Two of three recognized populations of narwhals occur in Canada (Baffin Bay and Hudson Bay). The third occurs in East Greenland. The populations are distinguished by their summering distributions, which may not reflect the degree of interchange between them. The East Greenland population is not thought to enter Canadian waters. Narwhals from the Baffin Bay population summer in the waters of West Greenland and the Canadian High Arctic, and winter in Baffin Bay and Davis Strait. They range over an area of at least 1.25 million km². The degree of site fidelity within this shared population is unknown and it may in fact consist of several populations. Narwhals that summer in northwest Hudson Bay are believed to winter in eastern Hudson Strait and range over an area of roughly 250,000 km². The population affinity of animals that summer north of Baffin Bay and along the eastern and southern coasts of Baffin Island is unknown. Biologists have not identified any large-scale changes in the seasonal distribution of narwhals, but Inuit have observed local changes.
Narwhals inhabit a vast area of the Arctic, but little is known of their actual habitat requirements. In summer, they prefer coastal areas that offer deep water and shelter from the wind. During their fall migrations, and later while wintering in the pack ice, narwhals prefer deep fjords and the continental slope, where depths range from 1000 to 1500 m and upwellings may increase biological productivity. The quality of the ice habitat, particularly the presence of leads in fast ice and the density of broken pack ice, appears to influence habitat selection.
Narwhals generally travel in small groups in summer (<10 individuals), but gather in concentrations of many hundreds of animals during migrations in the spring and fall. Their diving ability enables them to move long distances under water and makes it difficult to obtain accurate population estimates. Narwhals eat a variety of fishes and invertebrates. Little is known about the physiological requirements of narwhals or their ability to adapt to environmental change or shifts in prey availability.
Special Significance of the Narwhal Species
Narwhals historically provided important staples in the traditional subsistence economy of the eastern Canadian Arctic and Greenland. Hunting and sharing of its proceeds continue to be of great social and cultural significance for some communities. Narwhals are harvested mainly for their maqtaq and ivory. The ivory commands high prices and is marketed internationally, while the maqtaq is consumed locally or traded to other Inuit communities. It is a highly-valued food and demand often exceeds supply. Ecologically, the narwhal is important as it is the only species in its genus and is an apex predator in the Arctic food chain. It generates avid public interest because of its unique "unicorn" tusk and the remoteness of its habitat, but has not been successfully displayed in capitivity.
Existing Protection or Other Status Designations for Narwhals
Protection for narwhals in Canada is limited to measures that manage the hunt, live capture, and movement of narwhal products. The Nunavut Wildlife Management Board is the main instrument of wildlife management in Nunavut. The Department of Fisheries and Oceans is a co-management partner who provides scientific advice and regulatory support. Other co-management partners are the Hunters and Trappers organizations and the Regional Wildlife organizations. Only Inuit can hunt narwhals and limits are placed on the number of animals each community can land. The species is listed in Appendix II of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES). Canada cooperates with Greenland in the conservation of shared narwhal populations. The Joint Commission on Conservation and Management of Narwhal and Beluga has not been able to determine the status of narwhal populations using the data available and Canada and Greenland are conducting surveys to collect new data.