A few years ago, I tagged along with a research team counting beluga whales in Canada’s western Hudson Bay. On one memorable July day, our boat was surrounded by 350 belugas, we spotted 11 polar bears and a bird expert recorded the sighting of 5,000 black scoters (an Arctic sea duck) in the water and an additional 4,000 flying overhead.
I was reminded of this staggering biological productivity by a recent report published by our Canadian partner, Oceans North, urging Canada’s federal government to make good on a promise to protect this beluga habitat by establishing a national marine conservation area in western Hudson Bay by 2020. Once established, a national marine park would ban oil and gas drilling, deep-sea mining and ocean dumping and would require ecosystem-based management of fishing. It would also create much-needed economic spinoffs for the town of Churchill, Manitoba, and nearby Indigenous communities, providing jobs, expanding tourism and triggering infrastructure improvements and new research.
Each summer, more than 55,000 beluga whales migrate to estuaries along Western Hudson Bay in the province of Manitoba. In the shallow waters of the Seal, Nelson and Churchill river estuaries, nearly one-third of the planet’s belugas gather to give birth, feed, molt and escape predation. Tourists from around the world flock to this region for a chance to see these awe-inspiring white whales in their natural habitat.
Collaborating with government scientists and Inuit partners, Oceans North has led beluga research in the Seal River region since 2012. That has included tagging and tracking six whales to learn about how they used the habitat and a boat-based survey to assess the density of beluga pods and their movements. Oceans North staff also worked with Inuit partners to organize an archaeological dig on Hubbard Point near the Seal River that uncovered evidence to prove Indigenous people have used this spot as a hunting camp for at least a thousand years.
Climate change and the resulting loss of sea ice means there’s an urgency to protecting the beluga estuaries of Western Hudson Bay. Earlier spring ice melts may put belugas at greater risk of predation by orca whales that previously had only limited access to this region. Vessel traffic is likely to increase with the loss of sea ice, resulting in environmental hazards such as pollution from fuel spills and a noisier marine environment.
Western Hudson Bay is one of the places in the Arctic that reminds us of the sheer abundance of the ocean. We applaud Oceans North for its years of work on this important issue and hope that Canada takes action soon to protect the beluga estuaries of Western Hudson Bay.