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The Canadian government is defending its controversial decision to ban the export of narwhal tusks from most of the Nunavut communities currently selling the spear-like objects that inspired the unicorn myth.
Officials with the Department of Fisheries and Oceans told Postmedia News on Friday that Canada’s hands are essentially tied on the issue because of its commitment to the protocols of an international wildlife treaty controlling the global trade in animal parts — including the long, spiralling tooth that serves as a sensor and mating adornment for the iconic Arctic whale.
The tusks, which can grow longer than three metres, are coveted by collectors as rare keepsakes or used by ivory carvers to make canes, figurines and other objects. A few hundred from Arctic Canada are sold annually to buyers abroad, fetching prices of as much as $2,000 each and generating significant supplementary income for many Inuit hunters.
In 2006, a single mounted narwhal tusk sold at a U.S. auction for more than $16,000.
While acknowledging it was a “difficult decision” that will have a financial impact on Inuit communities, DFO spokesman Alain Belle-Isle said: “The result would be even worse if we skirted the rules,” regulating foreign sales of the tusks.
“If we didn’t follow our obligations,” he noted, “we could face sanctions,” including a total ban on all narwhal products from all Canadian suppliers.
The federal department informed Nunavut communities earlier this week that in order to comply with the terms of CITES — the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora — Canada would suspend foreign sales of narwhal tusks harvested in 2010 in 17 of the 22 Inuit communities that are now exporting the objects.
News of the decision prompted outrage from Nunavut Tunngavik Inc., which represents Inuit land-claim interests in the territory. Inuit hunters are already facing international pressure over seal and polar bear harvests.
“DFO does not have the right to impose such restrictions upon Inuit, particularly when the (narwhal) population is thriving, and harvest numbers do not threaten the species,” NTI president Cathy Towtongie said in a statement issued this week. “NTI is considering legal options at this time.”
While narwhals are widely seen as one of the Arctic’s most vulnerable species in an era of climate change and melting ice, Canadian scientists using new counting methods recently revised the estimated population of the whales at the north of Baffin Island to 60,000 from 30,000.
DFO said Friday that it’s working with Nunavut wildlife officials, as well as hunters’ and trappers’ organizations and other stakeholders, to review current harvest levels and scientific data with an eye to creating a new, sustainable management plan and reconsidering the export ban next year.
“From a conservation and an international-obligation perspective, the science advice indicated that some of the narwhal populations were at risk and that the harvest levels were not sustainable,” said Sylvie Lapointe, DFO’s director of international fisheries management and the official in charge of CITES compliance.
She said that while the decision has “no impact on the domestic management of narwhals or domestic trade,” the partial ban means that potential foreign sales “won’t be a driver to increase harvest levels” in areas of the Arctic identified as having more vulnerable narwhal populations.
But Okalik Eegeesiak, president of the Qikiqtani Inuit Association, representing several affected communities at the north end of Baffin Island, said Friday she thinks “the government has to backtrack” on the decision.
Earlier this year, QIA won a court fight with the Canadian government to halt a proposed seismic survey in Lancaster Sound that Inuit group and environmentalists said was planned without proper public consultation or adequate concern about the environmental impact.
And earlier this month, Eegeesiak was in Ottawa to celebrate an announcement by Environment Minister John Baird that a planned Lancaster Sound marine park would proceed and that no further seismic surveys would be conducted.
“We’re surprised,” Eegeesiak said Friday about the decision on narwhal tusks, “that the government has made yet another decision without consulting Inuit about something that could have a huge impact on our communities.”