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Culture clash

Updated Friday, 10th October 2008

When it comes to whaling, environmental scientists can generate better results when they work with the Inuit

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Hello Joe, Good question. Yes, the sealing and whaling issues are intense in the Canadian Arctic. Whether it is even sharper than in Greenland, I am not sure. That’s a tough question.

Sustainability is a grave concern in the communities in both parts of the Arctic. But in Greenland, the relative independence of the government (called ‘Home Rule’) means they don’t have as much pressure from Denmark when worrying about the future of their communities. And they do follow the rules and regulations of the International Whaling Commission. Nonetheless, Greenlanders face immense pressures from environmental and animal-rights activist groups from the industrialized world, who are not only worried about the whale population and sustainability, but also – from a very different cultural perspective – whether the communities have the right to hunt the whales at all.

Unloading a whaling vessel [image by Nathan Gallagher © copyright Nathan Gallagher] Copyrighted  image Icon Copyright: Nathan Gallagher
Unloading a whaling vessel.

I don’t think communities in the Canadian Arctic have not had to face such pressures – at least not in regard to whaling (seal harvests are another matter). But I think Inuit people in Canada do face more federal government involvement in matters of marine mammal management, on top of their own concerns about the local whale population and the sustainability of a human-animal relationship that has been so central to their community. So, how would one compare the intensity of the problem in the coastal communities of Greenland vs the Canadian Arctic? I really don’t know.

Yet the Canadian side of the question brings up an interesting story about the use of Traditional Ecological Knowledge (TEK). You and I have talked about TEK, Joe, while working on material for that new Open University environment course.

It seems that, in March of 1990, Canada’s Department of Fisheries and Oceans based here in Ottawa (where I live) drastically cut the quota of beluga whales that could be harvested in three small arctic communities on Baffin Island. They said each village could only take five animals annually. They did so in response to a study, by federal scientists in Canada, that found the beluga whale population in the area had declined drastically and risked extinction. The Inuit communities protested vigorously, and the federal scientists agreed to work with them to conduct a new survey of the beluga whales. The collaboration of science and TEK revealed some interesting things.

Everyone agreed that there were fewer beluga whales in the area. But the scientists and the Inuit hunters gave different reasons. Biologists said the prior history of commercial whaling had reduced the beluga population; the Inuit argued the whales had dispersed to other areas. That was partly because of increased boat traffic in recent years, but also because of the disappearance of one particular whale who led the rest into the area. They had named that whale “Luuq” and deliberately left it alone.

Another problem was that the scientists thought there were too few breeding females in the local beluga population. The Inuit hunters reminded them that the sample data they had been providing to the scientists simply did not include any adults with calves. The hunters always made a point of avoiding them in their hunt. The scientists also said there used to be 5000 animals in the area, but local historic records supported the Inuit claim that the number had always been much less than that, even before commercial harvests began decades earlier.

That collaboration in the early 1990s, Joe, is a good example of how environmental scientists can generate better results when they work with Inuit TEK. Better knowledge is always important, but especially so in cases like this.





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