Northern aboriginal groups and the Canadian federal government are joining together to save the endangered beluga whale.

Earlier this month in Kuujjuaq, representatives of the Makivik Corporation, the federal Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO), Nunavut and local hunter and trappers met in the first gathering of the Nunavik Belulga Recovery Team.

“The beluga populations of the Ungava Bay and Eastern Hudson Bay are in danger of continued depletion unless something is done to protect them,” explained Lisa Koperqualuk of Makivik. “For this reason, the Beluga Recovery Team has been formed in order to try and ensure that the beluga stocks in Nunavik are not further depleted.”

The beluga whale is threatened throughout eastern and northern Canada. In the St-Lawrence system, beluga have for many years been on the verge of extinction, their numbers reduced by pollution and boat accidents. For some time, corpses of dead whales recovered in the Seaway had to be handled as hazardous waste, due to the amount of dangerous chemicals.

In the North, the beluga population is divided into three, explained Mike Hammill, a research scientist with the DFO. “The initial separations were based on where the animals are found during the summer. However, genetic analyses have permitted us to determine that beluga found in the summer along the eastern Hudson Bay are indeed different from beluga that summer along the western Hudson Bay coast.”

Hammill said earlier conservation schemes had not been very successful.

“Although management plans have been in place since 1986 to limit harvesting, quotas have been exceeded during almost every year of the different plans over the last 15 years. This is due in part to the failure of hunters to respect the quotas and to a lack of adequate enforcement efforts.”

Earlier this month, the Senate in Ottawa passed the long-awaited Canadian Species At Risk Act, which sets out new restrictions and regulations for animals defined as threatened or endangered under the act. According to Hammill, the beluga whale population in eastern Hudson Bay is threatened and the Ungava Bay population is endangered.

Just what those definitions will mean for the Inuit who hunt beluga is a matter of some anxious debate.

“If they’re going to totally say that there won’t be any more beluga

harvest, I am afraid that my people might react to that negatively,” said Paulusie Novalinga, head of the Nunavik Hunters, Fishers and Trappers Association. “I say that as a peacekeeper between the government and my people. It’s a sensitive matter that has to do with our tradition and culture. That’s what’s at stake. Beluga is part of our heritage.”

But an official with DFO says there will be no moratorium on beluga hunting, and that the recovery team’s plans will take into account Inuit social needs. They plan to release a final strategy “including provisions for social, economic and Inuit realities,” in the spring of 2003.