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Beluga Whale

Delphinapterus Leucus - "Qilalugao"

Population Status


Beluga whales arrive in the Beaufort Sea during May and June following an offshore migration (hundreds of kilometres offshore of the Yukon coast) through the pack-ice, and aggregate in the Mackenzie River estuary during the month of July. The westernmost parts of this estuary aggregation occur within Yukon coastal waters, specifically near, and offshore of, the Shingle Point area.

During and after the estuarine aggregation period, belugas make extensive use of the waters offshore of the NWT and Yukon. They are commonly seen in nearshore areas as well. These waters comprise only a fraction of the summer range of the stock and that the whales are highly mobile, moving great distances and traveling up to 100 km per day. The return migration takes place through both coastal and offshore waters during August and September, and a portion of the stock passes westward offshore of the Yukon en route to the Bering Sea. In 1997, belugas tagged in the Mackenzie Delta moved westward along the Yukon coast, using a variety of routes ranging from nearshore to hundred's of km offshore, and aggregated near Wrangel Island for the months of October and November before proceeding through the Bering Strait.

Population size:

The size of the beluga population is estimated at a minimum of 40,000 beluga. This is Canada’s largest population of beluga.

Population trend:

The available data suggest the stock is stable or increasing.

Unique or special characteristics:

  • Belugas of this stock concentrate in the Mackenzie River estuary, which includes some waters off the Yukon coast, in very large numbers each July. This behaviour makes them susceptible to human perturbations such as industrial activity, barge and ship traffic, tourism activities, and hunting.
  • The stock is also harvested by Alaska Inupiat during spring and fall migrations along the north and west coasts of Alaska. It is thus a species of considerable international status and usage, and could be the target of whale protection activities in the future, given the International Whaling Commission's recent interest in small whale management.

Habitat Features

During July, belugas appear attracted to the warm estuarine waters of the Mackenzie River estuary. At one time, it was concluded that the warm waters were beneficial to the beluga for calf-rearing. More recent evidence indicates they are seeking appropriate substrate for "rubbing," to facilitate the annual moult, which goes on at this time.

At the same time as thousands of beluga aggregate in the estuary, others are widely distributed throughout the cold and clear offshore waters. It also appears that the whales regularly move between the warm nearshore water and the cold offshore waters during July and, by August, are widely distributed throughout the offshore. Large numbers of males are now known to travel to Viscount Melville Sound, presumably to feed. It is believed that the offshore offers abundant food resources such as Arctic cod.



Inuvialuit of Aklavik, Inuvik, and Tuktoyaktuk conduct an annual subsistence harvest of beluga whales in the Mackenzie River estuary. This harvest is extremely important to the residents of the Delta communities, supplying a significant portion of their annual nutrition and an important cultural/traditional activity.

Under the IFA, the Aklavik Hunters and Trappers Committee has the authority to develop bylaws that apply to the Inuvialuit harvest of specific species, if required. NWT laws must then reflect these bylaws; bylaws may also be reflected in Ivvavik National Park regulations and Yukon wildlife regulations. Aklavik HTC (together with Inuvik and Tuktoyaktuk HTCs) regulate Inuvialuit harvest through bylaws. AHTC bylaws for the harvesting of beluga are currently in place. The Fisheries Joint Management Committee makes recommendations to the Minister of Fisheries on the setting of harvest levels, if required.

From 1988 to 1999 Inuvialuit harvest data was collected through the Inuvialuit Harvest Study. In the period from 1988 to 1997, the average annual harvest reported by Aklavik residents was 19 belugas. The annual ISR-wide harvest over this time was 129.

Inuvialuit harvesting rights to beluga whale



There is no harvest reported by non-Inuvialuit. Marine mammal regulations apply.

Other resident harvesting

Harvesting by other natives for subsistence purposes is allowed without a license. Non-native harvesting for subsistence purposes must apply for and receive a license.

Harvesting Rights
Offshore Preferential Harvesting by other natives for subsistence purposes is allowed without a license. Non-native harvesting for subsistence purposes must apply for and receive a license.

The Fisheries Joint Management Committee sponsors and coordinates the annual harvest monitoring program for the Mackenzie estuary beluga harvest, and this includes harvests from Yukon coastal waters by residents of Aklavik. The program involves counting, sampling, and measuring whales taken in the harvest, and a number of other activities. The data are collected by a harvest monitor who is a local hunter hired specifically for this purpose.

Harvest numbers through hunter recall were also collected by the Inuvialuit Harvest Study, from 1988 to 1999. Between 1988 and 1997, the average annual harvest reported by Aklavik residents was 19. Funding and support for the collection of harvest data is supplied through the IFA and other agencies.


Whale viewing by tourists and subsistence whaling are generally not compatible activities. In order to realize the opportunities associated with tourism, and at the same time preserve this important and traditional harvesting activity, the local Hunters and Trappers Committees developed guidelines for their own memberships surrounding beluga harvesting and tourism activities.


Potential threats to beluga whales would include any activity that could disrupt calf rearing, moulting, migration, or feeding activity. Any number of industrial or local activities could fall into this category.

Species at Risk Status


Research and Monitoring

Population monitoring:

In the 1970s and 1980s, aerial surveys were flown to monitor whale distribution and abundance. The harvest of beluga has been monitored annually beginning in 1977, and continues to the present. There is an ongoing program to record species observed on Herschel Island.


The beluga of the Mackenzie Delta and Beaufort Sea have been relatively well studied. The effects of industrial activities on beluga were examined. More recently, the FJMC has sponsored a number of programs concerned with beluga. In most cases, the programs were funded by FJMC, and delivered by DFO biologists and local Inuvialuit technicians. The programs include (1) a traditional knowledge study and enhancement of the present beluga monitoring study, (2) satellite telemetry study to examine movements and distribution, (3) an aerial survey to provide an index of abundance, and (4) a DNA study to examine genetic relationships with beluga taken in Alaska and other parts of Canada. A study to examine beluga whale health, reproduction and contaminant levels was initiated in the Mackenzie Delta in 2000.


While there is still considerable amount to be learned about the Beaufort Sea beluga stock, knowledge of the stock has been greatly increased, with the Beaufort Sea Beluga Management Plan in place and continuing research programs.

A list of monitoring gaps and recommendations for future monitoring identified in 2005 under the NWT Cumulative Impact Monitoring Program include: data and information on range, movements, site fidelity, stock structure for beluga as indicator species; data on the impacts of development on beluga; and monitoring of ambient and anthropogenic underwater noise in the critical habitats used by beluga.


Management Jurisdictions
offshore IFA, Fisheries Act, Marine Mammal Regulations Department of Fisheries and Oceans Inuvialuit - Inupiat Beaufort Sea Beluga Whale Agreement

Beaufort Sea Beluga Management Plan (2001)

The management of beluga whales in Yukon coastal waters is overseen by the Inuvialuit and the Department ofFisheries and Oceans through the Fisheries Joint Management Committee established under the Inuvialuit Final Agreement (1984), the Fisheries Act, and its regulations. In 1991, the FJMC, DFO and local Hunters and Trappers Committees ratified the Beaufort Sea Beluga Management Plan, providing a framework for beluga management in this region. The Inuvialuit Inupiat Beaufort Sea Beluga Whale Agreement has also been signed.

Community-based Information

Community-based information on beluga whales may be found in the reports of the annual community-based monitoring program conducted in Aklavik and neighbouring communities by the Arctic Borderlands Ecological Knowledge Co-op.

In 2004, the Inuvialuit Cultural Resources Centre prepared a report titled “Tariurmiutuakun qanuq atuutiviksaitlu ilitchuriyaqput ingilraan Inuvialuit qulianginnin = Learning about marine resources and their use through Inuvialuit oral history”. Transcripts from two Inuvialuit oral history collections were reviewed to see what could be learned about marine resources and their use within the southeastern Beaufort Sea. The study area included the coast from the Yukon/United States border in the west to the Franklin Bay area in the east. Information was compiled on beluga and bowhead whales, some coastal birds, fish, polar bears and seals, in an effort to provide a foundation for developing future projects on Inuvialuit knowledge of marine resources.

Related Literature and Information Sources

Barber, D., E. Saczuk and P. Richard. 2001. Examination of Beluga-Habitat Relationships through the Use of Telemetry and a Geographic Information System Arctic. 54 (3): 305–316

Byers, T. and L. W. Roberts. 1995. Harpoons and ulus: collective wisdom and traditions of Inuvialuit regarding the beluga ("qilalugaq") in the Mackenzie River estuary. Byers Environmental Studies and Sociometrix Inc. Available: Fisheries Joint Management Committee, Box 2120, Inuvik, NT Canada X0E 0T0. 76p.

Duval, W. (ed.). 1993. Proceedings of a workshop on Beaufort Sea beluga, February 3-6, 1992, Vancouver, B.C. ESRF Report Series No. 123. Sponsored by FJMC, DFO and ESRF.

Erbe, C. and D. Farmer. 2000. Zones of impact around icebreakers affecting beluga whales in the Beaufort Sea. The Journal of the Acoustical Society of America.108 (3): 1332-1340

Harwood, L. Personal Communication, Department of Fisheries and Oceans, Yellowknife.

Harwood, L., S. Innes and P. Norton. 1994. The distribution and abundance of beluga whales in the offshore Beaufort Sea, Amundsen Gulf and Mackenzie Delta, July 1992. Prep. by Department of Fisheries and Oceans, Inuvik for Fisheries Joint Management Committee.

Harwood, L.A., S. Innes, P. Norton and M.C.S. Kingsley. 1996. Distribution and abundance of beluga whales in the Mackenzie Estuary, southeast Beaufort Sea, and west Amundsen Gulf during late July 1992. Canadian Journal of Fisheries and Aquatic Sciences 53: 2262-2273.

Harwood, L.A., P. Norton, B. Day and P. Hall. 2002. The Harvest of Beluga Whales in Canada’s Western Arctic: Hunter-Based Monitoring of the Size and Composition of the Catch. Arctic 55 (1):10–20

Harwood, L. and T Smith. 2002. Whales of the Inuvialuit Settlement Region in Canada's Western Arctic: An Overview and Outlook. Arctic. 55 (1) pp. 77-93

Joint Secretariat, 2003. Inuvialuit Harvest Study, Data and Methods Report 1988 – 1997. Inuvik, NT.

Norton, P. and L. Harwood. 1985. White whale use of the southeastern Beaufort Sea, July - September 1984. Can. Tech. Report Fish. Aquat. Sci. 1401.

Richard, P.R., A.R. Martin and J.R. Orr. 1996. FJMC/ESRF/DFO Beaufort Beluga Tagging Project, 1992-1995 Final Report. Department of Fisheries and Oceans, Winnipeg.