International Whaling Commission, and the belief, outlined in the recently drafted Declaration of Rights for Cetaceans, that whales have complex minds and societies and should be treated more like people than animals. Having spent time among the Inuit and knowing the importance narwhals play in their culture and health and subsistence, I am not ready to argue that hunting should be banned entirely. But I am convinced that the way it is taking place in Canada today is unsustainable and should be thoroughly reassessed.