Last week, Tuktoyaktuk resident Hazel Nuyaviak packed her bags to spend almost a month doing specialized beluga sampling on an island at the mouth of the Mackenzie River.
She will be collecting tissue samples from the whales brought in by local hunters using more complicated processes than those used by the regular beluga monitors stationed at the Hendrickson Island research station.
While beluga monitor positions have been filled with people from Tuk since the 1970s, the specialized sampling work Nuyaviak will be doing has historically only been done by research scientists from the south.
When pandemic travel restrictions prevented these scientists from making their usual trip north, the Tuktoyaktuk Hunters and Trappers Committee (HTC) decided it was time to develop this specialized skill set locally.
“The biologists and ourselves realized we’re capable of doing that sampling within the community,” explained Darrel Nasogaluak, president of the Tuk HTC.
The sampling work usually done by southern researchers involves blood sampling, DNA preservation, and the collection and examination of other organs, such as the brain, spleen, or diaphragm.
When the biologists could not make it into the territory, these responsibilities were transferred to Tuktoyaktuk resident Lionel Kikoak, who has been extensively involved in beluga research on the island since 2015 and was the only person ready to take on these additional responsibilities.
After that experience, Nasogaluak realized Kikoak should not be the only person in town capable of doing this specialized work.
‘It’s good to keep up to date on the stuff that we eat’
The regular monitoring work, that has been ongoing for almost 50 years, involves preparing basic tissue samples from belugas to be sent to a Winnipeg lab for further study.
These samples are used to determine basic health of the population, including presence of contaminants and diseases, and provide information about diet.
This year, the HTC worked with the federal Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO) to offer a training that would expand the scope of what Tuk residents can contribute to the long-term project of tracking the health of local beluga populations.
Three women attended a one-day training at the Tuk HTC last month. Participants were shown how to process blood samples, separating red from white blood cells, and to isolate specific blubber layers for further analysis.
Chanisse Kuptana was one of the participants. While she wasn’t chosen for this year’s position, she said she still valued the training.
“We eat those animals and so it’s nice to know what’s going on with them and how they live and how far they migrate from,” Kuptana told Cabin Radio.
Hazel Nuyaviak, the woman chosen for the work this year, said she has spent a lot of time butchering belugas, but has never been involved in this kind of research.
“Our whole community eats this stuff so it’s good to keep up to date on the stuff that we eat,” she said.
‘The goal is to build more and more local capacity’
Nasogaluak said over the 30 years this sampling has been going on, the research has painted a good picture of the overall health of the beluga population that moves through the Beaufort Sea.
“We have our monitors out there every year to count the whales and take biological samples just to get the overall health of beluga whales over time,” Nasogaluak said, adding that so far, the belugas have been extremely healthy.
“Now we can do the sampling we usually bring in southern researchers for.”
Lisa Loseto is a research scientist with DFO and has been involved with the beluga research at Hendrickson Island for many years.
“Ideally, the goal is to build more and more local capacity and to have fewer scientists from the south present,” she said.
Loseto explained sampling and monitoring priorities are different from year to year based on the questions and priorities of the community.
She said over the pandemic the community was interested in collecting data to understand what is happening to primary food sources the whales depend on.
A new project this year will involve taking whole stomachs to look at the level of microplastics being consumed by the belugas, which she said several communities have identified an important research topic.
While the ultimate goal is a reduced research team traveling from the south to the station every year, this won’t happen immediately, and will depend on the research priorities of the given year.
“Next year we’re looking at doing an intensive health assessment, which would require a greater presence of researchers, including veterinarians, at the station,” Loseto said.
“But this would also offer new capacity building opportunities.”
Loseto said while funding has yet to be secured, she has seen a lot of enthusiasm for this project and does not anticipate any problems keeping the beluga sampling position alive in future years.