Beluga whale (Delphinapterus leucas) COSEWIC assessment and status report: chapter 14

Summary of Status Report

Current data suggest that the belugas in Canada be divided into seven designatable units, based principally on summer ranges and gene distributions.

Based on recent aerial surveys, the St. Lawrence Estuary population is thought to be stable or at least not measurably declining. Its numbers are thought to be in the order of 1000 animals. This is considerably higher than when it was assigned the COSEWIC status of Endangered (Campbell 1985) based on a presumed population of 350 which was thought to be declining (Pippard 1985).

The Ungava Bay population has very low numbers, and may no longer exist.

The Eastern Hudson Bay population, which is low in numbers and subject to over-harvesting, is thought to be declining. Models based on conservative population parameters predict its likely disappearance under present harvest levels in less than 20 years. Studies of the genetic identity of the considerable numbers of belugas just south of the Eastern Hudson Bay population, their possible relationship to Eastern Hudson Bay belugas and their contribution to the annual harvests from Eastern Hudson Bay, are essential to evaluating the status of this population.

The Western Hudson Bay population has not been surveyed for over 15 years. It is one of the two largest populations of belugas in Canada. WhÎle it ranges over a large geographical area and has major summer concentrations in three large rivers, it has been little studied by geneticists who have sampled from only a few locations. There is hunting throughout the summer range of this population, and it is hunted elsewhere by Nunavut and Nunavik communities during its spring and autumn migrations. The catches are substantial and rising.

Some evidence suggests that the Eastern High Arctic - Baffin Bay population should be split. One part is of a considerable size and appears to remain in Canadian or offshore waters during the winter where it is only harvested at low levels. Another part of the Eastern High Arctic - Baffin Bay population spends the winter in western Greenland waters where it is heavily exploited. It appears to have significantly decreased in numbers over the last decade.

The Cumberland Sound population containing about 1500 animals is managed under an allowable catch of 41 belugas. It has increased in numbers since 1980 and is now either stable or slightly growing. It appears to have a limited distribution in the Cumberland Sound area throughout the year.

The Eastern Beaufort Sea population is large in comparison to the annual removals by subsistence harvests. Annual monitoring studies do not indicate any significant changes in abundance, distribution or health status.

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