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This article was published 7/1/2016 (1410 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
Hey there, time traveller! This article was published 7/1/2016 (1410 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
Manitoba wants federal protection for three northern river estuaries as part of an effort to preserve habitat along Hudson Bay for the world’s largest population of beluga whales.
The province’s new Beluga Habitat Sustainability Plan, slated to be published today, calls on Ottawa to place the mouths of the Churchill, Nelson and Seal Rivers within a new national marine-conservation area along Hudson Bay.
This move would protect feeding, moulting and calving areas for the estimated 57,000 beluga whales that summer in the shallow waters along Manitoba’s Hudson Bay coast. What’s formally known as the Western Hudson Bay population represents more than quarter of the global beluga whale population, estimated at 200,000.
"This is the largest population we have in the world, and it’s very healthy. Half of the others are under some kind of stress," said Kristin Westdal, a marine biologist with The Pew Charitable Trusts’ Oceans North Canada, a non-profit organization that worked with Manitoba to develop a beluga-habitat plan.
National marine-conservation areas, which are akin to underwater parks, are protected from activities such as ocean dumping, undersea mining and oil and gas exploration.
During the 2015 federal election campaign, the Liberal party pledged to protect five per cent of Canada’s 202,000-kilometre coastline within these areas by 2017 and then extend protection to 10 per cent of the coastline by 2020. Right now, Canada protects 1.3 per cent of its coastline, or 2,600 kilometres.
Manitoba Conservation and Water Stewardship Minister Tom Nevakshonoff said Ottawa is aware of the forthcoming request. The province also wants Ottawa to amend federal legislation governing the pollution of Arctic waters for areas south of the 60th parallel so it covers the Manitoban river estuaries frequented by belugas.
"We want to preserve this iconic species. Populations are healthy, and we want to keep them that way," Nevakshonoff said.
The call for federal protection is one facet of a Manitoba beluga-habitat plan that also calls for pollution management at the Port of Churchill, ship-traffic planning in and around the port, better monitoring of the Western Hudson Bay beluga population and protection of the rivers that flow through Manitoba into Hudson Bay.
Development along those rivers is cited in the strategy as a potential threat to Manitoba’s belugas, which so far have been spared from the environmental pollution that has led to cancers among the St. Lawrence River population, now listed as threatened.
Shipping and noise pollution are also listed as threats, along with climate change, which has the potential to reduce sea ice at the Hudson Bay belugas’ winter feeding grounds northeast of the bay, in Hudson Strait, the Labrador Sea and Davis Strait.
Sea ice in these bodies of water provides habitat for the algae that feed the fish that in turn are preyed upon by belugas. Belugas also use ice as cover to evade killer whales, which are becoming a more common presence in northern waters, including Hudson Bay.
Westdal said it’s unclear what the belugas will do if ice cover recedes. "They might just move to other areas, further north," she said.
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"That’s why we want to protect their summer habitat.
"They spend a lot of time in Manitoba coastal waters."
Pierre Richard, a retired federal biologist who is one of the world’s foremost beluga experts, said it’s important to have a plan in place before development proceeds at Churchill and elsewhere along Hudson Bay.
"Any kind of development that affects their habitat should be measured against the impacts that might have on the population," he said.
The Western Hudson Bay population of beluga whales is the largest in the world. Manitoba is now taking preliminary steps to protect their habitat.
Numbers: About 57,000, or more than a quarter of the global population, spend their summers along the Manitoba coast. There are especially high concentrations at the mouths of the Nelson River, Churchill River and Seal River.
What’s the attraction? Biologists hypothesize beluga calves save energy in the Hudson Bay coast’s warm and shallow waters, whose low salinity also promotes skin moulting. Biologists also believe the shallow water provides protection from predators such as killer whales and also offers feeding and socializing opportunities for the intelligent marine mammals.
Size: Hudson Bay belugas are among the smallest in the world, weighing between 400 and 600 kilograms and 2.5 to 3.5 metres in length. Worldwide, belugas can grow as heavy as 1,600 kilograms and 4.5 metres in length.
Hunted: By the Inuit, Dene and Cree for centuries, as food. Commercial whaling took place at Churchill and York Factory from the late 1800s to 1968. Live belugas were captured for aquariums from 1967 to 1992.
Ecotourism: Beluga-watching tours involving passenger boats, Zodiacs, kayaks or snorkelling operate between June 15 and Aug. 30, generating $5.6 million in annual business.
Threats: Noise, hydro development upstream, boat traffic, pollution and climate change.
The habitat plan: Calls on Ottawa to protect the Churchill, Nelson and Seal estuaries and extend Arctic pollution-control legislation to Manitoba waters. It also calls for a Port of Churchill pollution plan, a Hudson Bay shipping plan and better upstream protection.
— source: Manitoba Conservation and Water Stewardship