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Sentient Beings and Wildlife Resources: Inuit, Beluga Whales and Management Regimes in the Canadian Arctic

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Beluga whale hunting is one of the most social subsistence hunting activities to take place in the Canadian Arctic. Through the harvest, distribution and consumption of beluga whales, Inuit identity and social relationships are affirmed. The whale-hunting complex is influenced by beliefs that beluga whales are sentient beings who inhabit a shared social space with humans. Yet, across the region beluga whales are perceived by wildlife managers as scarce resources and as such require protection through the imposition of management plans. There is currently no management of whales on the west coast of Hudson Bay, in Nunavut. In 2002, Inuit there were requested to sell part of their whale harvest to Inuit in Nunavik, northern Quebec, where hunting quotas exist. The outcome of this event was concern in Nunavut for the future of the whale hunt, and a deepening sense of powerlessness in Nunavik due to the management of the whale harvest.

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  1. Maktaaq: the skin and thin layer of subcutaneous fat of the beluga whale, which is eaten by Inuit.

  2. Arviarmiut: the people of Arviat.

  3. Quaqtarmiut: the people of Quaqtaq.

  4. Country food refers to all food harvested from the land and sea.

  5. Arviarmiut have informed me that in the past people ate dried whale meat, but few in the village recall eating it themselves. I believe the far greater abundance of caribou in this region and a culture more oriented towards land mammals has led to the lesser appeal of whale meat (see Burch (1986, 1988) and Fossett (2001) for a discussion of the inland origins of west coast Hudson Bay Inuit).

  6. See Fienup-Riordan (1990) for a detailed account of knowledge of sea birds in Alaska.

  7. See Freeman (2005) for a discussion of “use” and “waste” of harvested beluga whales.

  8. See Bodenhorn (2000) on kinship and the importance of food-sharing as a reaffirmation of kinship ties.

  9. CB: Citizen Band radio, an essential communication tool while out hunting, used by Inuit throughout much of the year.

  10. This concern possibly reflects more deeply held misperceptions concerning hunter–gatherers and the “commercialisation” of their subsistence harvest. While exchanging products of the harvest for money is not of moral concern to most Inuit, it is of concern to certain animal rights organisations and those concerned with maintaining “cultural integrity”. For more discussion on this topic, see Wenzel (1991) and Caulfield (1997).

  11. The endangered east coast Hudson Bay whale population also migrates through Hudson Strait, but Inuit can easily distinguish between these two populations due to the timing of the migration, the size of the pods, and the size and shape of the whales.

  12. In 2003, eight hunters in Taloyuak faced charges for killing narwhals outside of the quota set for that village. This case was widely reported by the northern media. The convicted hunters finally won their appeal in 2006. The duration and severity of this case has been a cause for concern amongst many Inuit hunters.

  13. Once the regional quota was filled, the hunt was closed, thus denying some villages the opportunity to fill their quota.

  14. In 2002, I conducted an interview with a DFO official who was visiting Arviat, who informed me that Inuit do not know how to hunt whales properly. He claimed that there is no history of whale hunting in the region (despite historical and archaeological evidence to the contrary), and the methods employed by Inuit were “improper”. This was the same individual who spoke at the HTO AGM about his concerns regarding the sale of maktaaq.


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Correspondence to Martina Tyrrell.

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Tyrrell, M. Sentient Beings and Wildlife Resources: Inuit, Beluga Whales and Management Regimes in the Canadian Arctic. Hum Ecol 35, 575–586 (2007).

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