Before she was a marine biologist with a PhD focused on beluga whales, Kristin Westdal ran a small kayaking ecotourism outfit out of Churchill, Man., in the waters of Western Hudson Bay.

Every day, even when she wasn’t touring, Westdal would take her kayak into the Arctic waters and join the throngs of locals and tourists taking advantage of the coastline. Every day, as she bobbed into the waters, she would be greeted by the same three young beluga males.

“Typically they would come over to my boat first and bash my boat around a little, saying hi, lifting my boat out of the water,” Westdal says in an interview.

“I always felt like those three individuals really knew me and were choosing to come say hello at the beginning of every trip I was on.”

Those three playful whales were part of a group of nearly 60,000 beluga whales that take to Manitoba’s Arctic coast each summer to eat, molt and raise their young. It’s the largest summering beluga population in the world — representing about a third of the global beluga whale population — and it’s unique to the ecosystem of Hudson Bay.

Marine biologist Kristin Westdal wears a green coat and striped toque against a blurred landscape
Marine biologist Kristin Westdal has been studying Manitoba’s beluga whales for decades — first as a kayaking tour guide, then as an academic and now as a researcher with Oceans North. Photo: Oceans North

The whales have frequented those waters for generations; now researchers like Westdal, who works as a science director for non-profit Oceans North, are teaming up with local communities, businesses and governments to ensure the habitat can be protected for generations to come.

A campaign led by Oceans North and the Manitoba chapter of the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society hopes to see the coastal region of Western Hudson Bay designated a national marine conservation area to help guide, manage and protect the belugas and their marine ecosystem. Though their efforts have been ongoing for years, the campaign is gaining momentum. Stakeholders are bringing their conservation pitch to audiences in Winnipeg and around the world as Canada looks to meet its ongoing biodiversity and conservation commitments.

Campaign to protect Hudson Bay beluga whales heats up in B.C.

Last month, more than 90 people gathered at the Winnipeg Art Gallery to hear Inuit harvesters, scientists, business leaders and government representatives voice their vision for a formal conservation area in Western Hudson Bay. The event, hosted by Oceans North and the Manitoba chapter of the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society, was “fabulous,” according to Ron Thiessen, executive director of Manitoba’s Parks and Wilderness Society.

After years of research and community conversations, the conservation campaign has garnered support from all manner of Manitobans. More than 6,300 people have sent letters to their federal representatives in support of the conservation area, Thiessen says.

The presentation at the gala was a preview of what Oceans North brought to the global stage at this week’s International Marine Protected Areas Congress in Vancouver.

The week-long congress, the fifth of its kind, brought marine protection experts from around the globe together to discuss policy, technology, planning and strategy emphasizing marine conservation in Canada and beyond.

Last weekend, Manitoba’s coastline took centre stage as stakeholders highlighted “the tremendous opportunity to protect our belugas, our polar bears and all the values that the Western Hudson Bay offers — their importance to local cultures, to northern tourism economies and to Canadian pride,” Thiessen says.

A map depicting core beluga summer habitat and beluga telemetry data in Hudson Bay
Four rivers estuaries line Western Hudson Bay, providing an ecologically rich habitat for several species, including the world’s largest summering population of belugas. The whales return to the same estuaries each year, choosing to summer along the Manitoba coastline. Illustration: Oceans North

Marine conservation areas are one tool in any government’s toolbox to protect global biodiversity and ensure resilience in face of a changing climate. In Canada, national marine conservation areas are designated by Parks Canada and designed to create a highly protected core area surrounded by what’s known as “sustainable management zones,” where more human activity is allowed, but closely regulated. (Parks Canada did not respond to an interview request by publication time.)

As Canada works towards a slate of biodiversity and conservation targets, including a goal to protect 30 per cent of the country’s land and water by 2030, marine conservation areas like this one are becoming increasingly attractive to governments and the public alike.

Two marine conservation areas are already underway in other regions of the Arctic, including the Mushkegowuk marine conservation area along the eastern portion of Hudson Bay and James Bay and Tallurutiup Imanga (Lancaster Sound), which have added a combined 200,000 square kilometres to Canada’s total marine protected area — or approximately the size of Newfoundland and Labrador. This latest proposal would add tens of thousands more to the tally, while preserving a swath of ocean significant to wildlife, locals and visitors alike.

Push to protect Hudson Bay beluga whale population ‘while it’s in healthy shape’

Along the shores of Western Hudson Bay, four major rivers — the Seal, Churchill, Hayes and Nelson — spill into the ocean, mixing freshwater and saltwater ecosystems in a dazzling display of diverse marine life. These meeting points, called estuaries, are biologically rich, hosting all manner of migratory species, including seals, polar bears, seabirds, narwhals and, of course, the summering beluga whales.

Each year as the ice melts, tens of thousands of the social marine mammals congregate in the warm, shallow bay waters to give birth, molt, eat and socialize among the many species on the coast.

“It’s very important to stress the importance of the habitat,” Hilu Tagoona, senior advisor at Oceans North, says. “It is a very biodiverse ecosystem, which really starts with the sea ice in the area.”

The vast sea ice in the Arctic provides critical hunting platforms for polar bears and cover for travelling marine life. Phytoplankton that grow beneath the ice provide food for the countless variety of Arctic fish that frequent the bay, which in turn feed more than 170 bird species, along with beluga whales and seals, which in turn feed predators like the polar bears. For generations, that ecosystem has also fed Inuit and First Nations communities who depend on the waters for sustenance and life.

“Inuit are very much a marine people and our connection to the land and water and animals is fundamentally based on respect. We’re taught even today that in order to sustain ourselves on the environment around us we must take only what we need and we must share what we have.” Hilu Tagoona
Senior advisor, Oceans North
Beluga whales are a critical food source for Inuit in the Kivalliq region. Formal protection for Western Hudson Bay would help ensure the whales can continue to be sustainably harvested for generations to come. Photo: Sarah Lawrynuik / Winnipeg Free Press
Beluga whales seen from the air above Hudson Bay

Tagoona hails from Nunavut, where she’s long observed the community’s relationship to the summering population of whales. In the Kivalliq region, which stretches north of Manitoba, Inuit only settled into communities 60 to 70 years ago, she explains.

“We relied completely on the animals, the environment and what it provided to us for everything that we needed: food, shelter, clothing, tools,” Tagoona says.

“Inuit are very much a marine people and our connection to the land and water and animals is fundamentally based on respect. We’re taught even today that in order to sustain ourselves on the environment around us we must take only what we need and we must share what we have.”

Historically, Inuit and Manitoba First Nations shared the land and waters around Hudson Bay, harvesting beluga whales and other marine life for food, oil and other key resources. The whales are rich in protein, vitamin C and other essential nutrients, and with the high cost of food in Canada’s North, Inuit still practise sustainable beluga harvests today.

That sustainable harvest has allowed the region’s ecosystem to thrive. Though Manitoba’s belugas are relatively understudied, according to marine biologist Kristin Westdal, it’s in part because the population is so healthy and robust. There is no commercial fishing in the region, no quotas for harvests and no hunting for sport. As tides shift in the world of conservation, protecting the ecosystem while it’s still in good health has become an increasingly urgent priority.

“Historically we were playing catch up,” Westdal says. “It’s easier and it takes a lot less resources, potentially, to protect something while it’s in healthy shape. There’s more interest from the public and I think the government can see that there’s opportunity there.”

Climate change impacts Hudson Bay sea ice, bring in more predators

Though the whales are in good health today, climate change has had a visible impact on the Hudson Bay region.

“There’s a lot less consistency in terms of what we can expect each year,” Tagoona says. “We see summers with absolutely more rain and winters with no snow, and others that are completely the opposite — those things impact our ability to harvest.”

Most notably, over the last 20 years sea ice in Hudson Bay has “changed dramatically,” Westdal explains. Owing perhaps to the bay’s southern latitude or the influx of freshwater from Manitoba’s major river estuaries (Westdal says scientists still haven’t reached a consensus on the exact cause), Hudson Bay has seen a faster rate of sea ice decline than other parts of the Arctic. Regardless of the cause, that loss has significant implications for wildlife in the bay.

Polar bears, for example, typically rely on the winter ice for hunting, but have become more prominent along the coastal shorelines later and later in the year.

“They’re coming into communities and seeing what they can live off of,” Tagoona says. “Inuit know that it’s not healthy for them to stay on the land as long as they are when winter should allow them to live off the seals, fish and so forth.”

A polar bear mother and two cubs rest on the rocks near Hudson Bay in summer
Changing sea ice cover has already had an impact on the region’s polar bears, but the impacts on marine life like the beluga whales are not yet fully understood. Photo: Sarah Lawrynuik / Winnipeg Free Press

On the whole, the shrinking ice cover has opened the bay to new visitors. Shipping in and out of the Arctic has increased as sea ice melts, and discussion over the economic future of Churchill suggests more ship traffic could be part of the bay’s future.

But humans aren’t the only creatures moving more frequently through Hudson Bay. The beluga’s most fearsome predator, orcas, also known as killer whales, have seized the opportunity, too.

“Killer whales have been around the Arctic for generations,” Westdal says, reflecting on her years spent interviewing Elders and hunters around the Arctic region. “But in Hudson Bay it appears they’ve only been around for 100 years or so — and that’s because of Hudson Strait opening up that habitat to them.”

With longer periods of open water in the channel connecting the Atlantic Ocean to Hudson Bay, orcas have spent the last several years exploring the newly available habitat. Researchers like Westdal are hurrying to try and understand what more predation from the orcas might mean for the belugas.

Manitoba’s beluga population also faces threats caused by human activity. Hydroelectric development — like the Churchill river diversion that feeds generators on the Nelson and Burntwood rivers — alters the waterflow in the beluga’s estuary habitat. The animals are also susceptible to spills from train derailments anywhere in the massive river watersheds, and pollutants from activity at hydroelectric dams, ocean vessels or Churchill’s Arctic port.

Establishing a marine conservation area in the region wouldn’t eliminate those threats, but would establish guidelines to mitigate the impact of human activities on the ecosystem.

“By looking at the science, gathering the Indigenous Knowledge, getting a better understanding of the economic interests and future impacts and putting that all on the table … there’s a great opportunity to ensure that a successful balance is achieved,” Thiessen says.

Protecting beluga population can be a boon to local economy

Finding a delicate balance between industry, economic development and environmental protection is at the heart of the conservation campaign for Western Hudson Bay.

When the federal government first identified the Churchill and Nelson River region as a potential marine conservation area in the 2017 budget, Oceans North started hosting conversations with coastal communities to determine the best approach to protecting the region.

“Inuit want to take our Traditional Knowledge (Inuit Qaujimajatuqangit, or IQ), work with other Indigenous people that are impacted and hand-in-hand with other research and science that is out there to corroborate our own IQ and make sure that we’re moving forward to the future with good conservation plans,” Tagoona says.

Harvesting rights won’t be affected by a marine conservation area. Any regulations developed under the legislation will be geared towards sustainable management of human activity and development in the region, including a ban on mineral and hydrocarbon exploration and ocean dumping.

Young beluga whales follow a vessel in Hudson Bay
Beluga tourism alone is estimated to contribute upwards of $2 million to Manitoba’s GDP each year, according to Oceans North. Establishing a conservation area in the region would provide new opportunities for tourism jobs and revenue in northern Manitoba. Photo: Sarah Lawrynuik / Winnipeg Free Press

As a “born-and-raised local Churchillian,” Brendan McEwan wears many hats in his community: he’s president of the Churchill Chamber of Commerce, he helps manage tour company Frontiers North Adventures and, like many locals, he has a strong personal connection to the water.

“I’m one of the people you see on the water generally. As much as can be,” McEwan says in an interview. “The accessibility of nature is something people who live here cherish. I can drive for two minutes, jump in my boat and go out to an extraordinary ecosystem that’s pretty untouched.”

But as much as he enjoys the coast for leisure, McEwan is acutely aware of its significance to the community’s economy. More than 500,000 people visit northern Manitoba each year from all over the world — many to experience the unique ecosystems of the Hudson Bay region. Tourism is a multi-million-dollar industry in the region, and preserving a healthy relationship with the land is key to keeping that industry afloat.

Churchill is a small and evolving community, as McEwan says he frequently tells the chamber: “we need all the economic opportunities we can get.”

Churchill’s Arctic port — the only such port in Canada — has been in the spotlight recently as a combination of new ownership, new federal investment and warmer summer waters have prompted renewed interest in the port as a key link for international trade.

As the community evolves, striking a balance between “protection of the economic stability of the area as well as the protection of the species and uniqueness of the environment” is crucial, McEwan says. Marine conservation legislation creates zones where development, industrial activity, shipping, fishing and other human activities are carefully managed, while bolstering resources to study and monitor local wildlife.

“Taking a proactive approach is important here. With the continued economic development of Churchill, the proactive approach is going to be key in keeping it protected,” McEwan adds, noting economic growth and environmental protection should proceed hand-in-hand.

Establishing a marine conservation area in Hudson Bay also has the potential to be a boon for local business. Conservation requires staff, including a potential Indigenous watchmen program, staff for a marine visitor centre, program planners and wildlife monitors. It could also lead to new research facilities, infrastructure investments and tourism attention. For Churchill, that economic expansion is good news.

‘Political winds’ seem favourable to protecting Hudson Bay beluga population: conservation advocate

The idea for a marine conservation area in Western Hudson Bay has been around for more than half a decade. Oceans North and the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society’s Manitoba chapter are urging the government to move forward with a feasibility assessment that would move the planning into the next stages.

Thiessen notes dialogue with communities — including Inuit, First Nations, commercial stakeholders, industry experts and Manitobans at large — is what the feasibility study is all about, and he hopes the federal government takes action sooner rather than later.

Together, stakeholders will share input on the boundaries of the protected area, the scale of infrastructure investments needed, the local tourism market and guidelines for future development in the region. What the conservation area will fully entail is still a long way away.

“The good news is the political winds right now are in strong favour of conservation, especially at the federal level,” Thiessen says.

Marine conservation areas have been key to helping Canada achieve its biodiversity and conservation targets. So far, nearly 14 per cent of the country’s oceans are protected, but doubling that figure by 2030 will take significantly more federal investment.

Regardless of the business case or economic opportunities, McEwan stresses the rich, intertwining ecosystems of Hudson Bay are inherently deserving of conservation.

“Churchill has a rich marine ecosystem; it’s unique in the world and deserves protection,” he says. “It’s very special what we have, and we support the protection of this area.”

Updated Feb. 8, 4:47 p.m. CT: a previous version of the headline incorrectly stated that Manitoba’s Arctic coast is home to narwhals. In fact, our namesakes live further up the coast.

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When those boxes of heavily redacted documents start to pile in, reporters at The Narwhal waste no time in looking for kernels of news that matter the most. Just ask our Prairies reporter Drew Anderson, who gleefully scanned through freedom of information files like a kid in a candy store, leading to pretty damning revelations in Alberta this spring. Long story short: the government wasn’t being forthright when it claimed its pause on new renewable energy projects wasn’t political. Just like that, our small team was again leading the charge on a pretty big story

In an oil-rich province like Alberta, that kind of reporting is crucial. But look at our investigative work on the Coastal GasLink pipeline to the west, or our Greenbelt reporting out in Ontario. They all highlight one thing: those with power over our shared natural world don’t want you to know how — or why — they call the shots. And we try to disrupt that.

Our journalism is powered by people just like you. We never take corporate ad dollars, or put this public-interest information behind a paywall. Here’s the thing: we need 300 new members to join this month to meet our budget. Will you join the pod of Narwhals that make a difference by helping us uncover some of the most important stories of our time?

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