Inuit knowledge helps walrus researchers | Polarjournal
Walruses(Odobenus rosmarus) are the largest seals in the Arctic. They live in seasonally ice-covered waters of the Arctic. Photo: Julia Hager

Over thousands of years, the Inuit have passed on their knowledge of animal migrations, animal behavior, ice conditions, and many other natural processes. Their survival directly depended, among other things, on correctly assessing the ice or knowing the seasonal resting places of walruses. In recent decades, however, the Inuit have experienced drastic changes in environmental conditions in the Arctic, and they can no longer rely on their ancient knowledge. Canadian researchers have now used the Inuit’s observations in a study of the migration behavior and distribution of walruses (Odobenus rosmarus).

There are two subspecies of walrus – the Pacific (Odobenus rosmarus divergens) and the Atlantic walrus (Odobenus rosmarus rosmarus). Pacific walruses inhabit the waters and coasts of the Chukchi, Bering, and Laptev Seas while Atlantic walruses live in northeastern Canada, Greenland, Svalbard, and the Barents and Kara Seas. The population of the Pacific walrus is about 200,000, eight times larger than the Atlantic walrus population of about 25,000, the latter being classified as potentially endangered by the IUCN (World Conservation Union).

The effects of climate change in the Arctic are already having a significant impact on the distribution and ecology of polar fauna. For Pacific walruses, belugas and ringed seals, negative effects of the changes are already known. The impact of rapid environmental changes on Atlantic walruses has now been studied by scientists from Trent University in Peterborough, Ontario, the Canadian Ministry of Environment and the Ministry of Fisheries and Oceans.

Nunavik with the four communities of Kangiqsualujjuaq, Quaqtaq, Ivujivik and Inukjuak that participated in the study. Map: Martinez-Levasseur et al. 2021

Inuit hunters as an important source of information

The aim of the study was to investigate the spatial and temporal changes in the distribution of the Atlantic walrus in Nunavik (northern Quebec, Canada). Since long-term scientific data on Arctic animals are very scarce, the research team relied on Traditional and Local Ecological Knowledge (TEK/LEK) of Inuit hunters in their study, which is part of a larger project recently published in the journal Polar Biology. Hunters live in a close relationship with wildlife and their knowledge is critical for understanding the ecology and distribution of Arctic wildlife, according to the study’s authors.

In 2013, the researchers interviewed a total of 33 local hunters and elders between the ages of 35 and 85 from four communities in Nunavik (Kangiqsualujjuaq, Quaqtaq, Ivujivik, and Inukjuak) and documented their knowledge and observations over the period from 1940 to 2010. One of the researchers’ objectives was to record changes in Inuit land use patterns and hunting methods, and the other was to investigate whether Atlantic walrus distribution and migration patterns around Nunavik have changed.

Distribution of Atlantic walrus in summer as reported by Inuit for the periods (A) 1940s-1990s and (B) 2000s and 2010s. Black line: boundary of participants’ observations; black dots: Locations where walruses were observed; red shaded areas: Areas where walruses were observed. Maps: Martinez-Levasseur et al. 2021

Less hunting of walruses

Based on the interviews with the Inuit, it was found that over the 70-year period, both their hunting methods and the amount of walrus hunting had changed seriously. The introduction of motorboats and snowmobiles in the late 1960s significantly reduced the number of sled dogs. Since the dogs were fed walrus meat, there was no longer a need for many hunters to kill large numbers of walrus. For human nutrition walruses did not play a very important role. Nowadays, walrus hunting is less common, as reported by the Inuit, which is also due to the high cost of fuel. In the entire Nunavik region, only 30-60 animals are shot per year today, about half as many as in the 1980s.

Inuit today also use smaller hunting areas over a shorter period of time than in the past, partly due to the introduction of motorized vehicles. While people were still nomadic in the 1940s and 1950s, living in summer and winter camps, they began to live in settlements toward the end of the 1960s, as their hunting grounds were much quicker to reach with motorboats and snowmobiles. The introduction of satellite phones has also contributed to the reduction of time spent hunting.
In the area around Sleeper Island, however, hunting of walruses was stopped altogether in the 1990s because many animals tested positive for the parasitic roundworm Trichinella nativa, which can cause trichinellosis in humans.

Walruses feed mainly on mussels, which they find in the seabed. They can stay underwater for up to 30 minutes. At their resting places, they gather to digest the food. Photo: Julia Hager

Distribution of walruses and climate change

In addition to the changes that occurred for the hunters, the distribution of the walruses and their migration behavior also changed. For example, the animals have abandoned some beaches that they used as resting places. It is possible that some hunters in the past also killed walruses on land, which caused the sensitive animals to move out of the region. Another explanation would be a change in food availability – walruses feed mainly on mussels living on the seafloor. However, the authors have also observed seasonal recolonization or repopulation of resting sites, for example on Digges Island near Ivujivik.

“The walrus migration used to be in August. I used to hunt with the Elders who are deceased now. Last summer, July 2013, it was one month earlier. The migration of all marine mammals has changed now.”

Paul Jararuse, a study participant from Kangiqsualujjuaq who regularly comes to Quaqtaq

One shift that can most likely be attributed to the effects of climate change is the migration of walruses, which has been shifted far forward in time. The authors’ research showed that before the 1990s, walruses arrived in the Quaqtaq area in August. Today, the first walruses arrive in late June, a month earlier. Alaskan hunters are also observing a spring migration of Pacific walruses a month earlier. Study participants indicated that earlier melting of sea ice causes Atlantic walruses to make the earlier migration. Similar observations can be made for other Arctic species such as beluga whales.
The Inuit also reported that animals used to come back to the coasts in a certain order after winter. “It used to be belugas first, then walruses but nowadays all the animals come at the same time,” explains Bobby Baron from Kangiqsualujjuaq.

Julia Hager, PolarJournal

Link to the study: Martinez-Levasseur, L.M., Furgal, C.M., Hammill, M.O. et al. New migration and distribution patterns of Atlantic walruses (Odobenus rosmarus rosmarus) around Nunavik (Québec, Canada) identified using Inuit Knowledge. Polar Biol 44, 1833-1845 (2021).

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