As the severity of the situation became apparent, scientific bodies sounded the alarm. A commission of marine mammal experts stated in a report, “New information seriously challenges our previous confidence that the hunting has been sustainable.” In 2004 the same group was adamant in its call for action: “West Greenland narwhal are heavily depleted, and substantial reductions in catch are required immediately to arrest the decline in numbers.” If the whales were to have any chance of recovery, the scientists stated, the annual kill would have to be slashed to no more than 135.
The Greenland government responded by setting a quota of 300 narwhals. Scientists and conservation groups complained that the limit was far too high. But rather than lowering the limit the government has increased it to 385, all but assuring that the stock will continue dwindling.
In Canada, concern centers on Admiralty Inlet. In 1984 the inlet’s summering population was estimated to be 15,000 strong. An aerial survey in 2003 counted just 5,000 narwhals. Canada’s Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO) notes that the survey missed large groups of whales, casting doubt on its accuracy. Even so, after reviewing all the available research, a select committee of scientists decided to bump the narwhal’s status in Canada from “not at risk” to “special concern.”
Running like a refrain through the committee’s report are laments about the absence of solid data to answer vital questions: How many narwhals summer in Canadian waters? How many distinct groups exist? What number do Inuit hunters kill each year?
In recent years the annual reported kill in the Canadian Arctic has averaged about 500 narwhals, but hundreds more may go unreported. No one knows how many are “struck and lost,” meaning shot but not landed. The number varies from year to year, depending on ice conditions and hunting methods. Researchers who observed hunts in the 1970s and early 1980s reported that in some cases, more than 70 percent of the whales killed or wounded were lost. More recent surveys indicate the average rate may be closer to 30 percent, but figures remain unreliable.
Sending outside observers to monitor hunts in remote communities has its limitations. Building trust takes time, and the DFO staff is stretched thin. During the month that I accompanied narwhal hunters on northern Baffin Island, a DFO biologist and a fisheries officer flew in and observed the hunt for only a few days. After they left, hunters remarked that they had been careful to take only sure shots when the monitors were watching, underscoring one of the weaknesses of such surveys.