Beluga Hunts

In some areas of the USSR, belugas have been netted in communal fishing operations since the sixteenth century. At their peak in the mid-1960s, it is known that Soviet hunts took between 3,000 and 4,000 belugas a year and that, in recent years, this has declined considerably. It is not certain whether this is because the whales have been over-exploited and so are harder to find or whether there is less of a market for the belugas' meat and blubber, thus reducing the economic incentive for the hunt. Little new information exists either on the size of belug apopulations in the Soviet Arctic or on the scale and impact of the remaining hunts, which are now conducted using rifles and nets.

In Greenland, the Inuit generally employ more efficient traditional hunting methods which involve spearing the belugas with harpoons attached to floats. These keep the whales at the surface until they can be retrieved by the hunters.

Where harpoons have been replaced by rifles, the hunts have become more wasteful as a large number of the belugas shot sink without a trace. Official records include only those belugas which are brought ashore and scientists and conversationalists fear that, in some areas, the number of belugas actually killed may be twice as high as the number recorded.

The problem in Canada is even more complex because the Inuit there are continuing to hunt populations which have already been seriously depleted by large-scale commercial non-native hunts earlier this century. These hunters are understandably sensitive about attempts to limit their traditional practices due to this past over-exploitation by others. Yet many of these beluga stocks are now either in decline or facing extinction. In Ungava Bay, for example, a 1985 aerial survey spotted only two whales, the last remnants of a once thriving population.

In 1923 the stock of belugas in Cumberland South, on the south-east coast of Baffin Island, was conservatively estimated to contain at least 5,000 whales and now numbers no more than 500. A quota of 40 animals landed per year has been set by the Canadian government but this may well be too high because hunts further down the coast, at Frobisher Bay and Lake Harbour, may be taking animals from the same stock.

The development of oil and gas exploration in some Arctic regions, and the spread of other forms of pollution and habitat destrucion, combined with possible over expoitation, makes the future of some beluga populations far from certain.

Lost? Click here for the main index page.