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!

That Damned Churchill River

In 1976 the Churchill River water flow was diverted into the Nelson River at Missi falls at the mouth of South Indian Lake. This diversion, caused the Churchill River to have 15% of the original flow and created controversy stemming mainly from Cree and aboriginal groups concern over their native lands resources.

Affects on wildlife habitat and communities along the river to the north have never been adequately measured so affects on fish and the beluga whale population are relatively unknown. In Churchill, a weir and marina was constructed as part of the mitigation process by Manitoba Hydro. Although the observation tower the marina gives a nice view of the inlet off the river, the marina gets minimal usage. The weir allows the regulation of water levels south of that point for fishing and boating excursions. The beluga whale population ventures shorter distances up-river in summertime due to the tidal flow and shallow water. This might have had some affects on the population or it may have caused some whales to change habitat location and venture to other estuaries with warm rivers flowing into them. When belugas give birth and nurture their young they have an easier time with the moderate temperature warm waters flowing from the south.

Churchill marina observation tower.

Observation tower at the Churchill marina. Steve Selden photo.

I can’t imagine what the flow of the Churchill River would be like at 85% more pressure. Guiding over a decade of Churchill Arctic summer seasons I have experienced just about every type of conditions on the river and in the Hudson Bay. Although higher water flow would not have  a profound affect within the main part of the river, the mouth and inlets would be very different at tidal changes. It’s very tricky at times to maneuver through the mouth of the river due to the currents and topography below. With more flow this could be easier or harder but would most likely have a bearing on fish and whales.  Inlets and calving/ nurseries would be larger and deeper farther up-river…that is a surety.

Beluga sow and calf swimming in sync through the Churchill River.

A baby calf beluga swimming in his mother’s slipstream to stay close. Steve Selden photo.

The affects on southern communities associated with the diversion have been quite harmful in many instances. South Indian Lake was forced to relocate and has since lost most of their original one million pound whitefish production…down to 100,000 pounds at last count.In the end, the benefits of the diversion and Nelson River power plants output have not been without issues. Having to ship the power to far southern communities has taken more resources and money than originally planned. The original water levels negotiated by Manitoba hydro have been disregarded and a push to adopt the newer levels by law is underway.  One has to wonder, as with all these massive projects that alter our natural environment, are the benefits worth the effects felt by our wildlife populations?

Who Found Button Bay-Was It Lost?

If you have been to Churchill you probably have heard of Button Bay. If you have been to Churchill in the Summer you might have even ventured by boat to the bay itself.

Sow and cub in the rocks off Eskimo Point in Churchill, Manitoba. Stefanie Fernandez photo.

Sow and cub in the rocks off Eskimo Point. Stefanie Fernandez photo.

Button Bay lies northwest of Churchill just a short spin by zodiac around the tip of Eskimo Point and Fort Prince of Wales. From the fort you can gaze across the thickets of willows and wildflowers to the often glassy surface of the secluded inlet. It’s also possible to look across the Churchill River past Fort Prince of Wales on the point and see the glimmering surface of the bay.

Beluga whale under water,

In Button Bay the water is crystal clear and belugas are quite visible under water. Steve Selden photo.

The bay was commemorated by Sir Thomas Button in 1612 when he and the crew of the Resolution ventured to “New Wales”, as he named it for England. He is credited with securing the lands along the west coast of the Hudson Bay for England. The Nelson River estuary and Port Nelson within those lands, were named after the Master of the Resolution who perished on the journey and is buried there.


Sir Thomas Button.

On May 15, 1912, 300 years later, when Manitoba’s boundaries were extended, Port Nelson was included in the new territory designated to the province. Thomas Button is therefore known to be the first white man to visit this area in Manitoba.

Polar bear in Button Bay in Churchill, Manitoba.

Polar Bear along the coast of Button Bay. Natural Habitat Adventures photo.

Button Bay is a well known beluga whale hot spot in the summer. On the fairly rare occasions when whales are scarce in the Churchill River and mouth of the Hudson Bay, the 20 minute motor over to Button Bay usually produces pods of whales following the capelin run. On the journey by boat or zodiac, there’s always the chance of spotting a polar bear or two nestled along the rocky coast. I have often seen bears dipping paws into the bay or pulling up onto the rocks after a swim.

Button Bay is a little secret gem of the region. the bay itself is considered part of the Nunavut territory.

Come see the whales and bears of Button Bay!  Arctic summer trips are still available.

Why Polar Bears Congregate In Churchill

Polar bears congregate every year around Churchill, Manitoba to await ice formation in the western and southern Hudson Bay. By early to mid November, polar bears are omnipresent in the Churchill Wildlife Management Area with travelers on polar rovers seeing more than 50 polar bears in a single excursion to the tundra.

Churchill polar bear.

Polar bear looking at the polar rover. Photo: Colby Brokvist

There are a few major factors for the bears anticipating the freeze-up in the Churchill region.First and foremost is simple topography relating to the location of the town of Churchill and the jutting land that extends into the bay known as Cape Churchill. As you can see by the map the shelf is quite evident.

While this shelf extension is not all that crucial in itself as a major congregating hot-spot, the contributing factors qualify it as such. Counter-clockwise sea currents cause ice formation to get hung up there. The stalling affect on the flow of water coupled with fresh water flow from the Churchill and Nelson Rivers, to name two of the biggest in the area, create the perfect formula for ice formation here. Since fresh water freezes faster than salt water, the ice will build early off the coast and then combine with the northern ice formed in the colder regions. That pack ice is pushed in by the currents and south winds. All this make for a “perfect storm” of ice formation at the most accessible place in the sub-Arctic.

Polar bears wandering the coast in Churchill,MB.

Three polar bears explore the coastline anticipating the freeze-up. Karen Walker photo.

Of course, there is another reason polar bears like Churchill. Human population. A community of humans brings all the side benefits for animals…and in this case hungry polar bears trying to survive to the next seal-hunting season on fat reserves. The aromas and food by-products associated with human life attract every opportunistic species around. Around Churchill, top of the list are the polar bears. Before the old dump was closed down some years ago, polar bears would forage there all day and became a zoo-like attraction to travelers and locals alike. With the majority of that facility closed down, polar bear activity in town escalated over the years. The Polar Bear Alert program has become quite active in attempts to keep up with the burgeoning polar bear appearances in the town.

The polar bear holding facility holds up to 25 polar bears that have been captured due to interactions with humans or coming into the town of Churchill, Manitoba's limits.

Polar bear holding compound in Churchill.

Global warming indications have also caused polar bears to appear on land earlier in the summer months. With sea ice coverage decreasing recently in the Hudson Bay, polar bears are being forced to come on land and seek alternative food sources. I can say from first-hand experience that polar bear sightings in Churchill have increased over the past 15 years. Guiding summer beluga whale trips for over a decade has allowed me to witness the firsthand increase in bear numbers. Bears have also become more successful at seal hunting in the shallow tidal coastal areas around the Churchill region.

Churchill polar bear chewing the seal fat from a kill.

Polar bear enjoying the success of a seal kill. Photo Paul Brown

Overall, the changes in polar bear numbers year-round have spurred Manitoba Conservation officers to adjust their strategy regarding bear management in Churchill. The feeling is this will continue to be readjusted even more over the coming years.




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