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Canadian hunters still harvesting trapped and wounded belugas

Nunatsiaq NewsNunatsiaq Online
Sanikiluaq hunters look down Feb. 14 at one of the breathing holes where about 20 belugas are trapped.
Courtesy Nunatsiaq News
This beluga, photographed Feb. 14, is one of about 20 milling around in two small breathing holes near Sanikiluaq. The beluga shows injuries from attacks from polar bears.
Courtesy Nunatsiaq News
Belugas trapped between two small breathing holes near Sanikiluaq, with blood from recent attacks by polar bears.
Courtesy Nunatsiaq News

Hunters in Sanikiluaq are still trying to harvest belugas which remain trapped in two six-foot-wide breathing holes in the sea ice about 60 miles south of the Hudson Bay community in Canada. So far, hunters have landed 24 whales, although polar bears has already killed about 20 of the trapped belugas while wounding others.

“They are fewer now. Otherwise there’s not much that’s changed [since last week],” hunter Peter Kattuk, a former MLA for Hudson Bay, told Nunatsiaq News Feb. 18.

The ice around the breathing holes is now getting broken up by the current and the wind, and there could another opening for the trapped belugas underwater that the hunters don’t know about yet, he said.

Kattuk, who first spotted the belugas early last week, went to the place where the whales remain trapped over the weekend. Hunters ran into only one polar bear that showed up when they were cutting up the beluga meat, he said.

“There’s been no tracks since we’ve been there,” said Kattuk, adding that hunters have gone out every day, except Sunday.

“We have no choice but to kill them all,” he said.

The polar bears have killed mostly young calves, according to hunter Lucassie Arragutainaq who was at the breathing holes last week.

Due to changing ice conditions, it’s not unusual that belugas end up trapped in ice where they are at risk of predation or death from exhaustion, starvation or suffocation.

In December 2011, about 100 belugas were trapped in the northeastern Russian region of Chuktotka — an icebreaker was sent into the free the whales, but finally had to call off the rescue mission.

In Tuktoyaktuk in the Northwest Territories belugas were trapped in the narrows leading into the southern Husky Lakes in 2006 and 2007.

“Situations where marine mammals are trapped by the ice are not unusual in the North,” Nathalie Letendre, a communications officer for the Department of Fisheries and Oceans, told Nunatsiaq News last month when a group of killer whales were trapped near Inukjuak, but managed to escape when the wind moved the ice.

This story first appeared in the Nunatsiaq News and is published in Alaska Dispatch with permission.