Government defends decision to ban narwhal tusk sales

By Randy Boswell, Postmedia News December 17, 2010
Original article here

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.”

© Copyright (c) Postmedia News

Nunavut Inuit decry narwhal tusk export ban

December 15, 2010 CBC News
Original article here

Inuit leaders are accusing the federal government of banning whalers in most of Nunavut’s communities from exporting their narwhal tusks. Nunavut Tunngavik Inc., the territory’s Inuit land-claims organization, says the trade restrictions, which were imposed by the federal Department of Fisheries and Oceans, violate Inuit harvesting rights.

In a release Wednesday, Nunavut Tunngavik president Cathy Towtongie called on Ottawa to reverse its decision. Her organization is considering legal options, she added. “DFO does not have the right to impose such restrictions on Inuit, particularly when the [narwhal] population is thriving and harvest numbers do not threaten the species,” Towtongie stated in the release. Nunavut Tunngavik says it was notified of the trade restrictions last week. The group said under the federal order, export permits will not be issued under the Convention on the International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) for narwhal tusks harvested from 17 of Nunavut’s 25 communities, including the territorial capital of Iqaluit.

Inuit whalers in Kugaaruk, Taloyoak, Gjoa Haven, Igloolik, and Pond Inlet are still permitted to export their harvested narwhal tusks.

“They’ve decided that there are different subpopulations, that some populations may be at risk,” Gabriel Nirlungayuk, Nunavut Tunngavik’s wildlife director, told CBC News.

“We don’t really know what that means. We would like DFO to explain themselves.”

Towtongie and Nirlungayuk said the department based its decision on “faulty scientific data” and no consultation with Inuit. Nunavut Tunngavik cited scientific surveys that peg the narwhal population at around 80,000 in Canada. Inuit harvest about 500 narwhal each year, the group adds. The Department of Fisheries and Oceans has not yet commented on the trade restrictions being alleged by the Inuit group.

Narwhal numbers good news for Arctic watchers

By Randy Boswell, Canwest News ServiceApril 8, 2010

A Canadian-led team of scientists has supplied a rare piece of good news about Arctic wildlife after developing a new system for counting narwhals that doubles the estimated population of the spiral-tusked marine mammal in Canada’s northeastern waters.

The revised count is particularly encouraging because the narwhal — inspiration for the ancient unicorn myth — was recently identified in an international study as the animal most vulnerable to the impacts of retreating Arctic sea ice, a phenomenon generally viewed as deadliest for polar bears.

Previous population estimates in the Canadian sounds and inlets at the north end of Baffin Island pegged the number of narwhals at no more than 30,000. The latest inventory — which employed a combination of aerial surveys, tracking of tagged animals and new methods for more accurately estimating the number of unseen, diving whales — raises the total estimate to 60,000.

“The narwhal population in the Canadian High Arctic is distributed broadly in summer, and numbers are larger than was previously thought,” concludes the study, published in the scholarly journal Arctic.

“The results, although imprecise, do show that there is a large population out there, one that can probably sustain a large hunt.”

The project’s lead researcher, federal Fisheries and Oceans scientist Pierre Richard, co-authored the study with five other experts from Canada, the U.S. and Greenland.

The study notes that in 2004, Canada’s committee on endangered wildlife recommended listing the narwhal as a “species of special concern” because of “uncertainty about its numbers, trends, life history parameters and levels of sustainable hunting.”

In 2008, a major international study identified the narwhal as the species most susceptible to impacts from the retreat and thinning of Arctic sea ice because of its reliance on specific ice conditions for various behaviours and its specialization in feeding on halibut.

“Since it’s so restricted to the migration routes it takes, it’s restricted to what it eats, it makes it more vulnerable to the loss of those things,” lead researcher Kristin Laidre, a biologists at the University of Washington, said at the time.

Although the narwhal’s unique tusk has fascinated cultures in the world’s polar region for centuries, scientists have only begun unravelling some of the mysteries surrounding the creature.

In 2005, a team of U.S. researchers discovered that the narwhal’s tusk — actually an elongated tooth that can reach up to 2.7 metres in length — contains millions of nerve pathways that are used as a sensory organ for “detecting changes in temperature, pressure, salinity and other factors that may help a narwhal survive its Arctic environment.”

© Copyright (c) Canwest News Service
Original article here