Worry in the water

·14 min read

Some feelings you just know will stay with you for the rest of your life.

Paddling a kayak out into the Churchill River as the sun starts sinking in the late summer sky, dipping the paddles into the murky water, whistling or cooing for your submerged friends to come and say hi. Then you feel it: the rumble of bubbles on the underside of the kayak that reverberates through the walls of the vessel — you know they’re on their way up from the river’s depths.

Belugas are unlike any other whale species. They’re relatively small (about half the size of an orca), curious and seemingly unafraid, with rounded, gleaming white noggins that can swivel on their bodies because their vertebrae aren’t fused the way they are in many other species.

Hundreds of them make themselves known to a group of tourists over the course of a couple of hours. The grey young and adolescent whales assert themselves even more than the picturesque white adults. They don’t seem to tire of the interactions; swimming up alongside kayaks and paddleboards. They bump you. They swim alongside you. They cock their heads so they can stare at you with their beady black eyes.

Churchill might be known for polar bears, but the bears aren’t social like these summering whales.

The estuaries in southwestern Hudson Bay are home to the largest population of belugas on Earth, which most recently was estimated to be about 54,500 animals in 2015, according to a survey conducted by Fisheries and Oceans Canada.

These belugas primarily summer in the mouths of the Churchill, Nelson and Seal rivers, where they are relatively free of predators and can calve, moult and feed in peace. They begin arriving in mid-June and they leave at the end of August and into September for the Hudson Strait as they retreat to the Arctic Ocean for the winter months. Completely defenceless against their predators, these animals rely on their habitats to keep them safe.

It seems undeniable that the western Hudson Bay belugas will have their lives upended by climate change, as their entire existence is dictated by the freeze-and-thaw cycles of sea ice in the bay — but as it turns out, exactly how climate change will impact these marine mammals is still poorly understood.

“Not a lot of studies have looked at climate change with respect to belugas. Most of the Arctic whale species, or marine mammals generally, we’re still kind of at the stage of trying to understand them a bit more basically,” says Steve Ferguson, a research scientist with Fisheries and Oceans Canada.

While climate-change research has progressed with respect to animals such as seals, it is more difficult to study changes in populations of animals with longer lifespans and lower birth rates, he explains. “The population dynamics don’t change very quickly because they’re so long-lived.” The upper range of a beluga’s lifespan has been estimated to be between 50 to 80 years.

There are a number of things that put this healthy whale population at risk for future decline, especially in a changing climate. For one, their loyalty to their calving grounds means these animals will continue to return to this place, no matter what. That fidelity to a single spot puts them at greater risk should the area ever become less safe for them. It’s something that’s caused beluga populations in other parts of Canada to be particularly unresponsive to conservation efforts after population decline began.

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Dwight Allen co-owns Sea North Tours, the largest beluga tour business in Churchill. For him, longer ice-free seasons also means a longer tourism season. He says while he used to shut down towards the end of August, he can now stay open well into September. (At least in a normal year; he closed down on Aug. 24 this year, but due to low tourist traffic as a result of the pandemic, not because of the whales leaving the river.)

“It does bring a longer season for beluga watching,” Allen says. “So, there’s a lot of potential in running a longer season. Tourism in Churchill is very important for our community and for all of Manitoba.”

Ferguson says Allen’s observations that whales remain several weeks longer roughly line up with what he would expect to see, given the lengthening of the open-ice time on Hudson Bay, however, no research has yet been done looking at changes in migration patterns.

But with longer open-water seasons for the belugas, so too is there a longer season for other species to wander into the bay which, on some occasions, brings predators to the belugas’ doorstep.

“We’ve had killer whales come into Hudson Bay fairly regularly and attack beluga,” Ferguson says. “Even around Churchill it’s been observed.”

Orcas, apex predators, have been observed all along the western coast of Hudson Bay feeding on beluga whales during the summer months, gaining access to the bay only during the ice-free season. Beluga whales have adapted to have a smooth back and no dorsal fin, which allows them to live and feed under sea ice, since they can run alongside the ice and find breathing holes. The killer whale is prohibited from living for any period beneath the ice because of its iconic dorsal fin.

Research using satellite telemetry has shown that when a killer whale wanders into beluga-filled waters, the white whales change their behaviour: reducing their range, moving closer to shore and away from attack sites.

Research on the history of orcas in Hudson Bay found that the predator’s presence was tracked by local Indigenous groups starting in the mid-1900s. A study published in 2009 in Ecological Applications found that, “killer whale use in the region has intensified considerably, especially in western Hudson Bay. This increase is significantly related to a decline in the sea ice in Hudson Strait.”

The last confirmed sighting of a killer whale in western Hudson Bay was in 2015.

“Then we did have a couple of fairly major ice entrapments of killer whales in the last 10 years and we think we may have lost a lot of the killer whales that were coming into Hudson Bay. We haven’t heard as much about them more recently. It’s hard for the killer whales to figure out the sea ice, they’re not used to it the way beluga are,” Ferguson says.

So, the beluga whales are safe, for now. But it’s likely only a matter of time before a new pod of orcas figures out how to navigate into this easy feeding ground. An article published in the Canadian Journal of Zoology in March recommended more study into the demographic and ecological knowledge of killer whales across the Canadian Arctic.

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Sitting cross-legged on a blanket laid out across a gravel patch, Erica Gillis and Terry Palmer stare out across the Churchill River, sipping coffee and watching for the white streaks of a whale’s back in the water. From their perch at the Port of Churchill they are tracking and observing the behaviour of belugas in the river when they are undisturbed.

Gillis, employed as a research manager at the Churchill Northern Studies Centre, is on contract for Oceans North, a not-for-profit organization working on ocean conservation programs in the Arctic. Palmer, a 15-year-old town resident and high school student, works as a research assistant. The information they’re gathering is for a research project that aims to document whale behaviour in the absence of boats, as well as in the presence of both tourist vessels and commercial transport ships.

They sit for hours. While whales are visible all over the place, in order to take notes on their behaviour, they have to be able to follow the same creature’s actions for three minutes. As Gillis spots them, Palmer starts the stop watch, and they dictate notes on behavioural observations to one another.

“We look for things like if they’re feeding, if they’re travelling, if they’re socializing, if they’re milling or if they’re resting. Then, when we’re (observing them from) the boat, we’re also looking to see if they’re interacting with the boat or kayak,” Gillis explains. “We also look for what kind of group it is. Is it all adults? Or is it mostly juveniles? Or, if there’s a calf in a group, then that gets classified as something different.”

Oceans North is pursuing this line of research because with longer ice-free seasons, there is speculation that soon there will be increased shipping through the port. What impact that could have on belugas is unknown but it is a source of great interest and concern for researchers, especially since the port is nestled along the shores of the estuary.

This monitoring project began in 2019 and will continue through next summer. The hope is that this research can fill in the gaps of missing information about how belugas are influenced by increased traffic and inform policy decisions going forward, says Chris Debicki, vice-president of policy development with Oceans North.

“There’s no outcome we’re certain of, we’re just looking to understand it better,” Debicki says. “We’re trying to find a responsible way to formulate recommendations on how belugas and a community can continue to coexist.”

Two researchers from the University of Manitoba are also looking at the intersection of increased shipping and the health of the beluga population. Emma Ausen, who is completing her masters research, is studying behaviour patterns using aerial photos of belugas in the Churchill River estuary.

“I’m hoping to see some kind of patterns in how they behave, especially connected to tide, weather conditions and boat/vessel presence,” she says.

Veronica Coppolaro, a physicist completing her PhD at the Centre for Earth Observation Science, is using hydrophones (underwater microphones) to study the vocalizations of belugas to further understanding of how they are using the estuary.

From her work she hopes to understand how the whales’ use of the area changes in the presence of the sound pollution from the commercial ships, something known to have great impact on other whale species that rely on underwater communication but never studied in the western Hudson Bay beluga population.

When a hydrophone dips beneath the surface of the Churchill River, it brings the water to life in a way that wasn’t evident moments before. Broadcast over the speaker are the squeeks, whistles, chirps, moans, moos and clicks of the plethora of belugas that dance in the water, just out of sight. Belugas are referred to as the “canaries of the sea” because of the enormous range of sounds they produce.

“They use different sounds for different reasons,” Coppolaro explains. “The socializing calls, they’re so varied, they make so many different sounds. But then they have the clicks, which are super high-frequency, and they’re used for navigation, echo location and searching for food, mainly. So, by knowing which kind of calls they’re making, we know what’s going on. (The question is) if a boat is approaching, will they stop echo locating? So you wouldn’t hear the clicks anymore, maybe you hear something else, like a call to tell the others to get out of the area, for example.”

Marianne Marcoux is supervising Coppolaro’s research and works as a research scientist with Fisheries and Oceans Canada at the Freshwater Institute in Winnipeg. She studies narwhal and beluga populations in the Arctic. Marcoux says similar research to Coppolaro’s was conducted in the St. Lawrence River, and there it was observed that the belugas shifted the frequency in which they communicated in response to noise pollution.

“We’re working together with (Fisheries and Oceans Canada) to see if this could give us an idea of how ships should behave when they come in,” Coppolaro says. “It could be as easy as slowing down when they come into the estuary, or only using a certain part — though there is already a channel that they mostly use — or just coming in at different times of day, when belugas are less active.”

Coppolaro says she feels the pressure of the expectations that come with doing the exciting, but daunting research that could ultimately inform policy decisions.

•••

Advocates for Churchill’s belugas aren’t keen to wait around until the population is in decline before conservation actions are taken. These whales have been “understudied and a little bit neglected” by federal scientists, says Debicki. A lack of federal funding has meant research programs have been cut and, as a result, the scientific evidence needed to make proper policy decisions is incomplete, he says.

“It’s the highest-density beluga population in the world and they’re not protected, so that’s certainly something we’re working on,” Debicki says.

Oceans North is specifically advocating for a national marine conservation area to be established along the shores of Hudson Bay, which would essentially create a water-based national park with tailored restrictions and protections created.

Four such conservation areas currently exist in Canada — the Saguenay–St. Lawrence Marine Park, Lake Superior National Marine Conservation Area, Fathom Five National Marine Park on Lake Huron, and Gwaii Haanas National Marine Conservation Area Reserve.

The establishment of the Saguenay–St. Lawrence Marine Park was precipitated by desperate attempts to preserve that region’s beluga population, which has continued to decline; in 2014 it was listed as an endangered species by the Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada.

Creating a protected marine area wouldn’t prohibit commercial or economic activity (such as tourism or fishing) within the area, however activities would have to prove to be ecologically sustainable and they could potentially be restricted in specific zones. National marine conservation areas do not impact traditional harvesting rights for Indigenous people.

Oceans North has been advocating for the establishment of this protected area for years, and a feasibility study was initially included in the 2017 Parks Canada departmental plans, before the Hudson Bay rail line outage caused the protection area to move down the list of priorities for the region.

“The establishment of an NMCA in this region will provide for more detailed studies of habitat use, as well as ongoing monitoring programs to detect changes and impacts,” a 2018 report penned by Oceans North on the proposed conservation area reads.

“The NMCA would establish a management plan designed to mitigate threats with adaptive mechanisms to respond to changes, while working with the Port of Churchill and shipping industry to design preferred minimal-impact shipping routes and prohibit ocean dumping of hazardous pollutants. Furthermore, an NMCA could ensure that future actions by Manitoba Hydro are co-ordinated and consistent with the NMCA management plan and that Manitoba Hydro is directly engaged as a partner in the conservation and management of beluga habitat in the area.”

A spokesperson for Minister of Environment and Climate Change Jonathan Wilkinson confirms that Parks Canada is in “an ongoing dialogue” with the province, local Indigenous communities and other stakeholders regarding the marine conservation area.

“The Government of Canada is committed to protecting 25 per cent of Canada’s land and 25 per cent of Canada’s oceans by 2025, with a goal of protecting 30 of each by 2030,” the spokesperson says in an email, but no timeline or additional details were provided.

With the potential threats to the whales mounting, Sea North Tour’s Allen says he’s not opposed to measures being taken to try to protect them before a problem announces itself, but he is weary of the area being controlled by bureaucrats “down south” who don’t understand how the area is used by residents.

“We’ve already lost so much control of our land and it’s so important to start regaining control of the land around our community, for the wellness of our community and for our sustainable future,” Allen says.

Manitoba’s 2016 beluga habitat sustainability plan ranks noise pollution and climate change as presenting a “medium” level of concern for the whales, while listing pollution as an issue that presents a “high” level of concern.

Marcoux says that at this point there are no indications that this population is in decline, but that doesn’t mean conservation initiatives shouldn’t be taken.

“I think we should protect what we have. This is the biggest population in the world, we should protect it. We know changes are coming, but I don’t know if I would worry,” she says. “I think we should just be proactive in protection mode.”

Sarah Lawrynuik, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Winnipeg Free Press