Nunavik Inuit Perspectives on Beluga Whale Management in the Canadian Arctic

By Tyrrell, Martina | Human Organization, Fall 2008 | Go to article overview
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Nunavik Inuit Perspectives on Beluga Whale Management in the Canadian Arctic


Tyrrell, Martina, Human Organization


In the Arctic, there has long been a strong relationship between Inuit and beluga whales. As well as being considered sentient creatures, Inuit value these small white toothed whales for nutritional, economic, social, and cultural reasons. They are a staple food for many Inuit, and in the complex set of social activities that surround the hunting, butchering, and sharing of belugas, Inuit knowledge, skill, identity, and kinship are enacted and reproduced. Since the mid-1980s the Department of Fisheries and Oceans Canada (DFO) has endeavored to restore and maintain beluga populations in Nunavik, northern Quebec. In the past decade, these conservation practices have increasingly impinged on the hunting of belugas by Inuit and, by extension, the social and cultural practices within which beluga hunting is situated. While DFO regards the management of belugas as one of biological conservation, Inuit situate this management within narratives of cultural imperialism. To ensure greater involvement by Inuit in the formulation and enactment of management policy, government at all levels must become aware of the broader historical and political processes that Inuit perceive to be at the root of current management practices. As the co-management institutions of the fledgling Nunavik government take shape, can it take lessons from other more successful regimes across the North American Arctic?

Key words: beluga whales, Canada, co-management, conservation, Inuit

Introduction

Ranging across the circumpolar world from eastern Siberia, across Alaska and northern Canada, to Greenland, beluga whale hunting is deeply embedded in the social and cultural lives of Inuit.1 These small white whales2 are valued nutritionally and economically for their skin, blubber, meat, and internal organs, as a source of food for both people and sled dogs. The actual hunting of beluga whales is merely one aspect of a richly complex set of activities involving extended families and communities and includes the informal training and enskilment of young hunters, the preparation and maintenance of hunting tools and equipment, and the distribution, sharing, and processing of the harvest. Each of these is reliant on webs of social relationships that exist within communities, as large numbers of kin participate in and benefit from the hunt. Beyond this, beluga whales, like all Arctic animals, are accorded a sentience and sociality by Inuit, and appropriate relationships of respect must be maintained in order to ensure the continued participation of belugas in the hunt. The deep, empirical knowledge of belugas possessed by Inuit is founded on seasonal engagement with these animals within the marine environment and the sharing of knowledge and skill within the home and broader community (Tyrrell 2005). This practical knowledge of belugas is inseparable from cosmological beliefs regarding the relative roles of humans and animals in the world, and in the contemporary Arctic, there exists an evident syncretism between Christian and non-Christian beliefs about animals.

In recent decades, beluga whales have been subject to scientific research and conservation management practices. In general, the conservation of wildlife resources has been a contentious issue in the Arctic where management of resources has been viewed, variously, as essential to the maintenance of robust stocks of northern wildlife, as a threat to the cultural integrity of indigenous peoples and as a form of cultural and ideological imperialism. Across the Arctic, the emergence of cooperative (co-) management of wildlife resources has met with varying degrees of success, while land claims settlements have led to indigenous peoples' involvement in southern3 forms of management of the animals upon which their economies and cultures are based.

The conservation of marine species has faced even greater difficulties than that of many terrestrial species. Indigenous authority over the marine environment is far more fragmentary than over the terrestrial environment (Mulrennan and Scott 2001), and the more elusive nature of marine species renders consensus over population numbers and behavior far more difficult to attain.

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