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Why Storytelling Is Crucial To Science

The harsh, expansive Arctic terrain makes it difficult to study animals and ecosystems in the winter. Researchers are racing against time to unlock the mysteries of the Arctic, but it is already changing. Inuit have lived in the Arctic for hundreds of years. They have lifetimes of knowledge of the land that they pass down from generation to generation through their oral histories. Discover how traditional knowledge and western science work together to solve some mysteries of Canada’s Arctic.


Monitoring Beluga Health

Belugas are important indicators of ecosystem health, but they are hard to access and study in the remote and harsh Arctic environment. They’re also an important part of Inuit diet. Their skin and blubber is rich in essential fatty acids and vitamins A and C, which are otherwise difficult to get in the remote Arctic communities. 

The traditional hunt in Arctic coastal communities provides a unique opportunity for scientists to study beluga health. Hunters from Tuktoyaktuk team up with Fisheries and Oceans Canada scientists to sample caught belugas.

In the picture on the right, Frank Pokiak—a beluga monitor—hands a piece of blubber to researchers to sample.  This information helps scientists study how contaminants, such as mercury and PCBs, are transported to the Arctic. It also helps them understand food web structure, as well as beluga diet and disease. This information is shared with the hunters, so they have a better picture of beluga and ecosystem health in their region.

Monitoring Beluga Health Credit: Stephen A. Raverty, AHC-BC MAL

Counting Whales

Belugas and narwhals make up a vital part of Inuit culture and the Arctic ecosystem. Keeping track of their population size and understanding migration patterns are important in making sure their populations stay healthy. We can monitor them in the following ways. Each of these methods, on their own, might not provide a clear idea of population size and range, but together they give researchers a much more complete picture. Some scientists find that they save time and make fewer mistakes if they work with local communities when they design their studies.

Aerial surveys: Taking photographs of beluga or narwhal populations from a plane is time-efficient and covers large areas, but doesn’t show underwater animals and only provide a snapshot in time. Scientists would also need to know the range of a population to get full coverage.
Satellite tagging: Satellite tagging is expensive and difficult to accomplish in large numbers, but provides information on population range and individual migrations by locating animals every time they surface. Satellite tags also provide oceanographic information like water temperature and salinity. 
Traditional knowledge and local observations: This method includes generations of history and knowledge that covers long time spans over years and across seasons. However, this knowledge is usually not recorded, mainly limited to areas where people are living and is descriptive rather than quantitative.

An example: Dr. Hammill tracks belugas with satellite tags to gather information on their habitats and migration routes. He’s found that in eastern Hudson Bay, the belugas go back and forth between the coast and offshore waters in the summer, and they leave Hudson Bay in the winter. But local Inuit hunters told him they often see belugas close to the coast in the summer. They also said the belugas stay in the area in the winter. 

The information from these two sources may seem contradictory at first, but putting them into context provides a better understanding of the big picture. Hunters tend to stay near the coast, so it's likely they don't have much of a chance to see belugas in offshore waters. They spend a lot of time hunting, however, so their observations take place over a longer time span. Satellite tags, on the other hand, aren't constrained by location, but they only give information on a few tagged belugas over a short period of time. This information doesn't necessarily reflect the location and movement of the entire population. 

Like pieces of a puzzle, these two sources of information provide a better idea of the big picture. 

Whale Versus Whale

Once hunted to near extinction for their oil and baleen, bowhead whales are now making a recovery. But as the Arctic warms, killer whales are moving into the area. Bowheads use Foxe Basin, in the eastern Arctic, as a nursery area for their calves. Researcher Jeff Higdon believes that the heavy ice at the mouth of the Basin protects bowheads from killer whale attacks. Bowheads can navigate through the ice, but killer whales cannot. 

Now, with the warming of the Arctic, killer whales have been seen more frequently in the area. Some scientists believe that killer whales have little impact on bowheads. They’ve studied hundreds of photos of bowhead tails (flukes), and they’ve seen little evidence of scarring from killer whale attacks. The picture on the right is a rare photo of this type of scarring.

But Inuit who live in Foxe Basin report that killer whales kill about five or six bowheads every year. If killer whales do attack bowheads, they could be detrimental to the bowheads’ recovery—and the people who rely on them for food. This is an instance where scientists and locals can work together to solve an important mystery—before it’s too late.

Whale Markings Credit: Jeff Higdon, DFO

Making Trails

The Arctic’s harsh, remote environment can make long-term research difficult. But Inuit hunters in Clyde River, Nunavut, have worked with engineers to develop a customized PDA (Personal Digital Assistant) that could help unlock some of the mysteries of the Arctic. The gadget includes a GPS (Global Positioning System), weather station, observation system and camera. It lets hunters easily record their observations of the environment as they travel—animal sightings, information on the land and sea ice conditions, and hazards such as thin ice or dangerous cracks. In the photo above, Clyde River hunters Laimikie Palluq (left) and Apiusie Apak log observations while testing the unit in January 2009. 

The information from this project—called the Igliniit (Trails) Project—can be used to create maps that track changes in travel routes, sea ice, harvests, animal habitats and migrations over time and space. The maps can then be used to help:

  • make more informed decisions in communities
  • collaborations between local communities and scientists
  • research and rescue missions
  • land use planning
  • environmental monitoring
Making Trails Credit: Shari Gearheard
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