Whales, change, and marine conservation in the Canadian Arctic

Bowhead whale

Bowhead whale in Cumberland Sound, southeast Baffin Island, Nunavut.

Photo: Sarah Fortune

Canada's Arctic marine world teems with life. From microscopic plants that live under the ice and power the ecosystem by turning nutrients and sunlight into food, to hundred-ton bowhead whales that can break through the ice to breathe, it's an ecosystem like no other — a complex, interdependent web governed by seasonal rhythms of the sea ice.

It's also an ecosystem that's fragile and vulnerable to climate change. As average Arctic temperatures rise, sea ice is forming later in fall, breaking up earlier in spring, and covering less of the ocean. This has consequences for fish and marine mammals, and for the health of the Inuit communities that depend on them for food.

New species are arriving. Not long ago, for example, killer whales were rare in the high Arctic, but Inuit there are seeing them more now. These small whales, also known as orcas, avoid sea ice as it damages their tall dorsal fins. With more open water they can move north, where they find plenty of prey that is easy to catch. Narwhals, an important source of food in some Inuit communities, have little experience with orcas and have not learned to be wary of them. In Tallurutiup Imanga (Lancaster Sound), hundreds of narwhals have been killed by orcas.

With warming waters, southern fish like Atlantic salmon and capelin are becoming more common in parts of the Arctic. Salmon have appeared in Arctic lakes and rivers and may be spawning there. Inuit in Pangnirtung, Nunavut have observed that beluga whales in Cumberland Sound have shifted their diet from Arctic cod to capelin. During the open-water season, they are seeing new species such as humpback whales, minke whales, and dolphins.

Less sea ice makes it easier for ships to reach the Arctic and lengthens the shipping season. Vessel traffic tripled in the Canadian Arctic between 1990 and 2015, mostly in Nunavut waters. Ship noise stresses whales by masking the sounds they use to communicate with each other, navigate, and find food. More traffic increases the risk of oil spills and of ship strikes, which are often fatal to whales.

Conservation measures, like Marine Protected Areas, can safeguard marine ecosystems and help maintain the food security and economies of communities that depend on them. There are three Marine Protected Areas in the Canadian Arctic. Shipping corridors, speed limits (which reduce ship strikes), and accurate navigational charts to lower accident risk can also help protect whales and other marine life.

Effective Arctic marine conservation requires a thorough understanding of the local environment and the factors that affect it. The most effective way to achieve this is through research that combines the strengths of both science and Indigenous knowledge.

Inuit must play a direct role in establishing and applying Arctic marine conservation measures, as they have for the three Marine Protected Areas. Communities know they have the most at stake in protecting the Arctic marine environment — because their health depends on it.

Polar Knowledge Canada

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