People in Nunavut say they will be keeping a close eye on Manitoba's plan to protect beluga whales near its coastline on western Hudson Bay.

The plan released on Friday includes numerous recommendations, from co-ordinating how ships move in the belugas' habitat to studying pollution levels in the Churchill area.

Nunavut Tunngavik said any discussions on protection for marine areas, including beluga habitat, should be done in partnership with Inuit.

"The regional wildlife board and the HTOs definitely have to be involved in the discussions because they know their area very well and they are critical to any management system in place," said Paul Irngaut, director of wildlife and environment for Nunavut Tunngavik.  

Paul Crowley

'Beluga are an ice-dependent species, and the whole ecosystem depends, in terms of productivity on the ice edge,' said Paul Crowley the Vice President Arctic of WWF-Canada. (Sima Sahar Zerehi/CBC)

Hunters say beluga populations in Nunavut are stable, but they are seeing more evidence of predation by killer whales and polar bears. Manitoba's protection plan includes monitoring the whales to find out if there are any concerns.

"It would be a good information for the science and also for Inuit," said Alex Ishalook, president of the Arviat Hunters and Trapper Organization.​

Paul Crowley, director of WWF-Canada's Arctic Program, said the Government of Manitoba's plan is an exciting opportunity to start moving toward the goal of five per cent marine protected areas by 2017 and 10 per cent by 2020 as promised by the federal government.

"Protecting the nursery in Manitoba is really important because those whales end up in Nunavut and Nunavik the rest of the year," he said.

"It's important to not only protect where they're born but also protect where they migrate through, and so this is a really good first step."

Melting sea ice may be a factor 

Environmental groups say when thinking of protecting animal habitat, it's important to take into account climate change.

"Beluga are an ice-dependent species, and the whole ecosystem depends, in terms of productivity, on the ice edge," said Crowley.

Trevor Taylor

'Often times when people think about preservation of a species they think it's only important to manage the harvest,' said Trevor Taylor the fisheries policy director with Oceans North. (Sima Sahar Zerehi/CBC)

The melting of sea ice may open the Arctic to more large ship traffic, an issue flagged as a threat to belugas in Manitoba.

"As the ice conditions change, we really will need to protect those areas that are most important not only now but also in the future," added Crowley.

Beluga is part of the Inuit diet, and the Nunavut Wildlife Management Board monitors the harvest.

But Trevor Taylor, the fisheries policy director with Oceans North, said loss of habitat is seen as a bigger threat to the beluga population.

"Often times when people think about preservation of a species they think it's only important to manage the harvest," he said.

"That is an important piece but more often than not habitat loss is what comprises a species' ability to reproduce."