History of the TNMPA – Personal Recollections
August 26, 2010 was a great day in Tuktoyaktuk
where the Prime Minister in a keynote address at Oceans Day celebrations
announced the implementation of the TNMPA. After many years of planning
and consultation, the event represented a happy convergence of DFO
foresight and co-management vision.
On such a day it is perhaps useful to review the
events that brought the planning partners to that point. Actually the
MPA’s roots go back nearly 25 years to the late 1980s. At that time the
best scientific evidence regarding the size of the Beaufort Sea beluga
population was that there were about 7200 animals that made their way
from US and Russian waters to the Canadian Beaufort Sea each summer.
This population estimate was hotly contested, but until that point it
had not come into play with respect to population management, or rather
harvest management. Until then most attention was directed to the
potential impacts of hydrocarbon exploration and development proposals
for the offshore which were being considered. Of concern were the
probable effects of those activities on the migrating fish and marine
mammals, particularly in the near-shore Beaufort.
However during that decade attention began to focus
upon the number of belugas taken from the population as a result of the
subsistence harvest. Through the work of Inuvialuit hunters and DFO
biologists it was becoming clear that the annual harvest hovered around
135 landed whales, a number that was fuzzied by the fact that it did not
include animals that where "struck and lost". Further it was recognized
that what was thought to be the same population was also harvested along
Alaska's North Slope, although the size of that harvest was unknown.
Not unexpectedly, DFO biologists began to talk
about the need for a quota to control and possibly reduce the number of
belugas taken by Inuvialuit. Not surprisingly the folks of the area,
often referred to as the “people of the beluga”, took strong exception
to the idea, especially as they were in the initial stages of
implementing the various components of their recently settled land
claim. That claim introduced the concept of co-management of fish and
marine mammals where equal numbers of beneficiaries and government
representatives would meet at a common table to hammer out management
issues. They were not about to abandon that hard-won process and revert
to externally imposed quotas. Early in the discussions it was commonly
agreed that the population estimate for Beaufort Sea belugas was at best
shaky and certainly was not robust enough to use in determining what
might be a sustainable harvest.
Various options for developing a better
understanding of the population, its size and distribution were
considered but for various reasons, including cost, a simple mark
recapture approach was thought to offer some promise. The problem was
that there was no easy technique available for applying long-lasting
tags to belugas since the outer layer of their skin is very active and
any identifying marks would soon disappear. The proposed solution was to
apply "wrist tags" (elasticized bands) to a flipper that could expand as
the whale grew, and which could be used to identify a whale if it were
caught in a subsequent season. This technique had been tested on
aquarium beluga and was shown to hold some promise.
For a couple of reasons the tagging proposal was
not well received particularly by the Inuvialuit Game Council. Members
recognized that the application of each tag would require the capture
and immobilization of a whale. Aside from this being a most challenging
task to get a meaningful number of wrist tags applied, many objected to
the idea of the "rightness" of handling that many animals. It just did
not fit with their understanding of respectful stewardship. As a result
the project concept was rejected. Instead in a sometimes stormy meeting
at the Eskimo Inn amongst members of the Inuvialuit game Council, the
FJMC and DFO a compromise was reached. A more comprehensive approach to
the matter would be adopted, the development of a multi-faceted
management plan for Beaufort Sea beluga. For the Inuvialuit, this meant
that a home-grown management approach would take the place of an
externally imposed quota. The newly-formed FJMC took on the task using
as a foundation the results of a department -sponsored working group
that had been established prior to the signing of the IFA.
That initiative stimulated much research ranging
from genetic studies, aerial population surveys, contaminant studies and
eventually satellite telemetry research. It also resulted in the
Beaufort Sea Beluga Management Plan which was accepted by all HTCs , by
the IGC and by the Department of Fisheries and Oceans. Central to the
plan was the identification of three core management zones, areas of
summer beluga concentrations, which happened to coincided quite nicely
with community hunting areas.
During the next 15 years the book on the biology of
Beaufort Sea beluga was re-written. The idea of a shore-loving
population had to be discarded based upon new distribution information
provided through satellite telemetry that showed that the population
spread out over the deep-water Canadian Beaufort, Amundsen Gulf and
north into Viscount Melville Sound. Those same studies illustrated that
the population was only exposed to harvest in a couple of communities in
northern Alaska. Genetic studies confirmed that fact. Aerial surveys
guided by the new distribution information suggested that the population
was over 40,000 animals, not 7200, and that estimate was not adjusted
for the whales that were submerged as the survey plane passed overhead
or for the fact that the full range of the population was not covered
(many suspect that the population may number over 80,000). Contaminant
and disease studies confirmed that while whale harvests were well within
sustainable limits, there were threats on those fronts, perhaps because
of the relatively old age-structure of the population.
So, what did all of this have to do with the TNMPA?
Well, that sometimes confrontational meetings can have a good outcome.
That feisty meeting at the Eskimo Inn over science approaches set both
DFO and Inuvialuit beneficiaries on a common path through the FJMC that
led to the Beaufort Sea Beluga Management Plan and the research that
supported it. That plan identified three core protection areas, the
Zones 1(a). Those zones with only the most minor changes became the
three components of the TNMPA.
Sometimes disagreements can lead to good things!