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Quebec Bulletin
December 2013 - January 2014/Volume 16/Number 6

Large-Scale Aerial Survey of Nunavut to Count Whales

The project's team members
The project's team members
P. Carter

The Inuit of Canada hunt narwhals and bowhead whales to meet some of their subsistence needs. The sustainable management of these populations depends on reliable estimates of their abundance. However, obtaining a precise count of the cetaceans found in Canada's Arctic waters is a real challenge for experts because of the size of the territory, difficult weather conditions and thick ice cover that characterize these regions. Moreover, since cetaceans are highly mobile, they can move from one area to another, making it difficult to compare counts done at different times. To achieve the goal of preparing an inventory of cetaceans that is as accurate as possible, the scientific teams from Fisheries and Oceans Canada's Central and Arctic, Quebec, and Newfoundland and Labrador regions conducted a project whose scope had never before been attempted: a simultaneous aerial survey of all the places where narwhals and bowhead whales are known to gather during the summer!

To cover such a large area with the constraints imposed by such a small weather window, the experts flew over the territory aboard three planes, each equipped with two cameras and four observation posts. The scientific team in each plane included a team leader, who also operated the equipment, and four experienced observers, including an Inuk observer from the communities that hunt narwhals or bowhead whales. Logistical organization, including the choice of methodology and the conception and coordination of flight plans, was taken care of by specialists from the three regions in collaboration with the team from the Polar Continental Shelf Program located in Resolute Bay.

Aerial view of a pod of belugas
P. Carter
Aerial view of a pod of narwhals

The survey took place in August and was a great success despite a late ice break-up and difficult weather conditions. The simultaneous use of three airplanes from Resolute Bay made it possible to cover each area known to have large concentrations of narwhals and bowhead whales during the summer in a single day. The team therefore made optimal use of each fair-weather window. After flying over the areas around the islands of Ellesmere, Devon and Somerset, the planes were deployed separately to cover the areas further to the south, around Baffin Island.

This departmental collaboration is continuing at the data analysis stage, which includes mapping observations, reading and analyzing over 120 000 high-definition photos, and conducting analyses to estimate abundance. The experts plan to deliver the results that are necessary for stock management during the coming year.

Thomas Doniol-Valcroze and Jean-François Gosselin

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