The Beluga Whale Massacre

Marie-Laure Dion-Savoie

Along the years, the people from the North have been subjected to many challenges and assaults both from nature and men. The Inuit have survived and continue to survive yet their way of life has been under attack for so long that negative effects can now be observed, researched, and documented. In recent years, we have learned a lot from testimonies from residential school survivors. We have also discovered more about the sled dog massacre that forever impacted the Inuit communities' traditional ways.

Let us now take a look at another massacre, the beluga whale massacre. We will establish the importance of beluga whales for Inuit communities, discuss how this massacre came about, and list the direct effects of the limitations imposed on the Inuit communities when it comes to fishing or hunting animals they have been accustomed to for thousands of years.

The Importance of Beluga Whales

As stated in the Encyclopédie du Patrimoine Culturel de l'Amérique Française, according to archeological findings, Inuit have been fishing beluga whales in the St. Lawrence River for at least the past 1500 years. Inuit hunt whales to fulfill a number of social, economic, cultural, and nutritional needs.

As Freeman (1998) explains, hunting maintains many cultural and ethical traditions for today's Inuit. Among others, the respect for elders, the traditional hierarchy where the most knowledgeable and experienced hunter would lead others to a successful kill; the idea of hunting for the well-being of the community not for individual gain; and the respect of the animals taken, animals that are needed for survival (23-30). Whale mattack (or maktak) remains, for the Inuit, one of the most highly desired traditional foods and it is widely used in gift giving and inter-settlement trade. Today, mattak's exchange among relatives and between communities creates and maintains the basis of Inuit social and economic relationships (Freeman 29).

Belugas are the most commonly and widely taken whale species in Canada during the open water season by hunters from Northern Labrador, the coasts of Nunavik (northern Quebec), Hudson Bay, and many other settlements (Freeman 64). To Canadian Inuit, beluga mattak is precious and, after a successful hunt, it is widely distributed among neighbours. Often, a successful hunt is even reported by community radio, with an invitation for everyone to collect a share, ensuring no wastage of precious food in the complete utilization of the carcass (Freeman 66), an Inuit tradition which aims at showing respect for the animal taken (Christopher and McDermott 20).

Furthermore, whales and whaling are common themes in Inuit songs, legends, names of places, art, dance, and the arrival of migrating whales in the spring is an annual highlight (Freeman 38) which demonstrates the cultural and traditional importance of this mammal. There are many rules, traditions, and beliefs related to whaling. For example, it was observed that, in some communities, hunters would wait at least 5 days to hunt again after a kill, showing respect to the animals captured (Freeman 40). At the nutritional level, the Inuit recognize the importance of maintaining high intake levels of iron by means of eating meat and blood in their meat (Freeman 46). They also vouch for the fat found in whales and its consumption led to the understanding of the beneficial effects of omega-3 fatty acids (Freeman 47).

The Beluga Whale Massacre

As St-Jean-Port-Joli's museum explains, in the 1920's, after a period of abundance, there was a drastic decline in fish stocks, including cod and salmon in and around the St. Lawrence River. During that same period, the population of belugas flourished. In reaction, the fishermen pressured the provincial government demanding nothing less than the eradication of the belugas from the St. Lawrence River.

As Pierre Béland, Senior Research Scientist at the St. Lawrence National Institution of Eco-Toxicology in Montreal, explained in an interview, the fishing industry falsely blamed beluga whales for declines in fish stock. The Ministère de la Colonisation, des Mines et des Pêcheries, without further research on belugas and their feeding habits, distributed rifles and ammunition so that fishermen could kill any beluga whale they encountered. St-Jean-Port-Joli's museum also reports that every seaman who brought along his riffle on the water received a monthly allowance of $30. Both sources add that the government offered $15 to anybody who would bring back the flukes of a beluga whale. But it did not seem to be enough! Béland further explained that an individual was able to persuade the government that the whales should be bombed from the air. The government agreed to fund this individual to manufacture canisters filled with dynamite and then to fly and drop these bombs on pods of beluga whales. During the years of the bounties, bounties were collected for about 25,000 whales - all paid for by the government. Mr. Béland was also worried that the St. Lawrence River, which supported 10,000 whales less than a century ago, is now home to only about 500 beluga whales while Fisheries and Oceans Canada estimates there are about 1000 beluga whales in the St. Lawrence River today.

The Effects on Inuit Communities

Research and consultations have started taking place in the different Inuit communities of Canada, Alaska, and Greenland. The same observations have been noted over and over again. Beyond the loss of valued cultural traditions, the Inuit communities have been affected physically and psychologically by the limitations that have been imposed on their territories, fishing, and hunting practices. We will now focus on the direct effects linked to limitation or deprivation of eating and hunting beluga whales. As Kirmayer and Valaskakis have observed and reported, when Inuit are deprived from the foods they have been accustomed to for the past hundreds of years, many painful symptoms can be observed. The most common are depressed moods, nausea, headaches, and general weakness. All of these symptoms disappear almost instantly when the individual consumes seal or beluga whale meat as a means of healing and health maintenance. It was also observed that consumption of beluga whale skin (a highly valued food) could alleviate the feelings of depression experienced by elders who were no longer able to take part in camp life or hunting. Beyond nutrition, beluga's symbolic value is precious to Inuit communities. According to traditional Inuit beliefs, eating beluga blood, skin, and fat, reconstitutes the human physically and mentally, and imparts some of the animal's intelligence and social qualities unto the person. To be without beluga as food, is to be slowly drained of an essential element of health and well-being (6-293).

Even though it is difficult to establish that the government funded the killing of such an important animal to the Inuit community in hopes of negatively affecting this same community, we can see that the decisions made were unfounded and rushed to say the least. Moreover, so many actions taken over the years have harmed Native communities that it is not an overstatement to say that, in most instances, their well-being and cultural survival has not been put forward. Unfortunately, little can be done to repair these errors from the past, but to keep in mind Inuit culture, customs, and values going forward. Beyond allowing Natives free access to their traditional way of life, authorities should make a point in consulting, respecting, and valuing their precious input specifically when it comes to dealing with the flora and fauna, its healing, and its well-being.

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