Belugas are an important traditional food source for the Inuit of the Inuvialuit Settlement Region (ISR). Prior to 2014, Ulukhaktok and Sachs Harbour, outer communities of the ISR, had harvested beluga but only on a sporadic basis. In the summer of 2014, a rare event took place near the coastal community of Ulukhaktok, Northwest Territories. The community experienced its first large-scale harvest of beluga whales.
Between July 1 and August 25, 2014, 26 beluga whales were sampled from landed harvests in Ulukhaktok. Unlike most beluga harvested at the Mackenzie Estuary (by community members from Aklavik, Inuvik and Tuktoyaktuk), these whales had full stomachs with a variety of prey items. This discovery was met with excitement by community members and researchers from Fisheries and Oceans Canada, who have been studying beluga health through community based monitoring of the Eastern Beaufort Sea (EBS) beluga population.
With help from hunters, stomachs were collected, along with other measurements, tissues samples, and local observations. The objective of this work was to combine traditional local knowledge (TLK) from beluga hunters with the analysis of dissected stomachs to identify diet, foraging and feeding behaviour, as well as potential drivers of the event.
Observations from local hunters suggested that the whales were feeding on and herding fish. But what were they eating? Dissections revealed beluga stomachs contained mostly Sandlance, a small offshore fish that is known to burrow in the substrate (sand was also common in the beluga stomachs). Arctic cod is thought to be the primary prey source for EBS belugas, and although this event only provided a snapshot of beluga foraging during one season, more questions have emerged related to shifts in the Beaufort Sea ecosystem, prey distributions, and beluga diet.