The province released a plan on Friday with recommendations on how to protect belugas that migrate to Manitoba's western Hudson Bay coastline. The province's conservation minister says he will also raise it with the federal fisheries minister when the two meet later this month.


Belugas consistently spend each summer on the western Hudson Bay coast and in the Nelson, Churchill and Seal river estuaries. (Pew Charitable Trusts’ Oceans North Canada)

"It's a stable population but we're dealing with a changing climate," said provincial conservation minister Tom Nevakshonoff of the belugas, which are the largest population in the world.

"This is one topic we'd like to discuss so the national government is fully engaged in this process."

The report includes recommendations including co-ordinating how ships move in the belugas' habitat, studying current pollution levels and making a waste plan at Churchill's port, expanding federal pollution and conservation protections in the area and continuing to stoke tourism interest in the iconic whales.

Beluga and calf

Each summer, belugas head to the river estuaries on the western coast of Hudson Bay to give birth to calves. (Pew Charitable Trusts’ Oceans North Canada)

The Beluga Habitat Sustainability Plan notes concerns about how "noise and disturbance (shipping, port development, and low flying aircraft noises), hydro-electric development, boat traffic, pollution (including port and rail accidents, and contaminants), and climate change," could impact belugas.

Nevaknoshoff describes the plan as a "discussion paper."

"It's putting it out there to get people aware of it, to get people thinking about it," he said.

'Incomparable natural wonder'

The report describes how each summer, approximately 57,000 belugas descend upon Manitoba's western Hudson Bay coast, creating "an incomparable natural wonder." The Seal, Churchill and Nelson river estuaries become prime whale-watching areas. It's not entirely clear why the whales enjoy hanging out in the estuaries, but escaping predators and calving are two possibilities.

It says belugas bring in about $5.6 million in tourism dollars in about two months.

Christopher Debicki

Christopher Debicki, project director with Oceans North Canada describes belugas as "an incredible species of whale." (Jeff Stapleton/CBC)

"Belugas are an incredible species of whale. I think Raffi probably has instilled that at an early age in most North American children," said Christopher Debicki, project director at The Pew Charitable Trusts' Oceans North Canada, an Arctic environmental campaign that worked with the province on the plan.

"Manitoba is not just a prairie province, but we're also an Arctic and a coastal province and with that comes responsibilities toward our Arctic ecosystem." 

'Front and centre'

Debicki says Oceans North was surprised to find no formal protections of the belugas' habitat or estuaries where they summer when the organization began working on their Manitoba habitat about five years ago.

Perhaps Manitoba's belugas seem remote to people outside of Churchill, he said. Also, they are not facing an imminent threat.

Tom Nevakshonoff

Manitoba Conservation Minister Nevakshonoff says he plans to discuss the province's beluga habitat sustainability plan with his federal counterpart later this month. (Jeff Stapleton/CBC)

"One of the important things is to ensure that that habitat isn't affected by upstream development, pollutants, changes in river flow and that if we're contemplating those developments upstream what's really important is that the beluga remain in the front and centre in considerations in terms of downstream effects," he said.

While the estuaries would be in Manitoba's jurisdiction, Debicki says Hudson Bay would be a federal responsibility, meaning making the plan work will require multiple governments working together.

Nevakshonoff actually went north to see the belugas last summer.

"[There is] nothing like laying face-down in Hudson Bay and having one nibble on your arm to have a close encounter," he said.

"It's a remarkable experience."

Tootoo to meet with province

Hunter Tootoo, Minister of Fisheries, Oceans and the Canadian Coast Guard, recognizes the importance of protecting Manitoba's belugas, a spokesperson for the department said.

The minister's office could not provide insight on the plan itself, however.

"It is too early to comment on our involvement as our review has not yet taken place," the spokesperson wrote in an email, which also said Tootoo "looks forward to meeting with the province of Manitoba to discuss all options."

World Wildlife Fund lauds plan

Conservation group World Wildlife Fund Canada issued a news release on Friday, applauding the province's plan as "promising first steps" in protecting beluga habitat.

"WWF-Canada welcomes this plan and the opportunity it presents to protect habitat for the largest population of belugas in the world," David Miller, WWF-Canada president and CEO, stated in the release.

"It shows promising first steps from the province of Manitoba and highlights the role the federal government can play to provide more protections for belugas in western Hudson Bay. We look forward to working with the federal government toward including the Hudson Bay as part of its recently made commitment to protect 10 per cent of marine and coastal areas by 2020."

Nearly 50 per cent of Canadian belugas summer on the shores western Hudson Bay to feed, give birth and nurse their young, but there are no protections currently in place for the summer or winter grounds for them, WWF noted.

As a result, the population status is listed as being of "special concern" by the Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada, which means it's at risk to become threatened or endangered because of a combination of biological characteristics and identified threats.

"Protecting marine habitats will not just benefit the health of the fragile ecosystem and species, but also Inuit and northern communities," said Paul Crowley, vice-president of Arctic conservation at WWF-Canada.

"The belugas that spend their summers in Manitoba are a vital part of northern culture in Nunavut and Nunavik. WWF-Canada agrees with the comprehensive recommendations of the [Manitoba] plan and is keen to work collaboratively with partners to ensure the protection of this critical marine habitat."