July 8, 2016
Changes to ice conditions could be one of the reasons behind a number of recent killer whale sightings in northeastern Hudson Bay, according to one marine biologist, and they could be after the same marine prey as Inuit hunters.
“In the case of Nunavut and Nunavik, these animals are likely eating the same marine mammals that are culturally and economically important to Inuit harvesters, so there is always the risk of potential competition of killer whales coming in and eating the same belugas and seals and that sort of things that the harvesters are depending on,” said Jeff Higdon.
There have been several reports of killer whale sightings around the Belcher Islands and in the waters off the west coast of the Ungava peninsula in Northern Quebec in the past month, including reports of two washed up carcasses.
“Killer whales are not normally seen around the island, but since winter to this spring several sightings have been reported,” said Lucassie Arragutainaq, chair of the hunters and trappers organization in Sanikiluaq, Nunavut, in Inuktitut.
He said hunters spotted the carcass of what appeared to be a washed-up killer whale in June along the Belcher Islands. Samples were collected and sent to a Fisheries and Oceans Canada lab in Winnipeg for testing.
Earlier this week, a killer whale was spotted further north near Puvirnituq, Que.
Last month, further south near Whapmagoostui, Que., there was another possible sighting.
And then this week, another carcass reportedly appeared near Sanikiluaq.
“A hunter was asked to get samples of it, but we think the dead whale washed away as he couldn’t find it in the area where someone claims to have seen it,” Arragutainaq said.
Sightings of killer whales in northeastern Hudson Bay have not been confined to the warmer months. Hunters from Sanikiluaq also reported seeing the whales earlier this year in January.
Three years ago, Jeff Higdon would have been skeptical of the sightings during the winter. But that changed when a dozen killer whales were found trapped in the ice in January 2013, about 30 kilometres off the coast of Inukjuak, Que.
Unlike other populations of killer whales like in the Pacific Ocean, who have enough data collected on them to form personalized health records, the marine biologist who works as a consultant including clients in Nunavut, said little is known about the whales on the other sides of Canada.
“The ones in the northwest Atlantic, eastern Canadian Arctic, we don’t really have a good understanding about of abundant these things are. We actually have little to no data on how abundant they are,” Higdon said.
“Most of what we know about this population of killer whales in particular, most of what we know about this population of killer whales in Nunavut and Nunavik, has come from local harvesters.”
Higdon said changes to sea ice and a possible growth in the killer whale population may be some of the reasons why year-round sightings are being reported.
“It’s not simply population growth, it’s animals going into different areas where they historically haven’t been found as well, and as far as the reason why they’re going there is anybody’s guess at this point.