At the center of Canada is the great inland sea of Hudson Bay, or Kangiqsualuk ilua, a frigid tongue of the Arctic Ocean. Hospitable to an estimated 57,000 beluga whales and other marine mammals, it reaches farther south than the European capitals of Scandinavia, Germany and Russia.

Because Hudson Bay is the world’s most southern arctic and subarctic ecosystem, it is especially vulnerable to the effects of climate change and the impact of industrial activities like hydroelectric projects.

Protecting the Beluga Estuaries

The waters of Kangiqsualuk ilua are a convergence of wild northern rivers and relentless tides and currents, a place where strong Arctic winds, long summers and ever-changing ice create a productive ecosystem in the planet’s shallowest, smallest ocean. Indigenous peoples, including the Pre-Dorset through the Dorset, Thule, Inuit, Dene and Cree, have used these nearshore waters for at least 6,000 years. Today, 41 Inuit and First Nation communities thrive on the shores of Hudson Bay, relying on its waters for food, economic sustenance and travel.

The watershed draining into Hudson Bay is bigger than that of the Mackenzie and St. Lawrence rivers combined, stretching from the prairies, boreal forests and Rockies in the west to the Laurentian Mountains in the east and the Baffin Mountains to the north.

On the western shores of Hudson Bay, four of Canada’s premier river systems — the Seal, Churchill, Hayes and Nelson — bring nutrients and detritus downstream to the saltwater deltas. Like estuaries around the world, these are biologically rich areas and host some of the greatest migrations of marine mammals and birds on the planet. Each summer, one-third of the world’s beluga whales return to these warm, shallow waters to molt and give birth. Narwhal swim from Hudson Strait into the waters around Southampton Island. Seals and polar bears roam the ice and coastline. Millions of North American seabirds stop here each summer as part of two continental flyways that sustain globally important populations.

Hudson Bay is losing sea ice more rapidly than other Arctic regions because of its southern latitude. It also faces increased industrial impacts, such as altered river flows from hydroelectric projects in Manitoba, Ontario and Quebec. Any changes to the bay’s biological productivity will, in turn, fundamentally impact the economic base and health of coastal communities that rely on its natural resources for sustenance.

Path to Protection

Over the past five years, the long-term preservation of the Seal, Nelson and Churchill river estuaries has gained momentum. This conservation effort was advanced by research conducted by Oceans North, the Inuit Heritage Trust and Fisheries and Oceans Canada, including the discovery of a Thule-era hunting camp and enhanced scientific understanding about how the world’s largest population of beluga uses this critical summer habitat.

In 2016, the government of Manitoba released an action plan to help protect the belugas that thrive in the estuaries of western Hudson Bay. The goal of the plan is to prevent adverse impacts on these belugas while the population is still vibrant. These challenges include the decline of sea ice, increased predator access because of longer open-water seasons and more industrial activities that can produce pollution, hydrological shifts and traffic-related noise. Protecting offshore areas of the bay where beluga congregate out to 60 metres depth would protect 90 per cent of their habitat.

The proposed integrated conservation strategy to safeguard the bay’s beluga population will need the support of key stakeholders, from Inuit communities, who rely on the whales as a food source, to whale-watching tourism operators, who are based in Churchill, Manitoba, at the southern tip of the bay and generate an estimated $5.6 million in annual revenue. By working together, a plan can be put in place to conserve crucial beluga habitat for future generations.

Ocean’s North supports these efforts in Hudson Bay:

  • The creation of a national marine conservation area in the three estuaries of the Seal, Nelson and Churchill rivers as a result of collaboration by Parks Canada, the Manitoba government and Nunavut and Cree land claim organizations;
  • The protection of the offshore waters of Hudson Bay to safeguard globally important marine mammal and seabird migrations and ensure the sustainability of traditional harvest practices.

Johnny Mamgark and his family, Arviat, Nunavut.