Protect Churchill's belugas with national marine conservation area, report urges

A new report calls on the Canadian government to protect the beluga whales that make Churchill home every summer by creating a national marine conservation area in western Hudson Bay.

Oceans North report says consultations with community key

A new report from Oceans North calls on the Canadian government to create a national marine conservation area in western Hudson Bay. (Christopher Paetkau/Build Films )

Oceans North wants the Canadian government to protect the beluga whales that make Churchill home every summer by creating a national marine conservation area in western Hudson Bay.

The report, called Western Hudson Bay and Its Beluga Estuaries: Protecting Abundance for a Sustainable Future, was released by Oceans North on Friday morning.

"There is close to 55,000 beluga whales in western Hudson Bay in the summertime and that is the largest summering population of beluga whales in the world," said Kristin Westdal, a marine biologist working with Oceans North who worked on the report.

"So we have a very important part of the global population of belugas right at our back door."

Every spring, as the ice melts along western Hudson Bay, one-third of the world's beluga whale population migrates to the region's major estuaries on the Churchill, Nelson and Seal rivers to moult, calve, feed and seek protection from predators.

National marine conservation areas are marine areas managed for sustainable use, and can include the seabed, the water above it and any species that occur there, Parks Canada's website says.

The designation would prohibit oil and gas development in the area, protect harvesting rights for Indigenous communities such as the Inuit, who hunt the animals and rely on them, and see more funding provided for research on the belugas, Westdal said. 

This map shows the path taken by belugas as they migrate into the western Hudson Bay every spring. (Courtesy of Oceans North)

While the western Hudson Bay belugas are not currently endangered and the population is considered to be in good health, designating their habitat as a conservation area now will make sure they stay that way in the future, Westdal said.

"As with any population, it's always nice to look after something while it's in good health as opposed to waiting for issues to arise and then try to figure out how to fix that problem."

The effect of climate change on the region — which could bring a marked increase in shipping — makes it more important to put protections in place.

"We have quite a bit more open water than we did even 10 or 20 years ago, and we don't really know what that environment is going to look like in the future," she said.

"We wanted to call attention to the fact that this is an important area."

Report a 'roadmap and guideline'

In November 2015, the federal Liberals pledged to protect five per cent of Canada's marine and coastal environment by 2017. The total area designated as protected would double to 10 per cent by 2020 as part of a global agreement under the Convention on Biological Diversity.

Less than one per cent of Canada's waters are currently protected.

The federal government has announced it is considering designating Churchill as an national marine conservation area, and Westdal calls the report a "roadmap and guideline" for the government in the process.

The report recommends the government engage with local communities, Indigenous populations, governments — both local and provincial — as well as stakeholders and the people who rely on the whales as the first step in the process.

It's now up to the federal government to start those consultations, Westdal said.

"The federal government is really committed to protecting 10 per cent of our oceans by 2020 and Churchill could be a large piece of that puzzle," she said.

Oceans North worked with Hudson Bay communities, including Indigenous communities and local stakeholders such as the Churchill Beluga Tour Operators Association, to complete the report.

One-third of the world's beluga population migrates to Churchill every summer. (Christopher Paetkau/Build Films )

It found protecting the belugas would be good for Churchill's tourism industry, which brings more than 10,000 visitors to the community every year.

"What we're doing is bringing guests in … and they're essentially investing in the province — they're leaving a lot of money with hotels, restaurants, regional airlines, with tour operators and people who are creating arts and crafts in the community," said John Gunter, president of Frontier North Adventures, which takes visitors on tours around Churchill to see the belugas, polar bears and the northern lights.

"We want to make sure that we're conserving and protecting our belugas and the habitat on which they rely and, at the same time, we want to foster tourism in the area."

Gunter is in favour of designating the area as a national marine conservation area and says having the northern lights and polar bears in winter and belugas in the summer brings a predictability to the community's tourism industry on a year-round basis.

"Churchill has had a reputation for our polar bears for 30 years, and it's really encouraging to see that our beluga whales are earning the same kind of reputation."

With files from Danelle Cloutier