Things are looking up for the beluga population in Greenland

The positive development of the beluga population in West Greenland is due to restricting quotas and that these are not completely used because of climate changes

With their latest calculations, biologists from the Greenland Institute of Natural Resources have proven that the long-time negative development for beluga whales in West Greenland has turned. The positive development is primarily the result of, partly, enforced quotas for beluga whaling and that, in recent years, it has become more difficult for hunters to catch the beluga whale. The whales are beginning to stay further out west because the sea ice no longer comes as close to the Greenlandic coast due to the climate changes. As a result, it has become more challenging for the hunters to catch the whales at sea. The beluga quota is not completely used these years, and since it has already been put at a sustainable level, the population now has particularly good possibilities of growing.

The calculations behind this story were published in one of the leading scientific journals ”Animal Conservation” in November 2016.

The latest count in 2012 shows that the size of the beluga population in West Greenland is around 9,000 whales.

The catch of beluga in the 1970s was around 1,000 a year but declined during the ‘80s and ‘90s to around 500. The drop was partly due to a declining population and that the winter ice drew further away from the coast. In 2004 a catch quota of 300 was enforced, and since then the population has been fairly constant, however, the biologists predict a slow increase in the years to come.

The North Atlantic Marine Mammal Commission, NAMMCO, and the Joint Commission on Narwhal and Beluga, JCNB, assess that the sets of data that the Greenland Institute of Natural Resources has built since 1981 are so reliable that they have formed the basis of the managerial success with the beluga. All data material as well as calculations from the Greenland Institute of Natural Resources are quality assured by these two scientific bodies that also advise Naalakkersuisut in Greenland regarding quota sizes.

With the present quota size, the biologists predict that there is a 70 % chance that the population will grow in the years until 2020.

Reliable counts determined the success

Since 1981 there have been performed 11 counts of belugas in West Greenland. These counts were made in such a way that they can be compared from year to year, i.e. they were made in the same season, in the same area, and ideally in the same way. Together with other investigations of genetics, mapping of the whales’ migration routes, their ability to reproduce, natural mortality rate, and age of sexual maturity, the counts mean that biologists have made a fairly clear image of the situation of the population.

”Basically, it means that the more counts we have completed, the better basis we have for giving reliable biological advice. These days we counsel with different options for quotas. Principally, we advise to ensure that we can continue to exploit the living resources far into the future”, explains Professor Mads Peter Heide-Jørgensen from the Greenland Institute of Natural Resources.

Whether a catch is sustainable is assessed using mathematical models, which besides catch and population numbers include age, reproduction and growth in the calculations. From such calculations and extrapolations of different catch levels, the biologists assess what probability there is of growth in the population.

Furthermore, Mads Peter Heide-Jørgensen says that counts primarily show whether the population is increasing or decreasing, and the result of a count leads to the calculation of an index. The index says something about the size of the population compared to counts made other years. This means that the more years with reliable counts, the better possibility the biologists have to predict what could happen to the population in the future.

Time series are the biologist’s crystal ball

”Naturally, through our counts and calculations, we cannot show the real world, as it precisely looks like. But we do what we can to create a picture as close to reality as possible. The more counts we do – that is according to plan and without bad weather – the more accurate our count result becomes and thereby the time series we make. Uncertainty in our counts should become smaller every time – we can say that the longer the time series is, the more robust basis we have for giving a reliable and accurate biological advice”, states Professor Mads Peter Heide- Jørgensen from the Greenland Institute of Natural Resources.

The mentioned times series are several repeated counts over a period of years. These series are alpha and omega for Greenland to withstand the growing international pressure regarding the exploitation of the living resources.

”These years there is an increasing pressure on Greenland to document that the exploitation of the living is sustainable. In this connection the time series are used as documentation, among other things, to show that the catch is done sustainably. A concrete example is that NAMMCO for smaller whales and the International Whaling Commission, IWC, for larger whales aim to ensure that the catch is done sustainably before they recommend quotas – which have direct consequences for Greenland”, emphasizes Mads Peter Heide-Jørgensen.

In this article we used the example of beluga whales, but time series with counts of animals are an important part of the work of the Greenland Institute of Natural Resources and may concern counts of any species – from Greenland’s most important export product, the shrimp, to the iconic hunted animal, the polar bear. Time series are also used as factual documentation, for example in connection with negotiations about mackerel quotas, which these years are highly topical in regard to Greenland’s economy.

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Photo: Mads Peter Heide-Jørgensen

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