World beluga capital, Manitoba, works to save whale population

WINNIPEG -- Manitoba has released a plan to preserve the world's largest population of belugas while numbers of the white whales with the characteristic smiley face are still strong.

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"We have a healthy population, but the environment is changing," said Manitoba Conservation Minister Tom Nevakshonoff. "It's a rare opportunity when you can take something that's not in distress and focus on it now to preserve that rather than doing damage control."

Nearly 60,000 belugas migrate along the Hudson Bay coast. In the summer, whales stop where the Churchill, Nelson and Seal rivers flow into the bay to feed, give birth and nurture their young.

"When belugas are in those estuaries, you're not just seeing a beluga in there sporadically," said Chris Debicki of Oceans North Canada, an environmental group that worked with the province on the plan. "You're literally seeing hundreds and sometimes thousands of belugas at the same time."

The plan, which Nevakshonoff refers to as a "discussion document," involves protecting sections of the coastline as well as the outflow area of the Seal River.

It also requires help from the federal government.

Manitoba is asking Ottawa to extend the Arctic Waters Pollution Protection Act -- which would forbid the discharge of shipping waste -- to cover the waters off the mouths of the three rivers. It also wants the Liberal government to consider the area for its National Marine Conservation Area program.

Nevakshonoff said he'll be discussing those ideas with federal Fisheries and Oceans Minister Hunter Tootoo next week.

Although the Nelson and Churchill rivers have been heavily affected by hydro development, Debicki said the belugas seem to have adapted well. They also seem to be co-existing with current shipping levels out of the port of Churchill, he said.

However, the plan does note that future noise from ships and port activities could affect the whales, especially if that traffic increases. Tourist boat traffic could also be a future concern.

Climate change is the biggest unknown.

South Hudson Bay has lost sea ice faster than almost anywhere else in the North. Local numbers of orcas, which prey on belugas, are already increasing.

The Manitoba plan emphasizes the need for research. Little is know about beluga migration routes, winter habitat or how they use the estuaries, said Debicki.

Nevakshonoff said the plan will now go out for consultation with First Nations, businesses and environmental groups.

Belugas are worth almost $6 million a year in eco-tourism to Churchill.

Nevakshonoff said the town's mayor has already told him he's concerned about restrictions on the development of the port.

"I assured him that we have no intention of stifling industry," Nevakshonoff said. "We feel that industrial development and business can work together in conjunction with the preservation of our environment."

Debicki praised the province for proposing a conservation plan before problems arise.

"It's really important when we're considering future development on those rivers that beluga remain on the radar."

by Bob Weber in Edmonton


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