Manitoba Province Urging Beluga Protection

Belugas down under AVDM
Nearly a quarter, 57,000, of the worlds beluga population estimated at 200,000 migrate to the Western Hudson Bay estuaries of the Seal, Nelson and Churchill Rivers. The province of Manitoba is hoping the liberal government keeps promises made during the 2015 election to protect five per cent of Canada’s more than 200,000 kilometer coastline by 2017 and include this region. Manitoba government is pushing hard for protection of these estuaries as part of their new Beluga Habitat Sustainability Plan.If the plan goes through and is implemented it would protect moulting, feeding and calving areas for the nearly 60,000 belugas along the Hudson Bay coast in the Churchill region. This area comprises the largest sub – population in the world …a quite healthy population indeed. Nearly half the other populations, including the St. Lawrence River group in eastern Canada, are not doing as well. Increased development has deployed carcinogens through harmful chemicals into these waters.The proposal from Manitoba province will also include requests to amend federal legislation regulating pollution in Arctic waters south of the 60 degrees lattitiude so to cover the fragile ecosysystems in the estuaries frequented by the belugas. Although the current status of these creatures is healthy, rapid change in the Arctic could affect the species adversely in the near future.
beluga-map-hudson-bayDevelopment along the rivers directly related to reduced ice formation in the Arctic was listed as potential threat to the belugas of Manitoba. The difference between these river sanctuaries and the St. Lawrence where massive development has caused negative effects and subsequent “threatened” classification of that beluga whale population is vast. However a future change in commerce due to global warming could change things for Hudson Bay belugas in a hurry.A direct consequence of arctic ice melt would be increased shipping leading to extensive noise pollution that would harm the belugas ability to echo-locate and communicate with one another. Warming trends also have implications on the beluga’s winter feeding grounds in the Hudson Strait in the northeast. The ice harbors algae that sustain fish that belugas prey upon as well serving as a safe haven for the belugas hiding from killer whales. These predators are quite common in the bay in recent years due to more access from longer ice free periods.A key consideration in Churchill, and more specifically the Churchill River, is the long term strategy of the Port of Churchill, currently in the process of changing ownership. The relationship and interactions between the port and the belugas to date have been very good. With new owners and possible new directions in shipping from the facility it is important to cover all the angles with regards to water contamination and shipping routes and frequency.

With belugas coming to Churchill each summer there has been an increase in tourism as a result. The economic benefits from this would be adversely affected if protection was not placed on the estuary.

Beluga whales in the Churchill River under the watchful eyes of Natural Habitat travelers.

Beluga whale watching near the port of Churchill. Natural Habitat photo

Because of these current and impending threats, advocates and researchers are intent on protecting the clean estuaries now before the need becomes dire. Once development ensues to a higher degree as a result of environmental change it could be too late Thinking ahead and protecting these areas now is crucial!

Arctic Tiny Houses Will Conserve Energy

A concept image of new prototype housing, designed specifically for northern climates and Inuit culture.

Concept design of northern Arctic housing. Fournier, Gesrovitz, Moss, Drolet and Assoc. Architects image.

Traditional high Arctic home building designs have been similar in structure and layout to those found in the south. However, as with the tiny house movement in the lower lattitudes, architects in Quebec are rethinking the design process for buildings that will be constructed above the 60th parallel. These new highly efficient structures will be more aptly suited for the climate and lifestyle of Inuit residents of the region. The Societe D’habitation du Quebec the chief housing authority for the province is working on new designs for the Arctic.

Since 2012 the agency has been working on the design in collaboration with a Montreal architectural firm as well as regional housing bureau agencies which have provided key input related to design needs and cultural traditions of Cree and Inuit inhabitants, especially relating to interior layout.

Initially, two prototypes will be constructed this year in Quaqtaq on the Diana Bay shore along the Hudson Strait. It is unclear how the inhabitants of these first two homes will be selected or what they will be required to pay for the units.

Nunavik, Quebec site of Arctic housing unit

Quuaqtak in Nunavik, Northern Quebec is site of prototype design of housing unit. Google maps image..

The structural design will be highly energy efficient with walls, roof and floor insulated above standard levels as well as a heat exchange heating system generated from the water heater. Steel piles will anchor the homes in the Precambrian shield and adjust for melting of permafrost in many areas.

Nunavik , Quebec housing construction site.

Pilings being driven into housing location in Nunuvik, Quebec. Societe d’habitation du Quebec photo.

Storage for the unit will be maximized with innovative spacial concepts for the attic, laundry room and kitchen that provides a movable large island for additional space. Securely locked storage cabinets will be built in for hunting firearm and ammunition. Both a cold and warm porch will be features that specifically cater to the traditional Inuit lifestyle. In all this new design will be highly efficient and desired by Inuit families.

Beluga scars are the real thing!

In the Churchill Arctic summer, between two to three thousand beluga whales voyage southward across the vast Hudson Bay from the Hudson Strait which flows into the Atlantic Ocean to summer in the estuaries around Churchill. These whales winter in the straits since water currents provide life -giving polynas-open water areas where whales and other marine life can surface for air intake. During the Spring as they start their trip, ice still somewhat chunks up the Hudson Bay and makes the trip perilous. Polar bears out on ice floes can sometimes gain access to the whales and find a hearty meal. This can also occur in winter when whales get trapped using only a small opening in the ice when accessible leads or smaller polynas have close up.

Why, one may ask, am I talking about beluga whales in the middle of the northern winter? Recently, documentation of beluga whales trapped in ice being eaten by polar bears have brought attention to the fragile lifestyle of these marine animals. While global warming might not be ideal for polar bears, beluga whales would welcome a little more ice free areas in the far north. It’s not uncommon for belugas or other whales to become trapped in vast expanses of floe ice. With few openings to the world above the whales become isolated unable to reach the next blowhole. belugas can stay below the water surface for about 15 minutes at a depth of up to 66 ft. When they cannot find another air source they must remain at the one they have.

While guiding Churchill Summer trips for over 10 years we were able to get very close to these majestic animals. Quite often we see scars or slashes on the backs of their matte white bodies. These scars or markings are used to identify the belugas much like larger whales are identified by their tale fluke markings. Beluga’s tale flukes are small and rarely seen on a consistent basis. I would inform travelers, without exact evidence, that these markings were sometimes from polar bears attempting to kill the whales. This could really only be true when the whales are trapped within the ice as polar bears would have little chance catching up with a whale in the water. As we can see here this has happened just recently before our eyes in the Arctic.

Figure 1. From the Alaska Dispatch story, courtesy Nunatsiaq News. I like these pictures because it really shows how polar bears are able to catch beluga in situations like this: a swipe of the massive paw to hold one in place (see all the claw marks from unsuccessful attempts?), one good bite with those tremendously strong polar bear jaws into the fatty part of the beluga head, then haul it up and out of the water – game over for the young beluga, perfect meal for the polar bear. An adult may be too large for a polar bear to handle this way but a young one? Easy as grizzlies catching salmon

And, as we can imagine when nature provides a disaster for one species, other species benefit from the misfortune. polar bears predate on the whales and humans then predate on both bears and the whales. The circle of life is continuous.

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