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Bowhead Whale

Balaena Mysticetus - "Arviq"

Population Status


Bowheads have a nearly circumpolar distribution in the northern hemisphere. There are 3 recognized populations in Canada. Bowhead whales found in the Inuvialuit Settlement Region are part of the western Arctic stock (Bering-Chukchi-Beaufort population). This population overwinters in the Bering Sea and undertakes an annual migration to the Beaufort Sea and Amundsen Gulf summering areas. They arrive during May and June, and occur singularly or in pairs throughout offshore waters until about mid-August. From mid-August through to late September, they tend to form large, loose aggregations at a number of important, recurrent feeding areas. One of these areas, located in Yukon coastal waters offshore of Shingle Point and King Point, appears particularly important to sub-adult animals and is used extensively by feeding whales in most years. Coastal waters to the west, such as offshore of Komakuk, are also important to bowheads. After the aggregation period, the return migration takes place through both coastal and offshore waters during August through to October. Like beluga, presumably most of the stock passes westward offshore of Yukon en route to the Bering Sea.

The other two Canadian populations are the Hudson Bay-Foxe Basin population and Davis Strait-Baffin Bay population. The Hudson Bay-Foxe Basin population summers mainly in northwestern Hudson Bay and northern Foxe Basin, and may winter in northern Hudson Bay and Hudson Strait. The Davis Strait-Baffin Bay population summers in the Lancaster Sound region and western Baffin Bay and winters in Davis Strait.

Population size:

 In 2001, the Bering-Chukchi-Beaufort population consisted of approximately 10,470 whales.

Population trend:

The population is increasing at an estimated annual rate of


Unique or special characteristics:


  • Depending on a number of factors, bowheads can be susceptible to industrial logistics traffic (boats, planes, barges) and possibly oil spills (fouling of baleen). Bowheads generally communicate at low frequencies, similar to frequencies emitted from industrial sources, and thus are at greater risk for disturbance or masking than other species such as beluga whales which communicate at higher frequencies.

Habitat Features

There are three to four known locations in the Beaufort Sea and Amundsen Gulf that are important August-September feeding sites for bowhead whales. In situ sampling for zooplankton amidst feeding bowhead whales demonstrated dense concentrations of larger forms (shrimp, amphipods, fish larvae) in the offshore feeding areas, as well as dense concentrations of the smaller copepods ("soup") in the nearshore waters offshore of King Point and Shingle Point, Yukon, at the interface of the Mackenzie River plume, and at the offshore approximately 40 km due north of Shingle Point. Upwelling of nutrient-rich waters at these coastal locations (related to frontal dynamics, bathymetry, and prevailing winds) produces favourable feeding conditions for bowheads in some, but not all, years.



Fisheries Joint Management Committee makes recommendations to the Minister of Fisheries regarding harvest levels. Terms and conditions of the harvest are determined by the Aklavik Hunters and Trappers Committee that details of hunt plan (e.g. kind of boat, organization of hunt, etc.). A Bowhead Management Strategy is prepared by the Aklavik HTC, FJMC, and DFO, and all sign before the hunt is underway.

In June 1988, the community of Aklavik submitted a formal proposal to the Inuvialuit Game Council to harvest bowhead whales from the inshore Beaufort Sea. The IGC gave its officially supported shortly thereafter. FJMC then recommended to the Minister of Fisheries and Oceans that a licence be issued to the Aklavik HTC to permit the taking of that whale.

From summer 1988 to summer 1991, many discussion meetings were held among the FJMC, Aklavik HTC, DFO officials, the US government, and the Alaska Eskimo Whaling Commission concerning this application. The appropriate legislation was prepared, a hunt plan was written, and the bowhead whale management strategy prepared. On August 16, 1991, the Minister of Fisheries and Oceans announced a licence would be issued for a 1991 harvest (one bowhead landed, or two struck, whichever came first), and on September 3, 1991, a 37-foot male was struck in the King Point area and landed at Shingle Point.

This whale represented the first bowhead landed by the residents of Aklavik in more than 40 years, and thus the renewal of this important traditional activity. The issuance of the 1991 licence to Aklavik demonstrated DFO’s commitment to the provisions of the IFA and a significant achievement in terms of cooperative management in this region. A second bowhead was landed in 1996 (a 37-foot male).No further licences have been requested by, or issued to, the Aklavik HTC since 1996.

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.


There is a subsistence harvest of the Bering-Chukchi-Beaufort population by Alaskan Inuit. A quota of 280 bowhead whales was set for 1999-2002, of which a total of 67 (plus up to 15 unharvested in the previous year) could be taken each year. The annual average subsistence take during the 5-year period from 1999 to 2003 is 40 bowhead whales.

Commercial trade in bowhead products is prohibited.


There are opportunities for viewing large numbers of bowhead whales during coastal overflights between Shingle Point and King Point, and along the coast near Herschel Island. If aircraft altitudes of 1500 ft are maintained, little disturbance of the bowhead whales is anticipated. On the other hand, extensive boat traffic (and underwater noise) may cause temporary disruption of feeding and movement of the whales from the area for several hours.


Potential threats to bowhead whales would include any activity that could disturb the whales and thereby disrupt calf rearing, feeding, or migration. Any number of industrial or local activities could fall into this category. Bowhead aggregate to feed. This behaviour makes them more susceptible to disturbance simply because of the potential for greater numbers of whales to be affected at one time. Any activity expected to have a zone of influence encompassing one or more of the large feeding aggregations poses a greater threat than activities that do not. Offshore oil development, ecosystem changes due to climate change (including sea ice retreat), and increasing shipping traffic, within its range could impact the population.

Species at Risk Status

Special concern (see COSEWIC below)
The Western Arctic population (Bering-Chukchi-Beaufort population) of bowhead whales was designated endangered in April 1986. In May 2005, it was and designated special concern based on an update status report. Also in May 2005, the same updated status report designated the Davis Strait-Baffin Bay population and the Hudson Bay-Foxe Basin population as threatened.
The bowhead is listed as an Appendix 1 species. Commercial trade in bowhead products is prohibited.

Bowhead whales are currently listed as Endangered under the US Endangered Species Act of 1973 and as Depleted under the US Marine Mammal Protection Act of 1972.

Research and Monitoring

Population monitoring:

The FJMC and DFO take measurements and sample tissue of any landed whale. There is also a program underway to obtain samples from beached whales. There is also an ongoing program to record species observed on Herschel Island.


There has been extensive study of western Arctic bowhead whales and their habitats. Much of this has been funded and carried out by US scientists and agencies. Programs have included visual and acoustic census, photogrammetry, effects of industrial activities on behaviour, distribution, feeding, and reproductive rate, and movement/satellite telemetry. In Canadian portions of the Bowhead’s range, including Yukon coastal waters, research occurred primarily between 1980 and1986. Much of this work was driven by the presence of the oil and gas industry in the region.

Deficiencies:More information about the movements and distribution of bowhead whales, particularly females with calves, is necessary to assess potential effects of industrial activities on the stock.

A list of monitoring gaps and recommendations for future monitoring identified in 2005 under the NWT Cumulative Impact Monitoring Program include: determining the cause of death of bowhead whales that are being washed up annually in the Amundsen Gulf and discovered by Inuvialuit harvesters in the rim communities, and the monitoring of ambient and anthropogenic underwater noise in the critical habitats used by bowhead.


The species is legally protected in Canada under the Cetacean Protection Regulations of 1982, with hunting allowed only by permit.

In Canada, management of bowhead whales is the responsibility of the Department of Fisheries and Oceans. However, in the Inuvialuit Settlement Region, management regimes reflect the provisions of the Inuvialuit Final Agreement. Management of the resources is undertaken cooperatively, with full involvement of both the resource users and the government agency through the Fisheries Joint Management Committee.

Management Jurisdictions
Offshore IFA Department of Fisheries and Oceans Inuvialuit - Inupiat Beaufort Sea Beluga Whale Agreement Beaufort Sea Beluga Management Plan (2001)

Fisheries Act, Marine Mammal Regulations

Community-based Information

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

Angliss, R. P., and R. B. Outlaw. 2005. Alaska marine mammal stock assessments, 2005. U.S. Dep. Commer., NOAA Tech. Memo. NMFSAFSC-161, 250 p.

Burns, J., J. Montague and C. Cowles (eds). 1993. The bowhead whale. Special Publ. No. 2, The Society for Marine Mammalogy, Kansas.

COSEWIC 2005. COSEWIC assessment and update status report on the bowhead whale Balaena mysticetus in Canada. Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada. Ottawa.

George, J., J. Zeh and C. Clark. 2004. Abundance and Population Trend (1978-2001) of Western Arctic Bowhead Whales Surveyed Near Barrow, Alaska Marine Mammal Science. 20 (4): 755-773.

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

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

Treacy, S., J. Gleason snd C. Cowles. 2006. Offshore distances of bowhead whales (Balaena mysticetus) observed during fall in the Beaufort Sea, 1982-2000 : an alternative interpretation. Arctic. 59 (1): 83-90.