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A changing beluga harvest in Aklavik, Northwest Territories


Above: The Richardson Mountain range looms west of Aklavik. During snowy months, harvesters travel on snowmobiles to the mountains in search of game. Harvested mountain species chiefly include Dall's Sheep, muskox, caribou and wolves.

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For two months this summer, Elizabeth Worden (Masters of Arts in Geography - University of Manitoba) collaborated with Aklavik, Northwest Territories on a project examining the community’s beluga harvest, how it has changed in peoples’ memory, and what they anticipate in the future. In addition to time spent in Aklavik, Elizabeth also traveled to the coast of the Beaufort Sea in Yukon Territory, accompanying community members to their traditional fishing and whaling camp. By immersing herself in various on-the-land activities and learning through experience, she gained a deeper, more holistic understanding of Aklavik’s current subsistence lifestyle and what changes have affected it in recent years.

The Mackenzie Delta is a fertile and biodiverse environment; bountiful with fish, furbearing mammals (fox, lynx, wolf, beaver, muskrat), migratory birds, and larger game (moose, caribou, muskox, sheep, bear). Inuvialuit and Gwich’in have harvested the vast array of species in a seasonal cycle for time immemorial. During specific periods of time each year, Inuvialuit travel to the coast to harvest marine species such as beluga, fish and sometimes seals, as well as to hunt the Porcupine Caribou Herd along their migratory route.

Working with two local research assistants, Dorothy Ross and Clarence Kowana, Elizabeth interviewed 32 individuals in Aklavik in order to gain community perspective on the dynamics of the beluga harvest. Although the interviews were conversational and open-ended, they were always structured around three main research objectives:

  1. Characterize historical relations between community members in Aklavik and beluga whales, broadening the scope to include the yearly subsistence harvest cycle

  2. Document and describe how these relations have changed over time, including the drivers of change (e.g. social, cultural, economic, political, environmental)

  3. Assess the implication of these changes for subsistence livelihoods and the beluga harvest

People in Aklavik were incredibly friendly and helpful, offering important insight on changes affecting their lifestyles. The Aklavik Hunters and Trappers Committee was especially forthcoming, providing support and suggestions to guide the project as it progressed throughout the summer. Elizabeth hopes to return to Aklavik in Spring 2018 to share the project’s progress and receive feedback from interested individuals, and revisit participants to verify their contributions and ensure that everything is being properly represented. Following the model for community-based research, this project’s success lies with meaningful collaboration, communication and feedback between researcher and community.

Elizabeth is excited to continue working with Aklavik to produce meaningful results that could support the beluga hunt through the sharing of knowledge and experiences.

Above: The largest delta in Northern America, the Mackenzie Delta is critical to the rich biodiversity that exists in this northern corner of the Northwest Territories and Yukon. It draws the treeline far north and hosts a vast array of species, which in turn support the lifestyles of Ummarmiut Inuvialuit and Gwichya and Teetl'it Gwich'in.


Above: Inuvialuit Elder Joe Arey hanging Arctic Cisco to dry after being freshly filleted. Dryfish is a staple summer food for both Inuvialuit and Gwich'in, made either from marine or freshwater species. Inuvialuit on the coast harvest the plentiful Arctic Cisco population to provide country food year-round.

Above: Inuvialuit Elder Nellie Arey preparing killitaq - whale dry meat soaked in whale oil. This is but one of many traditional ways of preparing different parts of the beluga. Photo credit: Kayla Arey

Above: Elizabeth Worden having a chuckle while trying to figure out how to properly hold a rather large 'jackfish', or Northern Pike. Although these fish are rarely consumed due to their boniness, they are a frequent catch in the Mackenzie Delta, and will always put up a good fight when reeled in.

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