A revived tradition in Quebec’s far north is filling the region’s community freezers and linking its people to a part of their past.
In August, Nunavik hunters brought in a 56-foot (17-metre) bowhead whale along the Hudson Straight coast – the second in what hopes to be an annual sustenance hunt in the region.
It has been more than 100 years since Nunavik’s Inuit have been permitted to hunt the bowhead, Elders say. Nunavimiut are proud to bring back a tradition of their ancestors, albeit in a more modern age of radios, trucks and gun powder.
With a 40% unemployment rate across the region, hunt coordinator Aloupa Kulula said the not-for-profit hunt is the ideal opportunity to distribute country food free of charge.
“This is mostly a sustenance hunt,” Kulula said. “This hunt goes a long way to support families living in these communities.”
The federal department of Fisheries and Oceans Canada (DFO) granted its second hunting permit this year (the first was in 2008) to hunters based in the village of Kangiqsujuaq (Wakeham Bay), one of the region’s 14 communities.
The DFO had considered the bowhead population dangerously low for many decades, although a recent survey determined there to be several thousand whales in the Eastern Arctic – enough to sustainably harvest a small number every year.
Nunavik was granted a permit to hunt one bowhead this year, while Nunavut is allowed three. That territory has been hunting bowheads since 1996.
With a permit in hand, the hunting crew from Kangiqsujuaq were tasked with coordinating and modernizing the hunt, in keeping with federal regulations.
But like the revival of anything from the past, it’s trial and error as hunters learn to catch a 50-tonne beast the most efficient way possible.
“We rely on the knowledge from the Inuit on what weapons are most effective,” said DFO spokesperson Patrick Vincent. “We have to find ways to ensure the hunt is humane, so the whale doesn’t suffer.”
The bowhead is killed with a traditional hunting harpoon with a modern addition; once lodged in the animal, the weapon releases a grenade to ensure the animal’s quick death.
This year, however, the grenade did not detonate and it took the hunting crew almost 24 hours to kill the bowhead, finally ending its life with a lance through the heart.
And if that’s not difficult enough, once towed onto shore, the female bowhead was discovered to have been carrying a 60-pound fetus. Under federal regulations, hunters cannot kill a young whale or an adult accompanied by its offspring, but in this case, a pregnancy is almost impossible to detect in advance.
“It was an unfortunate incident,” Kulula said. “But everything went very well otherwise.”
The man chosen to harpoon this year’s whale, Kangiqsujuaq resident Lukasi Pilurtuut, said his own experience was one of mixed emotion, from elated pride to sadness.
“We didn’t know that it was a female whale because it was in the water,” Pilurtuut said. “If we had used the grenade, she would have died quicker.
“But it was exciting, I was thinking about all the people it was going to help.”
On August 23, the 56-tonne whale (estimated at one tonne per linear foot) was towed to a site not far from the kill to be butchered, roughly 20 kilometres southwest of Kangiqsujuaq.
While the community welcomed the hunters and their catch to a neighbouring cove last year, the butchering was done as close to and as soon as possible after the hunt this year to ensure the meat stayed fresh.
In 2008, some meat went bad in the warm mid-August temperatures before it could be packaged and shipped.
“(This year) was very successful,” Pilurtuut said. “The butchering was very well organized, we finished it in about five hours.”
Twelve of the 14 communities in Nunavik (excluding Salluit and Kuujjuarapik) sent participants to join the hunt this year and all those communities will receive a portion of the whale in return.
“If we were to hunt again next year, I would love it to be (based) in another community, just to give them the experience,” Pilurtuut said. “But we really wanted to share this and I think we did.”
An adult bowhead whale, known to have one of the largest amounts of blubber among whale species, can provide some 100 barrels of oil.
Since biologists do not often have access to the bowhead for sampling purposes, little is known about the animal’s lifespan although some evidence suggests the whale can live up to 200 years.
The eyes of the latest catch will be analyzed in a DFO Winnipeg laboratory to determine the bowhead’s age, but one bullet found in the whale’s skin is estimated to be over a 100 years old.
“It was pretty much like hunting a dinosaur,” said Simon Richard, a DFO officer who participated in this year’s hunt. “It was amazing.”