06/06/2012 02:01 EDT | Updated 08/06/2012 05:12 EDT

Inuit celebrate federal reversal on sale of narwhal tusks

Inuit hunters are celebrating the near-total reversal of a federal decision to block the export of narwhal tusks — an about-face that some Nunavut officials call a victory for traditional knowledge.

"Inuit know the population of narwhals has been increasing over the years," said James Eetoolook of Nunavut Tunngavik Inc., which administers the Nunavut land claim.

"Some of the (scientific) surveys were not accurate."

The decision means that almost all of the 17 Nunavut communities that were being refused export permits for the spectacular tusks will now be able to get them. The tusks, which can reach two metres in length, are highly valued by collectors and carvers and bring as much as $1.5 million a year into cash-starved Arctic communities.

The federal Department of Fisheries and Oceans made the decision to halt exports in December 2010. Although the medium-sized whale — sometimes called the unicorn of the sea — is found throughout the eastern Arctic in the tens of thousands and is regularly hunted for food, narwhal are listed as a species of special concern.

That meant that when aerial population surveys suggested some populations were shrinking, international treaties that have been signed by Ottawa kicked in. The Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species forbids trade in animals or animal parts that come under its purview unless they can shown to be sustainably harvested.

Inuit immediately objected that they hadn't been consulted on the survey results or the export ban and took Ottawa to court under the Nunavut Land Claim. The export ban was partially lifted last summer for some of the communities and this week's announcement removes it for most of the rest.

The only community still ineligible for the permits will be Grise Fiord on the southern tip of Ellesmere Island.

The lawsuit has been withdrawn.

David Gillis, director-general of ecosystem services for Fisheries and Oceans, acknowledged the 2010 decision was based on an analysis of data that was in cases more than a decade old. Fresh narwhal surveys in 2010 and 2011 produced different results.

"These two surveys happened to produce higher estimates than what our previous surveys had estimated," Gillis said. "On the basis of that new data, we were able to revise our view of sustainability.

"These are always estimates, and conditions at the time will affect the quality of the estimate."

Eetoolook said the original ban is an example of a decision based on flawed information without consultation with those who know the animal best.

"We need to see better surveys," he said. "We want to see Inuit included in the surveys."

Gillis said federal scientists do take traditional knowledge into account, especially for information about how animals behave. He said scientists consulted Inuit for the 2010 and 2011 surveys for advice on where to look.

"We are continuing to improve and refocus the degree to which we work with Inuit people, who are close to these resources. It's not unusual that surveys would be improved and tweaked."

Eetoolook said Inuit hunters kill about 700 narwhal a year and trade about 500 tusks. Now that exports will again be allowed, the price is expected to recover.

Food remains the primary reason narwhal are hunted. The skin, or maqtaq, is considered a delicacy and combines a chewy consistency with a delicate flavour.