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The History of the TNMPA – Personal Recollections
Robert Bell

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!


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