Manitoba is asking Ottawa to bolster protection of habitats belonging to the largest concentration of beluga whales in the world.
Key to the province’s Beluga Habitat Sustainability Plan, released on Friday, is to include participation from developers and governments to preserve and protect belugas in the area.
Every summer, roughly 57,000 belugas migrate south and congregate near the estuaries of the Churchill, Nelson and Seal Rivers in western Hudson Bay – preferred meeting places of the whales that remain unprotected. Whales travel to these regions to reproduce, tend their young and eat. Shallow, warm water provides a sanctuary from predators like orcas.
The whales don’t face the critical environmental implications their cousins do in the St. Lawrence and Saguenay rivers. The whales are in healthy condition, said Chris Debicki, Nunavut projects director for The Pew Charitable Trusts' Oceans North Canada, which assisted Manitoba in coming up with the plan.
“One of the important things for us is to advocate not only for species and their habitat when they’re in serious jeopardy, but also to advocate for species in areas where they’re still doing really well,” he said. “Our view five years ago from a science perspective was this particular population and this particular summer habitat was somewhat neglected or understudied relative to other belugas in other areas.”
Mr. Debicki said increased research and monitoring of the area will yield a better understanding of the whales and the most suitable approach to ward off threats.
Large clusters of whales also mean they’re more vulnerable to the changing circumstances of their environments, he said. Seal River is the only waterway untouched by development such as hydroelectric projects.
“Belugas are really on the radar in terms of future development within the province in a way they might not have been in the past,” Mr. Debicki said. “Any future changes and considerations to water flow and to their habitat generally will have to take into account the status of beluga.”
Potential threats listed in the plan are receding sea ice, noise, pollution, hydroelectric development and boat traffic. The plan notes that future noise from ships and port activities could affect the whales, as could tourist-boat traffic. Belugas are worth nearly $6-million annually in ecotourism for Churchill.
Climate change is the biggest unknown. South Hudson Bay has lost sea ice faster than almost anywhere else in the North. Local numbers of orcas, which prey on belugas, are already increasing.
Manitoba wants to see the Arctic Waters Pollution Prevention Act encompass the estuaries of the three rivers. It would restrict pollution from ship traffic. It also wants the Liberal government to consider the area for its National Marine Conservation program.
Manitoba Conservation and Water Stewardship Minister Tom Nevakshonoff said Minister of Fisheries and Oceans Hunter Tootoo will travel to the area next week to discuss a proper strategy.
With a report from The Canadian PressReport Typo/Error
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