Beluga exploitation in Russia goes back several centuries, although there is little data available on population or harvest numbers. One estimate, made in 1939, gave a population of 40,000 to 50,000 beluga in the Barents, Kara and Laptev Seas (Boltunov and Belikov 2002). These numbers are very rough, and were based on observations of beluga during mass inshore movements in the fall. Another estimate made later guessed that from 15,000 to 20,000 beluga inhabited the White, Barents and Kara Seas (Boltunov and Belikov 2002).
Harvests in Russia were quite variable, depending on the timing of migration and the numbers of animals moving inshore. The harvest did not likely cause any appreciable change in the population (Boltunov and Belikov 2002). One exception seems to be in the period 1954 to 1966, when annual harvests were high, averaging 1,500 individuals per year. This caused a noticeable decline in the number of beluga approaching Nova Zemlya and entering Baidaratskaya Inlet and Yugorskiy Shar Strait (Boltunov and Belikov 2002). Fewer whales were taken in the following decades.
Russians also harvested belugas at Svalbard, beginning in the 18th century. Little information is available on catch numbers. The best known year is 1818, when a crew overwintering caught about 1,200 belugas (Gjertz and Wiig 1994). Norwegians began hunting belugas at Svalbard in 1866, and continued up until the early 1960s. Over that period, more than 15,000 animals were taken (Gjertz and Wiig 1994). Belugas are thought to migrate to Svalbard in April or May, from wintering areas in the Barents Sea.
Commercial harvesting of beluga in west Greenland and Baffin Bay began in the late 1800s. Their occurrence in west Greenland has changed over the past 90 years, largely due to changes in hunting patterns. The introduction of motor boats to the area in the early 20th century led to increased catches. After a period with large catches in Nuuk (from 1906–22) and in Maniitsoq (1915–29), beluga disappeared from the area south of 66° N (Heide-Jørgensen and Acquarone 2002). Between 1927 and 1951, large catches were reported in the southern part of the municipality of Upernavik, and since 1970 in the northern part. Catches in this area in the 1990s were about 700 whales per year (Heide-Jørgensen and Rosing-Asvid 2002).
Decline, sound management, and recovery
The Scientific Committee of NAMMCO in 2010 advised that the West Greenland stock is substantially depleted and that delay in reducing the catch to about 100 animals per year would result in further population decline and would further delay the recovery of this stock (NAMMCO 2010). Concern over this decline led to introduction of regulations during the 1990s with the intention of reducing catches. The drive hunt, which was the main method of beluga capture, was prohibited in 1995 (Heide-Jørgensen and Rosing-Asvid 2002). In 2004, a quota of 320 beluga per year was established for West Greenland. Catches and quotas have fluctuated since then, with catches ranging from 120 to 290 for West Greenland.
There is evidence that these new management measures may have already had a positive effect on the population. Recent assessments indicate that a harvest of up to 310 animals per year will allow the population to continue to recover, and that current harvest levels are therefore sustainable (NAMMCO 2010, 2012a).
The size of this population had not been estimated before the early 1970s. The first reconnaissance survey at that time, of concentrations of belugas in estuaries, gave a very rough estimate of 10,000 belugas (Koski et al. 2002). Surveys conducted in the late 1970s estimated that 10,250 to 12,000 belugas were involved in the fall migration out of the central Arctic (Koski et al. 2002). A survey in 1996 estimated 21,213 belugas (95% CI 10,985 to 32,619) in the waters surrounding Somerset Island: Barrow Strait, Peel Sound and Prince Regent Inlet (Innes et al. 2002a). This estimate takes into account both whales missed by observers and those that might be unseen due to diving behaviour.
Any apparent trends of increase or decline in this population are difficult to assess since the confidence intervals for all estimates are quite large. In addition some proportion of these animals winter off West Greenland, an area where a decline in numbers has been observed (see below). Though beluga here were subject to commercial hunting in the past, hunting pressure today in Canada on these animals is low (NAMMCO 2000), but is higher for those beluga which migrate to Greenland.
While direct harvest is low in the Canadian High Arctic, a component of this stock is subject to harvest off West Greenland during the fall migration, and in northern Greenland during the summer. There is evidence that the stock that winters in West Greenland is severely depleted (see above). However there is no evidence from surveys conducted in the Canadian High Arctic that the number of beluga occupying this area has declined (Innes et al. 2002a, Koski et al. 2002). More information is needed about stock structure in this area.
Ungava Bay was formerly a summering area for beluga, but these appear to have been largely extirpated by past commercial and subsistence over-harvesting. Only very small numbers of belugas are observed there now, and the present summer stock size is thought to be fewer than 50 animals (Doniol-Valcroze and Hammill 2011) These animals may be remnants of the former stock, or transient or re-colonising animals (NAMMCO 2000).
Beluga in Ungava Bay are still being harvested, despite recommendations that no whales be taken from this group. In 2011, 17 beluga were taken by Ungava Bay communities during the summer, a time when remnants of the stock are likely to be in the bay (Doniol-Valcroze and Hammill 2011). Presently regulations prohibit beluga hunting in Ungava Bay during the summer. This group is classified as “endangered” by COSEWIC.
In Eastern Hudson Bay, the population was subject to a large commercial harvest. This caused the fishery to experience a rapid decline by the late 1800s (de March and Postma 2003). Subsistence hunting continued after that time, but it was not until the 1980s that concerns about this population arose. Although there is some uncertainty in the available data, it seems that this population has declined from about 4,000 whales in 1985 to 2,000 in 2001. Although recent management measures may have stabilized the population and even allowed some increase, it is still highly vulnerable to decline at current harvest levels (Doniol-Valcroze et al. 2011). The stock is presently classified as endangered by COSEWIC.
James Bay also has a large summering population, probably exceeding 10,000 animals (DFO 2002c). Recent research has shown that at least some beluga are resident in James Bay year-round (Balleul et al. 2012). Belugas are not hunted in this area, however they may be subject to exploitation elsewhere (de March and Postma 2003).
The beluga of Western Hudson Bay are a large, possibly diverse stock that may contain several sub-stocks, including Northern Hudson Bay and Foxe Basin, Southern Hudson Bay and James Bay. The coast of southern Hudson Bay has several large rivers where belugas congregate in the summer. The stock is clearly genetically distinguishable from that of Eastern Hudson Bay.
Western Hudson Bay has a large number of summer resident beluga. A partial survey in 1987 reported 25,100 beluga (95% CI 18,300 to 52,800) (NAMMCO 2000), while a more complete survey conducted in 2004 estimated 57,300 (95% CI 37,700 to 87,100) (Richard 2005). Harvest of this group is estimated to be from 130 to 200 animals a year, which is likely a sustainable number for such a large group (NAMMCO 2000).
Commercial hunting of beluga occurred in this area, starting in the late 1800s. It is estimated that 7,000 animals were taken between 1868 and 1939, not counting those which were struck and lost, mainly in Cumberland Sound (DFO 2002b), and this level of harvest caused a reduction in the population. Quotas were introduced to restrict the hunt in Cumberland Sound in the 1980’s, and the population appears to have recovered somewhat since that time (DFO 2002a).
The original size of this stock is unknown, but it has been back calculated to be in the low thousands. It has been estimated that about 16,000 animals were taken from the population between 1870 and 1960 (Kingsley 2002). This harvest, for commercial products, to protect fisheries and for recreation, was uncontrolled and led to serious depletion of the population. Studies in the early and mid 1970s found numbers in the low hundreds, and all hunting was prohibited in 1979 (Kingsley 2002). Presently the stock size is thought to be around 1,100 animals (Hammill et al. 2007, Kingsley 2002).
The population appears to have stabilized at a level that is depleted relative to the historical stock size, and the lack of further recovery is of concern (Hammill et al. 2007). Potential threats to this population include pollution (Hobbs et al. 2003) and anthropogenic noise (McQuinn et al. 2011). While some have postulated that there is a high rate of cancer in this population based on the examination of stranded carcasses (Martineau et al. 2002), this interpretation is controversial (Hammill et al. 2003). This population is classified as "threatened" by COSEWIC.