Rare whale harvest gives insight on beluga feeding and diet Lisa L. Loseto, Jasmine D Brewster, Sonja K. Ostertag, Kathleen Snow, Shannon A. MacPhee, Darcy G. McNicholl, Emily S Choy, Carolina Giraldo, and Claire A. Hornby

1. In the summer of 2014, the community of Ulukhaktok, Northwest Territories, experienced their first large scale harvest for beluga whales. This rare event triggered questions within the local and scientific community of why large numbers of beluga were suddenly attracted to this coastal habitat.

2. To help understand this unique event, hunters' observations (TLK, Traditional Local Knowledge) were documented, along with beluga stomach contents, to gather more information on beluga foraging behaviour and prey types.

3. TLK revealed that belugas were exhibiting foraging behaviour such as herding schools of fish. This was supported by beluga stomachs full, or partially full of fish. The primary prey species found in the stomachs was Sandlance, a coastal forage fish known to burrow in the sand.

4. Stomach contents and local observations of feeding provided new insights into beluga diet and foraging behaviour. Arctic cod has been identified as a key prey species for beluga, but beluga harvested in Ulukhaktok had stomachs full of Sandlance. This event could have been a single rare occurrence or could be an indication of beluga undergoing a behavioural/dietary shift in response to changes in the Beaufort Sea ecosystem.

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.

Read the full paper in Arctic ScienceDiet and feeding observations from an unusual beluga harvest in 2014 in Ulukhaktok, Northwest Territories, Canada

Corresponding author: Lisa Loseto; lisa.loseto@dfo-mpo.gc.ca

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