Each summer, as the sea ice recedes, more than 57,000 beluga whales return to the estuaries along western Hudson Bay in Manitoba. These inlets provide critical seasonal habitat for an estimated one-third of the planet's belugas. Congregating in the mouths of the Nelson, Churchill and Seal rivers, belugas molt, feed and calve, safe from predators. Tourists travel from around the world to witness the return of these magnificent white whales.
Belugas exhibit what marine biologists refer to as site fidelity, meaning social groups of whales called pods come back to the same locations. This behaviour makes them extremely vulnerable to any environmental threats to the estuaries.
To its credit, the Manitoba government announced last year it would help create the first beluga management plan for western Hudson Bay. Although its population of whales is thriving, Hudson Bay has experienced a dramatic reduction of sea ice in recent years -- open-water season lasts four weeks longer now than just a decade ago. More research is needed to understand what this shift means for the ecosystem. But it definitely makes ice-adapted species such as belugas more vulnerable to predators and other dangers.
A conservation strategy that addresses potential risks, including the impact of oil spills or traffic-related noise, must be put in place before major new proposals, such as shipping crude oil from the Port of Churchill, are seriously contemplated. The derailment of a freight train carrying grain en route to the port on June 3 is a reminder critical infrastructure improvements, spill avoidance and contingency planning must precede major shipments of any kind. A meaningful plan to protect belugas with a lasting legacy requires participation from all key stakeholders, including the federal government and the Port of Churchill.
The Manitoba government's proposed beluga-management plan is in the early stages of discussion. Depending on how it is written, it could provide a long-term plan to protect the whales and their critical marine habitat. It could also help ensure development decisions in this region take into account any adverse impacts on beluga populations in the early stages.
Churchill is Canada's only Arctic seaport. But little has been done to encourage its economic potential and its ecological future, or to ensure both can coexist for generations to come. The port's location at 59 degrees North means it is not covered by Canada's Arctic Waters Pollution Prevention Act -- the landmark federal legislation, introduced in 1970, applies only to shipping north of 60 degrees. The act allows for the imposition of more rigorous requirements on Arctic shipping because of the additional risks and increased vulnerability of northern ecosystems.
Such precaution would be well-advised, because the belugas that summer here are not only Manitoba's whales. In October, as ice starts to form on Hudson Bay, they travel along the Nunavut coast into Hudson Strait, where strong currents and ocean upwellings provide open water during the frigid winter months. In spring, they make the thousand-kilometre migration back to Manitoba, travelling past communities such as Ivujivik, Coral Harbour, Whale Cove and Arviat, where Inuit continue to rely upon the sustainable harvest of belugas -- an important part of a traditional diet and a healthy alternative to the expensive processed food sold in stores.
Inuit land-claim agreements in both the independent territory of Nunavut and Nunavik, in Quebec, provide constitutionally protected maritime rights in Hudson Bay. Even in areas such as Churchill, where land claims have not been settled, consultation with Inuit communities that have a vested interest in the ongoing health of Manitoba's estuaries should precede significant industrial change that might impact the belugas.
Once their habitat is lost, these whales' continued return to an area is far from certain. Shipping and industrial development in the St. Lawrence Estuary and Alaska's Cook Inlet resulted in dramatically declining populations of the whales in recent decades; they have not rebounded, despite efforts at rehabilitation. That's why it is crucial to take precautionary action to ensure the continued abundance of belugas, as Inuvialuit and federal resource officials did in the Mackenzie River delta. A management plan for those waters identified key habitat that was included in Tarium Niryutait, the Arctic's first marine protected area, announced by Prime Minister Stephen Harper in August 2010.
Manitobans want the Port of Churchill to provide a maritime connection to the world. Its role as the key supplier to the ship-dependent Central Arctic, and as a shortcut to European markets, should be rejuvenated. But the success of the port does not hinge on a hasty scheme to move crude oil. A robust beluga management plan must come first to ensure protection for the white whales of Hudson Bay.
Christopher Debicki oversees Nunavut project for the Pew Charitable Trusts' Oceans North Canada project, a science- and community-based Arctic conservation effort.