Lastest Update: July 2021
The beluga (or white whale) is a medium-sized toothed whale. They have stout bodies, flexible necks, and a disproportionately small head with a well defined beak and a prominent forehead bulge or “melon”. They have short but broad paddle-shaped flippers, no dorsal fin, a narrow ridged back and a broad tail fluke with a deeply notched centre. Adult beluga whales grow to lengths of 3-5 m and can weigh up to 1,500 kg. Males grow slightly larger than females. Newborns are brown or slate-grey in colour and average 1.6 m in length and 78 kg in weight. They become bluish-grey as they mature, then progressively lighten in colour, fading to white after 6 years of age.
Across the Arctic there are estimated to be at least 180,000 belugas.
Belugas are found in Arctic and sub-Arctic waters, in areas that are seasonally ice-covered. In the North Atlantic they are found in the northern waters of the US (Alaska), Canada, Greenland, Norway and Russia.
Belugas are hunted for food throughout their range, except for Svalbard where they are protected. Past commercial harvesting reduced numbers in some areas.
The Eastern High Arctic stock of belugas is a shared stock between Greenland and Canada and subject to an international management regime under the Joint Commission for the Conservation and Management of Narwhal and Beluga (JCNB). The JCNB and NAMMCO hold Joint Scientific Working Group meetings to provide scientific advice to the JCNB and NAMMCO.
In West Greenland, after hunting quotas were introduced harvests have been reduced and the stock is thought to be recovering from previous overhunting.
The other beluga stock in the NAMMCO area is the Svalbard stock. These belugas are protected.
Scientific name: Delphinapterus leucas
Greenlandic: Qilalugaq qaqortaq
The English name “beluga” comes from the Russian word belukha, which means “white”.
Adult beluga whales grow to lengths of 3–5 m, and can weigh up to 1,500 kg. Males grow slightly larger than females
One calf every 2–3 years from 7–12 years of age
Throughout their range belugas inhabit cold Arctic waters, living amongst pack ice, in leads and polynyas in winter and migrating to shallow bays and estuaries of large northern rivers in the summer
Mainly fish, particularly polar cod (Boreogadus saida) and Arctic cod (Actogadus glacialis). Also northern shrimp (Pandalus borealis) and squid in some areas and times
Beluga whales have stout bodies, flexible necks and a disproportionately small head with a well defined beak and a prominent forehead bulge or “melon”. They have short but broad paddle-shaped flippers, no dorsal fin, a narrow ridged back and a broad tail fluke with a deeply notched centre. The generic name “delphinapterus”, meaning “dolphin-without-a-wing” reflects the absence of a dorsal fin.
Life History and Ecology
Adult beluga whales grow to lengths of 3–5 m, and can weigh up to 1,500 kg. Males grow slightly larger than females. Newborns are brown or slate-grey in colour and average 1.6 m in length and 78 kg in weight. They become bluish-grey as they mature, then progressively lighten in colour, fading to white after 6 years of age. Most females mature sexually while still light grey, while males become white before maturing. Older males have a marked upward curve at the tip of their flippers.
Belugas mate in the early spring, and calving occurs a little over a year later. Calving for belugas in the Canadian High Arctic population occurs mainly during early July to early August, although calves have been reported there as early as 31 May, and as early as late March off west Greenland (Koski et al. 2002). Recent research has shown that belugas may have lifespans of 80 years or more (Stewart et al. 2006).
Watch belugas in the Gulf of St Lawrence
Polar cod (Boreogadus saida) and Arctic cod (Actogadus glacialis) were found to contribute more than any other item to the diet of beluga in the Upernavik area in Greenland (Heide-Jørgensen & Teilmann 1994). Polar cod was also found to be the principle food item for Canadian High Arctic and Svalbard beluga (Koski et al. 2002, Dahl et al. 2000). Squid beaks were commonly found in beluga stomachs from western Greenland. Other prey items found were redfish (Sebastes marinus), halibut (Reinhardtius hippoglossoides) and northern shrimp (Pandalus borealis) (Heide-Jørgensen & Teilmann 1994). Polar cod was also found to be the main prey item for beluga in Russian waters, with various whitefishes (Coregonidae) contributing to the diet in summer (Boltunov & Belikov 2002).
Capelin (Mallotus villosus) are an important food for belugas in the St. Lawrence River and also in Hudson Bay (Kingsley 2002). Other important food items were sand-lance (Ammodytes spp.), Atlantic cod (Gadus morhua), tomcod (Microgadus tomcod), decapod and amphipod crustaceans and polychaete worms.
Young beluga begin feeding on fish and invertebrates after their first year, but may continue to take milk from their mothers during their second year of life (Heide-Jørgensen & Teilmann 1994). As the animals grow, they are able to take larger food items, and gradually switch from benthic to more pelagic foraging.
Recent reductions in Arctic sea ice have made the area more accessible to the killer whale, which is a major predator of belugas. An increased frequency of killer whale sightings has been noted in many areas of the eastern Canadian Arctic (Higdon & Ferguson 2009). This may result in an increase in predation pressure and a concomitant decrease in survival in some beluga populations. You can read more about killer whale predation on belugas here.
Polar bears are also predators for beluga whales. You can watch a video of a polar bear catching beluga whales that have been entrapped in ice below.
Watch a polar bear hunting belugas
Beluga whales have a discontinuous circumpolar distribution throughout the Arctic and sub-Arctic. They typically exhibit some level of site fidelity, inhabiting the same summering and wintering areas year after year. Most belugas are migratory. However, some of the smaller populations appear to be resident year-round in specific regions and do not undertake long-distance migrations (e.g. Cook Inlet, Cumberland Sound, St Lawrence Estuary).
Throughout their range belugas inhabit cold Arctic waters, living amongst pack ice, in leads and polynyas in winter and migrating to shallow bays and estuaries of large northern rivers in the summer. Their seasonal movements depend on both oceanographic conditions (primarily the dynamics of ice cover) and the distribution of their primary prey species (Boltunov & Belikov 2002). Belugas usually travel in pods of 2 to 10 whales, although larger pods are not uncommon. Females with young are found in calm shallow waters along reef edges, close to islands and in large bays. These areas have a warm surface temperature and sand, gravel or mud bottoms that support molluscs, crustacea and bottom fish. Adults and weaned young prefer areas where the water depth varies, where surface temperatures are cold, and where there are reef bottoms of sand and gravel or deep bottoms of sandy mud and coarse material.
DIFFICULTIES IN STOCK IDENTIFICATION
Because of their annual migration patterns and the difficulties of sampling and studying these animals in the field, stock identification for belugas is currently not well defined. Determination of stocks for belugas is particularly important since in several areas, beluga numbers have declined considerably over the past century. Since people wish to continue to hunt belugas, it is essential to have knowledge of stock structure, distribution and population size in order to determine sustainable harvest levels.
USING GENETICS AND MIGRATION ROUTES
Genetic studies have been used to try to differentiate beluga stocks, although the results have not been as clear cut as for some other animals. Difficulties arise in using genetics for belugas because adequate sampling designs are hard to achieve (de March et al. 2002). Sample numbers are sometimes lower than desired, due to the difficulty and expense of obtaining samples. Sampling is also usually concentrated in areas and times where belugas are hunted rather than throughout their seasonal range.
Additionally, because belugas are social animals and occur in pods of closely related animals, sampled animals may be close relatives rather than random individuals from a stock (Palsbøll et al. 2002). These difficulties mean that genetic studies alone will probably not be enough to define beluga stocks and that a combination of methods and information is needed. For belugas, the annual migration path and the hunters who have access to the whales along this path, may best be used to describe a “stock” (Innes et al. 2002b).
A further complication arises because different genetic analyses yield conflicting results for belugas. Analysis of mitochondrial DNA from belugas harvested in and around Hudson Bay suggests that several separate stocks inhabit the area (Turgeon et al. 2012). In contrast, there is little evidence of separate stocks from analyses of nuclear DNA. As mitochondrial DNA is inherited from the mother only, this suggests that maternally-led “cultural” stocks go to separate summering areas, but mix together during the mating season. This also means that hunters in the same community might harvest from a single stock during the summer, but a mixture of two or more at other times of the year.
A genetic study (O’Corry-Crowe et al. 2010) has however revealed that beluga stocks can be divided into two major groups:
- Arctic (Svalbard–White Sea–Greenland–Beaufort Sea), and
- Subarctic (Gulf of Alaska) regions
This study suggests a deep divergence between the two major groupings, but periodic gene flow within them, probably during warm periods with lighter ice cover. A further deep division has been found between the St Lawrence River and Eastern Hudson Bay populations and all other Canadian and Greenlandic populations (COSEWIC 2004, de March et al. 2002). The former grouping might have originated from an Atlantic glacial refugium, while the other areas may have been colonized from the west.
Stocks/Summer Aggregations in the NAMMCO Area
Belugas are resident around Svalbard year round. During summer they spend most of their time close to glacier fronts (Lydersen et al. 2001). When the sea-ice forms they are “pushed” further offshore, but remain close to Svalbard.
Belugas are rare along the east coast of Greenland, likely due to lack of suitable habitat. Whales which do appear there from time to time probably belong to the Svalbard population (Dietz et al. 1994, NAMMCO 2018).
The information available does not suggest a link between the Svalbard stocks and the Barents-Kara-Laptev stock and the White Sea stocks (NAMMCO 2018).
Eastern High Arctic – Baffin Bay and West Greenland
The Eastern High Arctic – Baffin Bay (also called “Somerset Island”) stock of belugas is a shared stock between Canada and Greenland. These animals form a “summer aggregation” that spends the summer mainly in the Canadian High Arctic archipelago, with some animals also in Smith Sound.
In the fall, some beluga from this stock migrate to western Greenland where they stay during the winter, while others winter in the “North Water” polynya in Baffin Bay and Smith Sound (Richard et al. 2001, NAMMCO 2013). The two wintering areas are shown on the stock distribution map.
Belugas from the segment of the stock that migrate along the west coast of Greenland can be found from Qaanaaq in the north to Paamiut in the south in the fall, winter and spring. Belugas are rare along this coast in summer (NAMMCO 2000). Beluga migrate past the Upernavik region in October and are found later in the fall and winter between Disko Bay and Sisimiut (NAMMCO 2000). Heide-Jørgensen et al. (2003) estimated that the proportion of animals moving to West Greenland in the winter was approximately 15% (95% confidence limit 6-35%) based on satellite tagging data.
Other Beluga stocks
This population of belugas was originally defined by their summering area. It is thought that this population may have been extirpated, or if it still exists, has very low numbers (DFO 2004). Past genetics studies showed high levels of genetic diversity (Smith and Hammill 1986), however belugas from Ungava Bay may now be part of other populations (DFO 2004).
Eastern Hudson Bay
Easter Hudson Bay belugas are genetically different from Western Hudson Bay belugas (Brennin et al. 1997, Brown-Gladden et al. 1997, de March & Postma 2003). They spend the summer mainly in coastal waters extends from Kujjuarapik to Inukjuak, but they can also be found in offshore waters (Smith & Hammill 1986, Kingsley 2000, Gosselin et al. 2002).
Recent studies indicate that belugas in James Bay may be a separate population from the rest of the Eastern Hudson Bay population (Bailleul et al. 2012). In this study, belugas captured and tagged in James Bay remained very close to where they were captured, while the majority of Eastern Hudson Bay belugas migrated between distinct summer and wintering areas. Bailleul et al. (2012) suggested that decreases in sea ice in recent years may have made James Bay a suitable area for belugas to remain year-round, while ice conditions in the rest of Eastern Hudson Bay still make it necessary for the belugas there to migrate.
Western Hudson Bay
The beluga of Western Hudson Bay are a large, possibly diverse stock that may contain several sub-stocks, including Northern Hudson Bay, Foxe Basin, and Southern Hudson Bay. The Western Hudson Bay belugas contain many genetic similarities to all other Canadian beluga populations, yet are genetically distinguishable. More information is needed to understand the population structure.
The Cumberland Sound stock summers in the inner part of Cumberland Sound and winters beyond the ice edge near the mouth of the Sound (DFO 2002a). They are considered a separate population based on results from satellite tagging, genetics, organochlorine contaminant signatures, and traditional knowledge (Kilabuk 1998).
The St Lawrence (sometimes called St Lawrence River) stock is a small population thought to have once been part of the Arctic populations (DFO 2004). There does not appear to be any geographic overlap with the other current populations of belugas, and they are also genetically distinct from all the other populations (DFO 2004).
Little information is available on this stock. Based on opportunistic sightings data from oil/gas exploration, tourist cruises, and scientific expeditions, belugas from this stock are thought to concentrate in summer mostly in the estuaries of large rivers (Ob, Yenisey) and in the waters of the archipelagos (Franz Josef Land, south of Novaya Zemlya, Severnaya Zemlya) (NAMMCO 2018). No data is available on seasonal migratory routes. Analysis of mitochondrial DNA from 16 harvested or beached belugas from the Kara and western Laptev Seas revealed the same haplotypes as found in Svalbard belugas (NAMMCO 2018). However, the number of genetic samples was too small to make any conclusions on stock structure. It is likely that there are several different beluga stocks tied to the major bays, estuaries, and archipelago waters (e.g. Franz Josef Land).
Data on distribution and movements suggests that belugas in the White Sea form a resident population that may be made up of several stocks (NAMMCO 2018). Field observations indicate that White Sea belugas occur in discrete summer nursery aggregations associated with major bays: Onezhsky, Dvinskoy and Mezen’sky. However, more data are necessary to understand population structure in greater detail.
Current Abundance and Trends
Estimating beluga abundance is difficult due to the remoteness and large size of their distribution area and the mobility of the animals. Aerial surveys are most commonly used. However the results obtained from aerial surveys must be corrected for whales that are at the surface but missed by observers, and those that are below the surface and out of sight when the survey airplane is overhead. Another problem is that direct comparisons between surveys are not always possible, since surveys rarely have the same timing or cover the same area.
The first-ever survey for this area was carried out in 2018 and estimated an abundance of 549 animals (95% CI: 436-723) when corrected for availability bias (Vacquié-Garcia et al. 2020).
Eastern High Arctic – Baffin Bay and West Greenland
The most recent estimate for the Eastern High Arctic – Baffin Bay summer aggregation comes from an aerial survey in 1996, which estimated 21,213 belugas (95% CI: 10,985 to 32,619) (Innes et al. 2002a). This estimate takes into account both whales missed by observers and those that might be unseen due to diving behaviour. It has been recognised that this estimate requires updating (NAMMCO 2018). Previous estimates from the early 1970s gave a very rough estimate of 10,000 belugas (Koski et al. 2002), and 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).
Aerial surveys flown in West Greenland between 1981 and 1994 found that beluga numbers decreased by 62% during that period, probably due to over-harvesting (Heide-Jørgensen & Reeves 1996). Further surveys in 1998 and 1999 confirmed the decline and found 7,941 (95% CI: 3650–17,278) belugas in West Greenland, including whales missed by the observers and whales that were submerged during the survey (Heide-Jørgensen & Acquarone 2002). New management measures (see section on management) may, however, have reversed this decline. A survey carried out in 2006 revealed an abundance of 10,595 (95% CI: 4,904–24,650) (NAMMCO 2010). The most recent (2012) estimate for belugas that winter in West Greenland was 9,072 whales (95% CI: 4,895 to 16,815 (Heide-Jørgensen et al. 2016).
Any apparent trends of increase or decline in this population are difficult to assess since the confidence intervals for all estimates are quite large. Although this stock is likely depleted from its historical size, there is some evidence of an increasing trend. The more recent surveys in West Greenland have shown an increasing number of belugas in the segment of this stock that migrate to West Greenland (see Stock Status). Although this indicates an increasing population trajectory since the introduction of catch quotas in Greenland, and population growth is projected to continue (Heide-Jørgensen et al. 2017), the stock as a whole is still considered depleted (NAMMCO 2018).
Other Stocks Outside the NAMMCO Area
One estimate, made in 1939, gave a population of 40,000 to 50,000 beluga in the Barents, Kara and Laptev Seas (Boltunov & Belikov 2002). These are very rough estimates 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 & Belikov 2002). There are no more recent estimates of abundance for this stock.
Abundance estimates from aerial surveys conducted in 2005 – 2011 suggest a minimum estimate of at least 5,000 animals in the summer inhabit the White Sea (Glazov et al. 2008, 2010а,b). The winter (March) estimates were 3.5-4 times lower than the July estimates in the corresponding years. Reports on earlier surveys do not contain enough information on survey design, analysis methods and area coverage to enable comparison of the results and assess population trends. The estimates from the 6 surveys conducted from 2005-2011 show a slight decline within this period, but the general pattern is variable from year to year (NAMMCO 2018).
Ungava Bay was formerly a summering area for beluga, but these appear to have been largely extirpated by past commercial and subsistence over-harvesting. Five aerial surveys were conducted between 1982 and 2008. No belugas were seen on-transect in the surveys after 1985 (Smith & Hammill 1986; Hammill et al. 2004, Gosselin et al. 2009). Off-transect observations in 1993 suggested that there were far fewer than 200 individuals in the region (Kingsley 2000). In 2012, a mean estimate of abundance based on the last 4 surveys was 32 belugas (95% CI: 0-94) (Doniol-Valcroze & Hammill 2012).
The very small numbers of belugas observed in the area now may be remnants of the former stock, or transient or re-colonising animals (NAMMCO 2000).
Eastern Hudson Bay
The most recent estimate is from a 2015 aerial survey, which estimated 3,819 belugas (CV=0.43), which has been corrected for availability bias (Gosselin et al. 2017).
A total of seven visual systematic aerial surveys have been flown to evaluate Eastern Hudson Bay abundance since 1985 and abundance estimates obtained from these surveys suggest that the stock’s size has remained stable (Gosselin et al. 2017). However these surveys used different methods, making it difficult to compare their results to the 2015 survey. A population dynamics model incorporating information on removals, proportions of each stock in the catch, and aerial survey estimates of abundance suggests that this stock declined between 1974 and 2001 and then increased slightly (3,078 to 3,408) until 2016 (Hammill et al. 2017). The recent apparent increase or stabilization of the population may have been due to the efforts to focus the harvesting in Hudson Strait where animals from this stock represent a lower proportion of the animals hunted (NAMMCO 2018).
Seven visual surveys conducted from 1985 to 2015 demonstrated the occurrence of large groups of belugas in the north-western part of James Bay (Gosselin et al. 2017). The most recent abundance estimate is from a survey in 2015 which resulted in an estimated 10,615 (CV = 0.25), which has been corrected for availability bias (Gosselin et al. 2017).
The abundance estimates from aerial surveys suggest an increase in the population size, however large inter-annual variability in the survey results suggests that there is an influx of animals, possibly from the Ontario coast, in some years (NAMMCO 2018). The different methods used in the earlier surveys makes it difficult to compare their estimates to the survey carried out in 2015. The trend appears to be increasing, although there is considerable uncertainty in the estimates (NAMMCO 2018).
Western Hudson Bay
The Western Hudson Bay beluga stock has been surveyed in 1987, 2004, and 2015. The most recent abundance estimate (corrected for availability bias) is 54,473 (95% CI: 44,988–65,957 (Matthews et al. 2017), although this does not include the Ontario coast where about 14,000 belugas were seen during the 2004 survey (Richard 2005). It is difficult to compare the results of the 2015 with previous surveys because of differences in the areas covered and also in the correction factors used in calculating the abundance estimate. However the stock appears to be stable (NAMMCO 2018).
Nine aerial surveys of the CS beluga stock’s range were conducted between 1980 and 2014. The most recent abundance estimate is based on an aerial survey in 2014 which estimated 1,151 (CV=0.21) belugas in Cumberland Sound (Marcoux et al. 2016). Direct comparisons among surveys to assess trends is not possible because the earlier surveys focused on a smaller area and may therefore be negatively biased. However, population modelling suggests that the stock is declining (Marcoux & Hammill 2016).
St. Lawrence River
Eight aerial photographic surveys were conducted between 1988 and 2009 and have been used to estimate abundance. More recently, a large number of visual aerial surveys (38 surveys between 2001 and 2016) were used to produce another time-series of abundance estimates. An age-structured population model incorporating abundance estimates from the aerial photographic surveys along with information on proportion of young and number of deaths documented through carcass monitoring was used to estimate the 2012 population size at 889 (95% CI: 672 to 1167) (Mosnier et al. 2015).
In terms of trend, the current view is that the population was stable or increasing very slowly (0.13%/year) until 2000, then declined (~-1%/year) until 2012, with no significant level of recovery seen in recent years (NAMMCO 2018).
As there is currently no abundance estimate available, the status of this stock is unknown. It is classified as Data Deficient on the Norwegian Red List. The Global Review of Monodontids (NAMMCO 2018) expressed moderate concern concerning this stock due to the lack of information, the high levels of pollutants, and the possible impacts from climate change.
Eastern High Arctic – Baffin Bay
It is not entirely clear whether the abundance of this stock is stable or increasing. Winter surveys off West Greenland indicate an increase since the imposition of catch limits (see section on abundance). Continued population growth is also projected (Heide-Jørgensen et al. 2017). This is a large stock (possibly 20,000 animals) and removals are considered sustainable, so the level of concern for this stock has been deemed to be low (NAMMCO 2018).
West Greenland Component
In 2020, following a precautionary approach and a request from Greenland, the NAMMCO-JCNB Joint Working Group (JWG) performed an assessment for beluga north of Cape York (in the area around Qaanaaq) as a separate stock – the North Water. The placement of a border at Cape York to separate the West Greenland and North Water stocks was deemed most reasonable based on the available evidence from satellite tracking, timing of catches, and genetic data. The West Greenland stock is therefore now defined as belugas south and east of Cape York and north of 65°, while the proposed North Water stock includes the belugas in the North Water polynya west and north of Cape York into Smith Sound.
Following the assessment performed in 2020, for the newly defined West Greenland stock, the JWG recommended that to maintain a 70% probability for population increase, there should be an annual landed catch of no more than 265 individuals (NAMMCO-JCNB JWG, 2020). For the newly proposed North Water stock, to maintain a 70% probability for population increase, an annual landed catch of no more than 37 individuals was recommended.
Reviewing the status of all belugas and narwhals
In March 2017, NAMMCO organised a Global Review of Monodontids (GROM), which discussed the conservation status, threats, and data gaps for all stocks of belugas and narwhals globally. The last review was done almost 20 years ago, and a large amount of new information has become available since then, especially on stock identity, movements, abundance, and threats to the populations. Additionally, there are many new stressors that have emerged in the last 20 years, especially related to climate change.
Stock experts representing Greenland, Canada, Alaska, Russia, the Government of Nunavut, Nunavut Tunngavik, Inc., the Inuvialuit Settlement Area and the Nunavik Wildlife Management Board participated.
The report (NAMMCO 2018) can be found here and a publication is in preparation for peer review.
DECLINE, SOUND MANAGEMENT, AND RECOVERY
Concern over a decline in belugas from the Eastern High Arctic-Baffin Bay stock that winter in West Greenland led to the introduction of regulations during the 1990s with the intention of reducing and controlling catches. The drive hunt in West Greenland, which was the main method of beluga capture at the time, was prohibited in 1995 (Heide-Jørgensen & Rosing-Asvid 2002).
In the year 2000, the Scientific Committee of NAMMCO advised that the animals visiting West Greenland in the winter were substantially depleted and that any delay in reducing the catch to about 100 animals per year would result in further population decline and delay the recovery of this stock (NAMMCO 2001). A quota of 320 beluga per year was established for West Greenland in 2004. Catches and quotas have fluctuated since then, with catches ranging from 120 to 290 for West Greenland.
There is evidence that the introduction of catch quotas and management measures may already be having a positive effect on the population (Heide-Jørgensen et al. 2016).
Assessments have indicated 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).
Other nearby beluga stocks
The concern level is high for the Barents-Kara-Laptev Seas stock. This is in part due to a lack of information about stock structure, current abundance, and removals, and in part because of the rapid increase in development and other human activity as the climate across the Northern Sea Route becomes more open to navigation (NAMMCO 2018).
The White Sea stock appears to be stable, but its status is of moderate concern due to the insufficiency of data (specifically regarding stock structure) and habitat concerns related to pollution (especially discharge from the Severnaya Dvina River), ship traffic (one of the major ports for the Northern Sea Route traffic is Arkhangelsk), and tourist activities (NAMMCO 2018).
Ungava Bay was formerly a summering area for beluga, but these appear to have been largely extirpated by past commercial and subsistence over-harvesting (Boulva 1981, Finley et al. 1982). Hunting closures came into effect in the late 20th century, however there are only occasional sightings of belugas in the summer in Ungava Bay now and the stock may now be extirpated (NAMMCO 2018).
Eastern Hudson Bay
In the past, the Eastern Hudson Bay stock was subject to a large commercial harvest, as well as an ongoing subsistence harvest. Although recent management measures may have stabilized the population and even allowed some increase, it is still considered to be vulnerable to decline at current harvest levels (Doniol-Valcroze et al. 2011) and the stock is presently classified as endangered by COSEWIC.
While it is a medium-sized stock that appears to be stable or slowly increasing, the Global Review of Monodontids was particularly concerned that the abundance estimates from surveys may include animals from multiple stocks (NAMMCO 2018). If this were true, it would confound conclusions regarding abundance, harvest apportionment, and sustainability of harvest. Additional information is therefore considered needed on the stock identity of belugas observed during the aerial surveys. Besides the harvest, the possible impacts of icebreaking activities in Hudson Strait and of the flux in freshwater flow into the belugas’ nearshore habitat in eastern Hudson Bay caused by the hydroelectric project in the Great Whale River drainage are also concerns for the future status of the stock (NAMMCO 2018).
There is low concern for this stock because it appears to be fairly large (despite some uncertainty about which animals are being surveyed in James Bay at times) and the harvest numbers are low (NAMMCO 2018).
Western Hudson Bay
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 also has a large number of summer resident beluga.
There is low concern for this stock because the stock is large and stable, and the harvest appears sustainable (NAMMCO 2018).
There is a high level of concern for this stock. This is because it is considered to be small in both numbers and range, and believed to be declining with unsustainable harvest levels (NAMMCO 2018).
St. Lawrence River
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.
There is a high level of concern for this stock due its small size, declining trend, and chronic exposure to relatively intensive industrial and other commercial activity within much of its habitat (NAMMCO 2018).
Belugas inhabit the waters of two NAMMCO member states: Norway and Greenland.
Norway does not presently permit the harvest of belugas in its territory and the harvest is regulated in Greenland with advice from a bilateral management body in cooperation with NAMMCO.
The stock of belugas that winters off West Greenland summers in Arctic Canada. Therefore, management is a shared responsibility between Greenland and Canada. Greenland and Canada have therefore established a bilateral management body, the Canada/Greenland Joint Commission on the Conservation and Management of Narwhal and Beluga (JCNB). The JCNB has a joint Scientific Working Group (JWG) with the NAMMCO Scientific Committee Working Group on the Population Status of Narwhal and Beluga in the North Atlantic. This NAMMCO-JCNB JWG provides advice at the request of the JCNB and NAMMCO, pertaining to such issues as stock delineation, total allowable catches and threats to beluga and narwhal populations. The JCNB Commission meets periodically to receive this advice and provide management advice to Canada and Greenland.
The Ministry of Fisheries, Hunting and Agriculture is responsible for regulating beluga whaling in Greenland. Regulations govern the seasons in which belugas can be hunted and the weapons and equipment that may be used for beluga hunting. Successful whale hunts must be reported to municipal authorities to facilitate the monitoring of the harvest. Compliance with quotas and other regulations is monitored by wildlife officers at the local level.
Sound management gives results
Greenland has set quotas for belugas in response to JCNB and NAMMCO advice. 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 (Heide-Jørgensen et al 2016). 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).
Recent Management Advice
Until 2020, no assessment of belugas in the area around Qaanaaq (Greenland) was performed, only an informal advice given that catches at existing levels were sustainable. In 2020, following a request from Greenland, the NAMMCO-JCNB Joint Working Group (JWG) adopted a precautionary approach separating the West Greenland component of the Eastern High Arctic Baffin Bay stock at Cape York into a re-defined West Greenland stock and a proposed new “North Water” stock. The JWG then performed an assessment for belugas in both of these areas.
Following the 2020 assessment, the JWG recommended that to maintain a 70% probability for population increase in the proposed North Water stock, there should be an annual landed catch of no more than 37 individuals north and west of Cape York (NAMMCO-JCNB JWG, 2020). For West Greenland (south and east of Cape York and north of 65°) the JWG recommended that to maintain a 70% probability for population increase, there should be an annual landed catch of no more than 265 individuals (NAMMCO-JCNB JWG, 2020).
Following the recommendations of the JWG, in 2021, the NAMMCO SC reiterated previous recommendations that there be no hunt south of 65˚ in Greenland and that the following seasonal closures be implemented: a) Northern (Uummannaq, Upernavik, Savissivik): June through August; b) Central (Disko Bay): June through October; c) Southern (South of Kangaatsiaq): May through October. The NAMMCO SC has recommended these seasonal and geographical closures for several years as a way to try and protect the few animals that may be present in these areas in the summer and thereby help to repopulate depleted stocks (NAMMCO 2021a).
The NAMMCO Management Committee has not adopted these recommendations for seasonal and geographical closures, unconvinced that they would achieve the desired aim due to environmental changes and the presence of other human activities, and therefore a small annual quota (5 animals in 2021) for beluga south of 65˚ in Greenland remains (NAMMCO 2021a&b).
STATUS ACCORDING TO OTHER ORGANIZATIONS
Belugas are currently listed in Appendix II of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) (as are all species of cetaceans not listed on Appendix I). CITES is a legally-binding multilateral environmental agreement that aims to ensure that international trade does not threaten the survival of species in the wild. Both Denmark (Greenland) and Norway are signatories to the convention. A listing in Appendix II means that an export permit shall only be granted when the Scientific Authority of the State of export has advised that such export will not be detrimental to the survival of the species in the wild.
On the global IUCN “Red list” belugas are listed as being of “Least Concern” in an assessment made in 2017.
Belugas have long been a staple food resource for indigenous peoples throughout the Arctic, and they continue to be an important part of northern diets today. Historically, the beluga was used for many purposes (Kilabuk 1998, Sejersen 2001). The skin and attached subcutaneous fat was and is considered a delicacy called muktuk (various spellings and pronunciations, including maktaaq and mattak). The meat varied in quality depending on the cut and was eaten raw, dried or cooked, or used as dog food. Sometimes the meat and muktuk was aged and prepared in specific ways to make traditional delicacies.
The flippers, organs and intestines were also used as food. The skin from the top part of the whale was cut and prepared to make rope, and the tendons were used to make sinew for sewing. The blubber was rendered to oil and used in traditional lamps (qulliq) as a source of light and heat. Even the bones were used as a food source, construction material and for carving. While many of these uses have been replaced by modern materials, beluga muktuk and meat are still an important and welcome part of the diet in some areas of Arctic Canada and Greenland.
The following descriptions of hunting methods in Canada and Greenland have been taken from the NAMMCO Expert Group Meeting to Assess the Hunting Methods for Small Cetaceans, held in 2011 (NAMMCO 2012b):
Belugas in West Greenland and Canada are hunted during the spring, summer and fall from small boats, at the ice edge or at ice cracks. The kayak is still in use for hunting in some areas of West Greenland. In this type of hunting, the animal is approached quietly by one or two kayaks, and the hunter uses a hand-held harpoon with a detachable head (Greenlandic: tuukaak). The harpoon head is attached by a line to a float (Greenlandic: quataq) and then to drag or brake (Greenlandic: miutak) which slows the wounded animal. The hunter then shoots the whale with a high-powered rifle when it resurfaces.
Similar hunting methods are used from small motor boats and from the ice in Greenland and Canada. Ideally, the whale is harpooned first to secure it; it is thereafter dispatched using a rifle. The harpoon strike alone is sufficient to kill the animal in some cases. In other cases, the beluga is shot first to wound it and slow it down so it can be secured using a harpoon and line.
Nets are used to capture belugas in the far north of Greenland and in some areas of Canada. This technique is used particularly during the dark seasons and in very heavy ice conditions. The belugas swim into the net, become entangled and will drown since they cannot surface. If they remain alive, they are shot by the hunter when the net is checked.
Distribution of catch
Historically, the catch of belugas or other large animals was divided and shared amongst participating hunters and their extended families according to complex traditional rules (Inuktitut ningiqtuq, Greenlandic ningerpoq), which helped to ensure that the entire camp or community received a portion of the catch (Wenzel 1995, Sejersen 2001). More recently, the regulation of beluga hunting and changing of hunting methods and equipment have led to changes in the sharing system (Sejersen 2001). In Greenland particularly, part of the catch is sold in the open-air markets (Greenlandic Kalaalimineerniarfik, Danish brædtet) present in every village and town. This provides a welcome source of income for hunters. Commercial sale of beluga products is not widespread in Nunavut, although this is starting to change.
Hunting Past and Present
Russians harvested belugas at Svalbard beginning in the 18th century. Little information is available on catch numbers from this time, although the best known year is 1818, when a crew overwintering caught about 1,200 belugas (Gjertz & Wiig 1994). Norwegians also began hunting belugas around Svalbard in 1866 and continued up until the early 1960s. Over that period, more than 15,000 animals were taken (Gjertz & Wiig 1994).
Eastern High Arctic – Baffin Bay and West Greenland
Commercial harvesting of beluga in West Greenland and Baffin Bay began in the late 1800s. The occurrence of belugas 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 & 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 & Rosing-Asvid 2002). Since 2010, the catches in West Greenland have typically been between 100-300 animals per year.
Barents-Kara-Laptev and White Sea
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 & Belikov 2002). These numbers are very rough estimates 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 & 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 & 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 Novaya Zemlya and entering Baidaratskaya Inlet and Yugorskiy Shar Strait (Boltunov & Belikov 2002). Fewer whales were taken in the following decades.
Ungava Bay was formerly a summering area for beluga, but these appear to have been largely extirpated by past commercial and subsistence over-harvesting (Boulva 1981, Finley et al. 1982). Hunting closures came into effect in the late 20th century, however there are only occasional sightings of belugas in the summer in Ungava Bay now and the stock may now be extirpated (NAMMCO 2018).
Eastern Hudson Bay
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 & Postma 2003). Subsistence hunting continued after that time, but it was not until the 1980s that concerns about this population arose. 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.
Belugas are not hunted in this area, however the stock may be subject to exploitation elsewhere (de March & Postma 2003).
Western Hudson Bay
Harvest of this stock has been 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). 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).
St Lawrence River
It has been estimated that about 16,000 animals were taken from this 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).
REPORTED CATCHES IN NAMMCO MEMBER COUNTRIES
|Greenland||2020||North water + West Greenland||189||593|
|Greenland||1992||Total||*No reported catches||No quota|
This database of reported catches is searchable, meaning you can filter the information by for instance country, species or area. It is also possible to sort it by the different columns, in ascending or descending order, by clicking the column you want to sort by and the associated arrows for the order. By default, 30 entries are shown, but this can be changed in the drop-down menu, where you can decide to show up to 100 entries per page.
Carry-over from previous years are included in the quota numbers, where applicable.
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With few exceptions, belugas inhabit isolated areas subject to seasonal ice cover that are not frequently used as shipping lanes. However, the southernmost beluga stock inhabits the St Lawrence River in Canada, which is one of the busiest shipping routes in the world. Here they are subject to high levels of noise, both from ships and whale-watching operations (McQuinn et al. 2011). The population-level consequences of shipping noise to this threatened population are unknown. However, belugas do appear to become habituated to some levels of noise over time.
More so than for other Arctic marine mammal species, the beluga is susceptible to contaminant exposure because of its habit of occupying river estuaries during parts of the summer. Rivers carry pollutants from inland and therefore tend to be more contaminated than offshore marine areas. One population particularly susceptible to marine contaminants is the St Lawrence River stock, because its habitat is the densely populated and heavily polluted St Lawrence River basin (DFO 2012). However, some other stocks, particularly those inhabiting northeastern Russia, may also be exposed to high levels of contaminants.
Belugas are top predators in the marine food web and therefore tend to accumulate relatively high levels of some contaminants in their tissues. Particularly high levels of organic contaminants (e.g. pesticides) are found in the fatty blubber layers, to the extent that beach-cast belugas in the St Lawrence river basin area must sometimes be treated as toxic waste.
Contaminants can affect survival in several ways, including increasing the rates of chronic diseases such as cancers, disrupting the immune system and increasing vulnerability to pathogens and parasites. They can also disrupt the reproductive system and decrease reproductive success (DFO 2012). While the extent to which contaminants are actually affecting the survival and reproduction at the population level are not known, contaminants are considered to be a major threat to the St Lawrence population (DFO 2012). A relatively high incidence of cancerous tumours has been observed in beach-cast carcasses, leading some to link this to environmental contamination (Martineau et al. 2002). This conclusion is, however, controversial, predominantly because the incidence of cancer in the general population is difficult to infer from the incidence in carcasses (Hammill et al. 2003).
EFFECTS OF CLIMATE CHANGE
In recent years, the eastern part of Baffin Bay and Davis Strait has had lighter pack ice cover during the winter and spring. Belugas have responded to this by extending their winter distribution farther west and north. This also affects the success of hunters in West Greenland as they must range further from the coast to gain access to belugas in light ice years. These effects demonstrate the influence of climate change on this stock of belugas and offers hope that this species might be flexible enough to adapt to a rapidly changing climate.
Like narwhals and bowheads, belugas are susceptible to occasional entrapments in sea ice, which can, if prolonged, lead to their death by starvation, suffocation, predation or human harvesting (Heide-Jørgensen et al. 2002, see also here). While this is a form of natural mortality that belugas as a species have survived throughout their history, it is possible that human activities (and particularly seismic exploration within beluga habitat) might disrupt migration timing or routes in such a way as to increase the frequency of entrapment. Possible incidences of this have been observed for narwhal (Heide-Jørgensen et al. 2013) and similar occurrences are possible for belugas. In addition, climate change might also disrupt migration patterns in such a way as to change the frequency of entrapments.
Most beluga stocks inhabit areas with little or no commercial fishing. Again, the St Lawrence River stock is exceptional in this regard as it lives year-round in an area with heavy commercial fishing (DFO 2012). Declines in several fish stocks, some of which are important in the beluga diet, have been documented in this area, but it is not known if this is having a population-level effect on the stock.
Commercial fisheries, primarily for Greenland halibut (Reinhardtius hippoglosoides), have expanded into Baffin Bay and Davis Strait, which provides the overwintering habitat for some stocks of belugas (DFO 2007, Laidre et al. 2004). While Greenland halibut are a primary prey species for narwhal, they are less important for belugas, which tend to consume more pelagic prey species.
Research in NAMMCO Member Countries
Research carried out by Greenland has included the collection and analysis of samples for genetic studies, the application of satellite tags, and abundance surveys. The latter have provided important information on the size of the population of whales wintering off West Greenland and the trends in abundance over time. Ten surveys have been carried out off West Greenland since 1981, most recently in 2008 (Heide-Jørgensen & Acquarone 2002, Heide-Jørgensen et al. 2010, NAMMCO 2010). These surveys have covered an area from Disko Island in the north, south as far as Paamiut in some years, and from close to the coastline out to as far as 80km offshore. These surveys have been conducted using aircraft, with experienced observers who record data using distance sampling techniques. The more recent surveys have also used video and still photography to record ice and environmental conditions, and to collect images of whales. New marine mammal surveys are scheduled for 2021 (National Progress Report Greenland 2020).
It is rare to have over 30 years of survey data on distribution and abundance of any species and this provides a rich source of data for assessing the possible impacts of a changing climate on an Arctic species. Heide-Jørgensen et al. (2010) used these surveys to demonstrate that the recent trend towards lighter winter ice cover off West Greenland has led to a shift in beluga distribution to more offshore areas. Belugas apparently take advantage of the reduced ice cover offshore to access areas that were inaccessible to them in previous years. This offers hope that this species might be flexible enough to adapt to a rapidly changing climate.
Greenland has also been involved in elucidating the seasonal movements of belugas through the use of satellite-linked transmitters/receivers. These compact devices, often referred to as “satellite tags”, are attached to captured whales that are then released. The tags collect data on diving behaviour and movements, which are transmitted via satellite during the brief period when the tag breaches the sea surface.
Beluga whales are usually captured by isolating individuals or small groups and driving them slowly to shore using small boats. The whales are then immobilized on the beach using nets and ropes and the tag is surgically attached to the dorsal ridge. The tags transmit for 2-3 months on average; communication with the tag is lost once it falls off the whale (Richard et al. 2001).
While it has proven difficult to tag belugas during their winter occupation off West Greenland waters, Greenland researchers have also been involved in tagging operations in Arctic Canada. These applications have demonstrated conclusively that some belugas that summer in Arctic Canada do migrate to West Greenland for the winter (Richard et al. 2001). The tags have also provided important data on diving that has been used to derive correction factors for aerial surveys.
Greenland researchers have also been heavily involved in genetic studies of beluga populations. These studies use small samples collected from beluga hunts, tagging operations and in some cases, biopsies. While the social structure of beluga populations has made the interpretation of genetic data challenging (de March et al.2002, Palsbøll et al. 2002), genetic studies have been successful in discriminating the major divisions in beluga populations.
Similar to Greenland, Norwegian researchers have also used tagging techniques to monitor the movement and diving behaviour of belugas around Svalbard. Here, belugas do not seem to make long-distance migrations, remaining within the archipelago throughout most of the year (Lydersen et al. 2001). An innovative application of tagging was to use belugas as oceanographic “adaptive samplers” to monitor temperature and salinity in areas that are normally inaccessible to research vessels because of ice conditions (Lydersen et al. 2002). The first-ever aerial survey for estimating the number of belugas in the Svalbard area was conducted by the Norwegian Polar Institute in July and August 2018. Additionally, seven acoustic recorders listening mainly for bowhead whales, belugas and narwhals were deployed the same autumn and have been serviced and redeployed in 2020 for ongoing data collection (National Progress Report Norway 2018, 2020).
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Greenland Institute of Natural Resources – Hvidhval (in Danish/Greenlandic)