Friday, August 24, 2012

Another season of narwhal tracking

                I was pleased to see that the narwhal tagging research project that I joined on Baffin Island, Canada, in 2010 is underway again this month, and unlike my experience – when we didn’t catch any narwhals for the two weeks I was there – they caught a narwhal on the first day of trapping. The objective of the trapping is to attach radio tracking devices to the whales so they can be monitored to gain insight into their migratory pathways and other behavior.
Photo by Flip Nicklin
            As I wrote a year ago, the value of this kind of work is immeasurable. “You can count whales from the air, you can count them from land, you can see what the herd is doing, but you don’t really get an idea of what an individual does on a daily basis [without tagging them],” said Jack Orr, the chief scientist in charge of the project and a biologist with the Canada Department of Fisheries and Oceans. “These tags provide us information on where they are geographically on the Earth, but we also get an idea of how they use the water column. Tags will tell us how long a whale is at a certain depth, and then we can set up dive profiles…Coupling this with information on water depths and what animals use these depths – we know, for instance, that turbot (Greenland halibut) and crustaceans live on the bottom, we know that squid are pelagic so they’re in the water column – and working with other data on ice and other environmental parameters, we can determine what these animals are doing over the course of a year. It gives us insights into not only its movements but also its behavior.”
            The knowledge gained from this kind of research is particularly useful to understanding population dynamics, which plays an important role in appropriately managing the annual narwhal hunts conducted by the local Inuit communities.  By tracking the movement of individual narwhals, scientists can learn how many hunting villages they travel by during their migration, which gives the researchers an idea of how susceptible the whales are to being killed.  And this can affect the quotas the Canadian government sets for how many narwhals can be hunted by each community.
            Narwhal management and hunting quotas continues to be a sticking point between Inuit hunting communities in the eastern Canadian Arctic and wildlife managers.  The latest government plan is to drill holes at the base of every narwhal tusk harvested and attach a permanent metal tag to it so the tusk can be tracked to ensure the tusk isn’t sold illegally. The Inuit communities disagree with this strategy, but it is an issue that doesn’t appear to be going away.  Just this week, a U.S. appeals court upheld the conviction of an antiques dealer in Massachusetts who illegally sold narwhal tusks and sperm whale teeth.
            Hopefully, as researchers continue this summer to tag and track narwhals, the scientists will gain enough information to be able to manage the narwhal population to ensure their long-term survival.