Marine mammals in a changing Arctic Ocean

Executive Summary

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-tonne 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 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.

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.

The long description of this infographic follows.

Description: Summary of Whale population and marine ecosystem biodiversity

An infographic showing simplified marine mammals' ecosystem and the impacts on this ecosystem of climate change, shipping and environmental change. The infographic also shows connection between the marine environment and Indigenous food security and a way of life.

In the upper left corner of the infographic there is an image of the sun and a thermometer beside it symbolizing rising temperature in the Arctic. Beside there is a text "climate change". Underneath there is an image of a breaking ice floe with a seal on top and text "receding ice" and "habitat loss". Beside there is an image of a Canadian Coast Guard ice breaker crushing the ice with a text above "ice breaking". The icebreaking creates a noise and there is an image of sound waves dispersing through water. On the right of the image of the icebreaker there is an image of a cargo ship with a text box above with a word "shipping". Arrows, originating from above the ship go under the surface of water and onto the surface of ice floe symbolizing interconnectivity of shipping, icebreaking, and climate change and their impacts on the marine mammals' habitat. On a blue surface symbolizing the depths of the ocean and underneath the cargo ship there is an image of half circles symbolizing sound waves emitted by the ship, underneath there are images of marine mammals including narwhal and two whales, beluga and fish species. The images of sound waves beside the marine mammals symbolize the sound waves emitted by whales to echolocate the fish and communicate. The text beside those images reads "difficult echolocation" and "difficult communication and displacement". The text and the soundwaves emitted by the cargo ship symbolize the impacts of shipping on marine mammals and their habitat. On the far right beneath the cargo ship there is an image of a whale and a warning triangle, beneath the whale there is a text which reads "direct strikes". The image and the text symbolize the impacts of shipping through collisions with mammals on the marine environment.

In the centre of the infographic there is a bubble with an image of a whale, beluga, seal and narwhal symbolizing Arctic marine mammals. The arrows which originate from the text and images on the rest of the infographic point towards the bubble which symbolize various interconnected impacts of climate change, environmental change and human activities on marine mammals.

On the right of the infographic and the bubble with the image of marine mammals there is an image of a trawler pulling a fishing net with a text capture" competition for prey". The textbox above the trawler reads "fisheries". Underneath the trawler there is an image of a whale with a fishing net around its body with text capture "entanglement". On the left of the infographic there is an image of a clock and a calendar with a capture "changing timing of migration/breeding". Underneath, there are bubbles with text CO2 and pH and capture "ocean acidification". The text and images symbolize higher levels of acidity and carbon dioxide levels in the ocean and there impacts on fish and their food as the next image is of fish and plankton with a capture "reduced forage opportunities and changing to prey base". Underneath there is an image of a killer whale and salmon and capture "new species and diseases". On the right a text PCBs, DDTs, and Hg with a capture "contaminant" symbolizes water contamination. An image of shredded plastics with a text "microplastics" symbolizes pollution.

An arrow originating from the centre bubble with the image of marine mammals points downward onto an image of an ice floe. Above the ice floe, there are three text boxes with captures "species expanding north", "population health and body condition" and "traditional co-management of harvest for sustainability". On the icefloe there are images of an Inuit hunter and youth after a successful hunt for a seal where the hunter passed knowledge how to hunt to a next generation. On the right of the hunters there are images of Inuit woman carrying a child in a traditional amauti. Behind the woman the images of elderly and children as well as workers and snowmobilers and Inuit cabin and dogs around the fish drying rack symbolize traditional Inuit village. The text underneath the images reads" Indigenous food security and way of life". An arrow originating from the ice floe points towards the bubble with images of marine mammals symbolizing interconnectivity between marine mammals and Indigenous food security and well-being.

Authors and contributors

  • William Halliday* Wildlife Conservation Society Canada/University of Victoria
  • Samantha McBeth* Polar Knowledge Canada
  • Valeria Vergara Raincoast Conservation Foundation
  • Steve Ferguson Fisheries and Oceans Canada
  • Lisa Loseto Fisheries and Oceans Canada/University of Manitoba
  • Marianne Marcoux Fisheries and Oceans Canada
  • Kristin Westdal Oceans North
  • Andrea Niemi Fisheries and Oceans Canada
  • Lois Harwood Fisheries Joint Management Committee, Northwest Territories
  • Maya Gold Fisheries and Oceans Canada
  • Dexter Koonoo** Arctic Bay, Nunavut
  • Johnny Lennie** Inuvik, Inuvialuit, Northwest Territories
  • Nysana Qillaq** Clyde River, Nunavut

* Corresponding author

**Indigenous Knowledge Holders

Citation information

Halliday, W., McBeth, S., Vergara, V., Ferguson, S., Loseto, L., Marcoux, M., Westdal, K., Niemi, A., Harwood, L., Gold, M., Koonoo, D., Qillaq, N. and Lennie, J., 2022, Marine mammals in a changing Arctic Ocean. Polar Knowledge: Aqhaliat Report, Volume 4, Polar Knowledge Canada, p. 58–83. DOI: 10.35298/pkc.2021.03.eng


The Arctic Ocean is home to thousands of species, from microscopic algae to massive whales. Its unique ecosystem revolves around ice. The Arctic Ocean's biodiversity, and the distribution and abundance of its whales, have changed over the last few decades as the result of ecosystem changes linked with a changing climate, including shifting ice patterns.1

Arctic marine mammals are well adapted to the vagaries, fluctuations, and natural cycles of the Arctic Ocean. Climate change is impacting sea ice, posing a risk to Arctic marine food webs and ice-dependent species such as Arctic cod.2 Large species are more impacted by disturbance and changes in the Arctic Ocean since they migrate long distances and use a variety of habitats.

Human activities also cause change. Oil and gas exploration, new and expanded shipping routes and increased traffic, tourism, and growth of communities have all increased the level of human activity in Arctic waters. As the sea ice season shortens, ships are able to spend more time in the Arctic, as previously inaccessible areas open up due to climate-change driven reductions of sea ice.

This paper shares some of the recent collaborative research on Arctic marine biodiversity, with Indigenous Knowledge is mobilized and included, focusing here on harvested species such as beluga, bowhead, and narwhal. It addresses some of the key questions that participants from Kitikmeot communities and from Ulukhaktok, NT, developed at the Regional Planning and Knowledge Sharing Workshop in 2020.

Overview by Indigenous Knowledge holders

Inuit Knowledge and marine management research

Regional co-management boards and game councils, and Hunters and Trappers Organizations, were set up to ensure good, sustainable management of wildlife, including whales. In the Inuvialuit Settlement Region (ISR), there are three distinct beluga whale groups using nearshore waters: one in the Yukon, and two in the Northwest Territories, off Kendall Island and near Tuktoyaktuk, respectively. There are bowhead whales off the coast. There are currently no quotas and approximately 100 belugas are harvested each year. The shallow waters where they are hunted allow hunters to follow them easily, so that each year only one or two of these hunted whales are lost.

In all northern communities, hunters are the main observers, and they often provide samples from their catches for scientific purposes.

People in Arctic Bay know that beluga and narwhal calve near Resolute Bay. The beluga used to arrive two weeks before the narwhal in the area, but now they come at the same time. Aerial surveys monitor animal and marine mammal populations in some places. These tend to be species-specific projects: narwhal in and around Arctic Bay, planned monitoring around Clyde River, and polar bears in the Inuvialuit region. There has been a lot of research in the Inuvialuit region in recent years, but communities are concerned that the data has not been adequately analyzed and shared with them. Some feel that this research is interfering with wildlife.

Whales and shipping

In the Inuvialuit Settlement Region (ISR), belugas migrate into the shallow waters of the estuaries to breed. For the past decades, the main ship activity has been the sealift for communities and occasional tourist ships. Whales have been observed swimming beside ships but they fear small boats and recognize the sound of their motors. Very few whales are reported struck by ships in the ISR.

Clyde River lies on whale migration and shipping routes. Community members there are seeing fewer whales than in the 1990s and 2000s, and many believe that this is due to increased shipping, especially from the Baffinland mine. Clyde River has a marine monitoring project to get evidence of the impact on marine life of increased shipping, and so far it looks like seals are not affected by Baffinland ships. In Arctic Bay, the community is seeing more belugas, narwhals, and bowheads. This is thought to be because of the Baffinland ships that push the whales more towards the west, away from the shipping routes.

Marine Protected Areas and other protective measures

Marine Protected Areas (MPAs) have been created in the North to help protect whales and to ensure that the communities are able to harvest them. There is a bowhead whale sanctuary near Clyde River, called the Ninginganiq National Wildlife Area. Tallurutiup Imanga National Marine Conservation Area is being established near Pond Inlet. Anguniaqvia Niqiqyuam and Tarium Niryutait Marine Protected Areas, the latter made of up of three areas called Niaqnuunaq, Okeevik and Kitigaryuit, are all located in the ISR. Other protective measures implemented in the Inuvialuit region with co-management board approval include forbidding ships to empty their bilge water, to protect against contamination and invasive species.

In some areas of the Arctic, quotas can be effective if well-developed and adequately managed. Clyde River is considering moving from seasonal quotas to a single quota system that allows carryover of unused tags. This would make it easier to manage harvesting.

Climate change and other environmental impacts

Climate change is causing ice to form later, and break up earlier, in spring. This may be affecting whale migration. In Clyde River and Arctic Bay, hunters must often travel further than they did previously to find whales. Different species are also being seen more frequently: saltwater salmon in Arctic Bay (these arrived over the last 5–6 years); humpbacks and sperm whales near Clyde River; and dolphins near Pond Inlet. Killer whales have been hunting in Arctic Bay for as long as can be remembered, and Inuit often find the partially eaten carcasses they leave behind. In the Inuvialuit region, killer whales are rarely seen, but they are in the Bering Strait.

The biggest environmental concern is from ships: noise, bilge water, and oil spills. Concern is growing at the lack of adequate local equipment, training, and capacity to deal with an oil spill. An oil spill has to be dealt with quickly; relying on the territorial and/or federal government to respond would delay the response. Communities recognize the potential impact of an oil spill and the increased risk from more tourist vessel and mining ship traffic. In areas like Clyde River, where currents and winds are strong and changeable, any contamination would spread extensively, with significant impacts on the marine environment, including fish, birds, mammals, and on Inuit who rely on wildlife for food.

Shifting ice and marine mammals

Arctic Ocean life waxes and wanes with the sea ice. Seasonal changes in sea ice affect the amount and timing of energy available at the base of the food web. The ice directly affects the movements and habitats of many species, from microscopic organisms to whales, creating specialized habitats. Sea ice also interacts with the atmosphere and the ocean through winds3 and currents.

Sea ice is both a physical part of Arctic waters and an ecosystem in itself. It shelters breeding seals and supports the food source of many birds, fish, and marine mammals. Arctic communities use it for travel and hunting.

There are many kinds of sea ice. Seasonal ice forms and melts within a year. Multi-year ice lasts at least two summers. Land-fast ice is attached to the land and stays in place, whereas pack ice, which is further from shore, moves around with winds and currents.

Older sea ice tends to be thicker, less mobile, and more predictable. For example, Tuvaijuittuq (meaning "place that is never without sea ice"), at the north end of Ellesemere Island in Nunavut, preserves more multi-year ice than other places. It will probably be the last area to have summer sea ice. This is because winds bring ice into the area from the central Arctic Ocean. There is more multi-year ice around the Canadian Arctic archipelago than anywhere else in the Arctic Ocean. Thicker ice lasts longer than younger thinner ice.4 More land-fast ice leads to a longer ice season,5 and the formation of stable ice bridges.6 Prevailing winds, which change in cycles, influence when ice forms and when it disappears. Communities are concerned about changes in this timing because it impacts ice travel safety and the location of marine species.

Sunlight, runoff from rivers, and sea ice all influence the Arctic marine ecosystem. Sea ice plays a key role in how much energy, in the form of nutrients, is available at the base of the food web, and at what time of year. Sea ice affects transfer of energy throughout the entire food web, and species movements and habitats.

A warming Arctic Ocean also influences precipitation, bringing more snow onto the sea ice. Phytoplankton, the microscopic plants that are the primary producers at the base of the food web, need nutrients and light to grow. Snow accumulation limits the amount of light that reaches the water where they live. For production to start, the marine ecosystem needs open water or ponds formed by melted snow on the ice. Both of these let more light into the water than snow does. Ice algae, attached to the bottom of the sea ice, grow first. They contain food for zooplankton (microscopic animals) that are adapted to the timing of ice algae growth. Phytoplankton grow until they use up all the nutrients. When phytoplankton growth is at its maximum, it is called a bloom. These blooms are very important for zooplankton and for species on the seafloor, including the variety of forage species of marine mammals.7, 8

Changes to the times when sea ice forms and disappears affects the timing of algae blooms, the prey species that feed on those blooms, and the migration and breeding of marine mammals. In many regions, these blooms are occurring earlier, with more happening under the ice before full breakup.9, 10 An early or late bloom means phytoplankton may sink to the bottom before the zooplankton has a chance to eat it.11 In addition, changes in sea ice could mean that marine mammal prey may be getting more energy from pelagic (phytoplankton) rather than ice-associated (ice algae) energy sources. It is still uncertain if the quantity and quality of food for marine mammals is changing with the sea ice, and if this the case everywhere, and how quickly these changes may be happening

Methods for gathering data on marine mammals

Programs for gathering data on marine mammals work best when scientists and Indigenous Knowledge holders design them together.

Working together, scientists and Indigenous Knowledge holders design, plan, and study marine mammals through these approaches (see Figure 1):

  • Direct observation
  • Indirect observation and tracking (done remotely with instruments)
  • Collecting tissue samples and measuring harvested animals

The long description of this infographic follows.

Description: Summary of Whale population and marine ecosystem biodiversity - monitoring methods

An infographic shows a simplified methods to track marine mammals in the Arctic. On the left there is an image of a satellite with a text underneath the image "satellite imagery". Beside the image of the satellite there is an image of a plane with a text underneath the image "aerial surveys". Beside the image of the plane there is an image of binoculars a text underneath the image "in-situ observations". Starting from the left again there is an image of a Canadian Coast Guard research ship sending signals to an image of a sensor on the bottom of the ocean and a seal image beside the sensor emitting signals which are received by the ship. Beside the image of the research ship there is an image of two human figures representing an Inuit hunter and a youth. The hunter holds a harpoon and talks to the youth which represents passing of knowledge between generations. Beneath the image of the hunters there is an image of a seal with a text underneath "sampling from hunt". Underneath this text there are three boxes with text which elaborate on different methods of sampling from hunt including "lab analysis of tissue" with an image of a microscope underneath, "diet studies" with an image of various sizes of fish and plankton, "body condition studies "with an image of two seals underneath, one of the seals is fat which symbolizes a good body condition, and the other seal is skinny which symbolizes diet deficiencies. All the images and text are pointing towards the text box "sampling from hunt". Besides the image of the hunters there is an image of a swimming narwhal chasing fish and emitting signals. Underneath this image there is a text box with a text "telemetry data".

Figure 1: Methods for gathering data on marine mammals, which include satellite imagery, aerial surveys, in-situ observations, passive acoustic, telemetry data, and using samples from hunts, such as lab analysis of tissue, diet studies, and body condition studies.

Direct observation

Direct observations are done from shore, ice, ship or airplane, by hunters and/or scientists, in-situ. Hunter observations provide important information that complements scientific knowledge.12 Hunters are skilled and experienced observers who take notice of and rely on such things as the behaviour of animals and their health and body condition; where they are found and when; how abundant they are; and changes in age structure, group structure, and reproduction — over short and long periods, from seasons to decades.

Observations from shore

Observations from the shore, water, or floe edge provide information on marine mammal behaviour and their relative numbers. Shore-based observations have been used to assess the impact of shipping from the Baffinland Mary River mine.

Remote/indirect observation

Tracking data

Satellite telemetry uses tags which are small computers attached to marine mammals that record information such as:

  • location of the animal
  • how deep the animal is diving
  • temperature and the salinity of the water
  • sounds the animal makes or that it might hear13

Tags are attached to a marine mammal using a crossbow or a pole, or by capturing and temporarily restraining the animal in a net. The knowledge and skill of Indigenous Knowledge holders is critical to doing this safely and successfully. Netting marine mammals is stressful for the animal, but a recent study showed that narwhals returned to their normal behaviour within 24 hours of tagging.14

Tagging studies are helping to identify narwhal stocks,15 determine important habitat in the Pacific Arctic,16, 17, 18 and study the impact of killer whales on bowhead whales.19

Passive acoustic monitoring

Underwater sounds provide information about whales and the sounds in their environment.20 By recording marine mammal calls, scientists can determine their presence and distribution, estimate their number, and get an idea of their behaviour.

Aerial surveys

Observers flying in aircraft conduct aerial surveys to estimate the distribution, relative abundance, and size of marine mammal populations in the Arctic. These surveys consist of planned flight lines in areas the mammals use. The flight plan is based on:

  • information from Indigenous Knowledge holders
  • known distribution and relative or expected abundance of marine mammals
  • previous surveys

Aerial/satellite imagery

Drones take photographs at lower altitudes that can show the body condition of the whales, their behaviour, and the age and sex composition of their groups. Photographs taken from airplanes can cover wide areas.

Satellite images can show belugas, narwhals and bowhead whales.21 Belugas are easiest to detect because their white skin contrasts with the water.

Collecting tissue samples and taking measurements from animals

Tissue samples from the liver, blubber, or skin can show whether the animal's body contains contaminants such as mercury. Blood samples help detect diseases and other health issues, or changes in diet.22, 23, 24

Recording the size, age, and sex of animals reveals information about their health and about population growth and dynamics.25

the description follows

Figure 2: Satellite images that show beluga, narwhals and bowhead whales found in a report from Charry et al., 2021.22 Photo credit A and B: Fisheries and Oceans Canada, © 2020, DigitalGlobe Inc

Changes in Arctic whale range distribution over time

Beluga whales, including their calves, are well known for spending summer in warm, less-saline waters of specific estuaries. Bowheads tend to use different summering spots, changing their habitat depending on where ocean and ice conditions concentrate their prey. Narwhal normally use deep inlets and fjords as summer calf-rearing habitat, although they are known to change their migration routes in response to annual variation in sea ice.

Whales, being large-bodied, may have more difficulty adapting to and thriving in warmer water temperatures and greater winds and storms that are predicted for the Arctic.

Predators, competitors, and changes in prey affect the distribution of Arctic whales. As sea ice decreases, Arctic whales are more vulnerable to killer whales. Belugas may also lose access to their preferred prey, Arctic cod, which is associated with sea ice.

For millennia, killer whales have migrated each summer to the Arctic and Antarctic, where they find plenty of food. In the past, they did not stay long because they tend to avoid sea ice, which can damage their large dorsal fin. With less ice and longer open water seasons, killer whales are able to spend longer in the Canadian Arctic. A model shows that a population of almost 200 killer whales would need to eat about a thousand narwhal while residing in the Tallurutiup Imanga NMCA (Lancaster Sound) region in summer. It is still uncertain what the true impact of killer whales on narwhal will be during longer ice-free summers, and monitoring will be important. Models estimate that they may eat large numbers of prey not used to killer whales.

The long description of this infographic follows.

Description: Summary of Whale population and marine ecosystem biodiversity - killer whales

An infographic shows a simplified range extension of killer whales into the Arctic. On the background of a map of North America and Greenland the infographic shows how killer whales are expanding their range into the Arctic with the help of arrows symbolizing expansion ranges on a map and the text explaining the range expansion. On the left upper corner, an image symbolizing a killer whale and an arrow pointing downwards towards the entry of the Northwest Passage. The capture beside reads "Some killer whales are coming from the west, but sightings are still very rare." Another capture below reads "Killer whales are being observed more frequently and in new locations in the Arctic. This change corresponds with reductions in sea ice." On the right of the infographic in the area symbolizing Atlantic Ocean in the vicinity of Newfoundland there is an image of a killer whale with arrows pointing downwards toward Newfoundland, upwards towards the strait between Baffin Island and Greenland, as well as arrows pointing towards the Northern Passage and Hudson Bay. Captures read "Killer whales are being spotted closer to the shores of Newfoundland and entering the Strait of Belle Isle" and "Killer whales moving into the Hudson Bay region appear to be different from the Lancaster Sound killer whales" and "Killer whales are increasingly being spotted towards Lancaster Sound and as far west as Cambridge Bay."

Figure 3: Killer whales are increasingly spotted more frequently and in new locations in the Arctic, seen north and west of the Labrador Sea, moving into Hudson Bay, the Tallurutiup Imanga NMCA (Lancaster Sound) and as far as Cambridge Bay. Whales who are present in the Beaufort Basin can rarely be spotted in the Western Arctic.

The marine ecosystem in the Arctic runs on fat from the ice algae through such species as copepods, shrimp, and especially Arctic cod, which are food for a multitude of wildlife, particularly beluga whales and seals.

Capelin are also an important forage fish, increasingly so in recent years. They typically live in temperate waters, but have moved northward into Arctic regions with warming ocean temperatures. Capelin are now commonly caught in places where Arctic cod were once predominant.

We do not know how changes to the fish community are affecting Arctic food webs and whales. In Cumberland Sound, capelin have increased with loss of sea ice. Beluga whales have shifted their diet from mostly Arctic cod in the 1990s to capelin in the 2000s. At the same time, harp seals have come to dominate Cumberland Sound during the open-water season, leaving ringed seals to dominate the winter sea ice season. During the open-water season, the region has seen a large influx of new species, including humpback whales, minke whales, and dolphins. Similar changes may occur farther north. The Arctic Archipelago may become the last refuge for endemic Arctic whales, beluga, bowhead and narwhal.

These changes will affect traditional foods in Inuit communities. Communities need information on present and predicted patterns of animal movement and habitat use to help them adapt.

Shipping and vessel impacts

Less sea ice means ships can reach the Arctic more easily and the shipping season becomes longer. Ship traffic tripled in the Canadian Arctic between 1990 and 2015, mostly in Nunavut waters.30 For marine mammals, ships bring risk of vessel strikes, pollution, and underwater noise which can disturb or displace marine mammals from habitats and migration routes.31, 32

Shipping noise impacts

Noise from motorized vessels impacts marine mammal species in a number of ways.

Behavioural disturbance

Marine mammals respond differently to noise. Their reaction may depend on the following:

  • past exposure of the individual to the noise
  • individuals becoming used to the noise so they no longer see it as a threat
  • individual noise tolerance and hearing sensitivity
  • age
  • sex
  • group composition (e.g., the presence of calves)
  • the characteristics of the noise
  • how sound travels in the habitat
  • the normal noise levels in the natural environment of the animal33

Some reactions, such as moving away from preferred habitats, not eating, or interrupting nursing, can affect growth, reproduction, and survival.

There are few studies on the impacts of ship noise or icebreaking noise on Arctic marine mammal behaviour Arctic marine mammals.34, 35 We do not yet know which noise levels cause whales to change their behaviour. We do have evidence that Arctic whales will flee from vessel noise, sometimes when that noise is barely audible.

Signal masking

Communication masking

Ship noise masks the sounds whales make to communicate. Calves are especially vulnerable because their calls are quieter than adults. If a mother does not hear its calf, they may become separated, which is very dangerous for the calf.36

Echolocation masking

Belugas and narwhals make clicking noises and use the echoes to find food, navigate, and avoid hazards. This is called echolocation. Ship noise can shorten the distance over which a whale can hear its echoes. This can impair the whale's feeding, navigation, orientation, and hazard avoidance.37

Auditory impairment

Ship noise may damage a whale's hearing temporarily or permanently,38 but we do not know what levels or characteristics of long duration ship noise would do this, and it would vary among species.39

Ship strikes

Whales usually flee from underwater noise and the ships that cause it — but not always. Ship strikes injure and kill whales. Whales are more likely to be hit when they are feeding near the surface, and just below the surface because of the propeller suction effect. Fast ships are most dangerous. There is evidence of ship strikes for only one Arctic whale species, the bowhead.40, 41

Oil spills

Shallow waters and poor charts put the Arctic at risk for oil spills. An oil spill there could spread widely and be difficult to clean up because of the following factors:

  • the remoteness the Arctic
  • the difficulty of reaching a spill far from a community
  • the lack of sufficient infrastructure, protocol, and plans to contain and clean up an oil spill
  • Sea ice would make it impossible to clean up any spill and would make the oil spread further

Oil can damage an animal's fur or skin and eyes, and block nostrils and blowholes. Swallowing oil can make an animal sick.

Indirect shipping impacts on harvesting of marine mammals

Disturbance from ships can make marine mammals leave an area where Inuit are used to hunting them.

Near the north Baffin community of Mittimatalik (Pond Inlet), shipping traffic increased threefold in 2011–2015 compared with 1990–2000. The ships that increased the most were tourist vessels and ships serving the Baffinland Mary River mine. They passed through an important area for narwhal foraging, mating, and calving42, 43, 44 and for seal denning. It is essential to understand how shipping may impact these critical life functions, which may in turn affect food security in northern communities. Scientific studies have not looked at this question, although community members have identified this as a concern.45

Shipping policies and management measures for reducing impacts

The most obvious way to reduce the impacts of ships on marine mammals is to keep ships out of important areas such as foraging habitat. No-go zones, including formal MPAs (see section on Marine Protected Areas) and shipping corridors that avoid important marine mammal habitat can be effective.46

Speed restrictions are also useful: slower ships are quieter and less likely to hit whales.48

The best way to reduce the oil spill risk is to lower the chance of an accident by keeping ships away from uncharted waters and by charting those waters.49

Tools for conservation of marine species, their prey and their habitats in the Canadian Arctic


Co-management refers to agreements between government and the Indigenous Peoples of Canada to jointly make land use and resource management decisions. Co-management boards in areas with settled land claims, and other advisory boards and committees in areas where claims are under negotiation, aim to ensure conservation of species, their prey, and their habitats.

Co-management boards mobilize Indigenous Knowledge from the communities they serve and apply it to marine conservation. They have led the way in developing new approaches that involve Indigenous Knowledge holders in ecological and biological studies in authentic and effective ways.50

Types of tools for conservation of marine species

Canada's coastline is the longest of any country in the world. In 2021 the Government of Canada committed to protecting 25% of its marine and coastal areas by 2025, working towards 30% by 2030. To help meet these conservation targets, and to protect against loss of biodiversity and marine habitat, and address the challenges of climate change, the 2021 federal budget included funding of $976.8 million over five years, starting in 2021–2022.

In total, Canada has approximately eight federal and 40 provincial/territorial legislative or regulatory tools for establishing protected areas with a marine component.

Marine Protected Areas are the main tool for marine conservation in Canada. The International Union for Conservation of Nature defines a Marine Protected Area as "a clearly defined geographical space, recognized, dedicated and managed, through legal or other effective means, to achieve the long term conservation of nature with associated ecosystem services and cultural values."

The Canadian government can invoke legislated marine protection in three ways, depending on the Minister that is responsible for its establishment:

There are currently 14 Oceans Act Marine Protected Areas across Canada, with three in the Arctic:

Marine conservation tools known as "Other effective area-based conservation measures" also provide protection but do not meet the International Union for Conservation of Nature definition of a Marine Protected Area. They may apply at certain times, in certain places: for example, to protect fish during spawning or birds during nesting. The Disko Fan Conservation Area is an example of "Other effective area-based conservation measures." A marine refuge, it protects the unique corals in southern Baffin Bay by restricting the use of commercial fishing equipment that contacts the sea bottom. This site also has conservation benefits for the narwhals, sperm whales, and northern bottlenose whales that use the area. "Other effective area-based conservation measures" are recognized for their value to conservation of species and habitats (biodiversity) and they will likely be used more in the future.

Marine Protected Areas can protect plants, animals, and habitats. They can improve the resilience of ecosystems and benefit areas outside their boundaries. Research shows that they have been effective in improving the local marine ecosystem by:

  • increasing biodiversity and species richness
  • restoring community structure, and uniqueness
  • strengthening the ability of ecosystems to resist, recover from, or adapt to disturbances (such as those caused by overexploitation or climate change)51

Marine Protected Areas enhance the economy of coastal communities by providing jobs in conservation and tourism, while protecting subsistence harvesting opportunities.

Table 1 Examples of Marine Protected Areas in the Canadian Arctic

Designation Regional Concerns Conservation Objective
Tarium Niryutait MPA Canada's first Arctic MPA. It was designated under Canada's Oceans Act (1996) in 2010. Located within the Canadian Beaufort Sea and the Inuvialuit Settlement Region, it consists of three separate sub-regions covering approximately 1,800 km2 of Niaqunnaq (Shallow Bay), Okeevik (East Mackenzie Bay), and Kittigaryuit (Kugmallit Bay). Its establishment was a collaborative effort the Inuvialuit Regional Corporation, the Inuvialuit Game Council, the Fisheries Joint Management Committee, and Fisheries and Oceans Canada (DFO). To conserve and protect beluga whales and other marine species, their habitats, and their supporting ecosystem.
Anguniaqvia niqiqyuam MPA (ANMPA)

Canada's second Arctic MPA. It was designated under Canada's Oceans Act (1996) in 2016. It is the first MPA in Canada for which both science and Indigenous Knowledge-based Conservation Objectives were developed. Its establishment was also a collaborative effort by the Inuvialuit Regional Corporation, the Inuvialuit Game Council, the Fisheries Joint Management Committee, and Fisheries and Oceans Canada.

Located in Darnley Bay, Northwest Territories, in the Beaufort Sea Large Ocean Management Area and the Inuvialuit Settlement Region. It covers an area of 2,361 km2, and borders the east coast of the Parry Peninsula, about 10 km west of Paulatuk. The community uses the ANMPA for travel, education and other traditional activities, and identifies most of ANMPA as having "Extreme Significance" year-round.

ANMPA acknowledged subsistence harvest as a key objective. Through this type of approach, area-based conservation measures strive to maintain key ecosystem services, while also enhancing sustainable Indigenous management practices.

"…to maintain the integrity of the marine environment offshore of the Cape Parry Migratory Bird Sanctuary (MBS) so that it is productive and allows for high trophic level feeding by ensuring that the Cape Parry polynyas and associated sea-ice habitat, and the role of key prey species (e.g., Arctic cod), are not disrupted by human activities."

"…to maintain the habitat to support populations of key species (beluga, char, ringed and bearded seals)."

Tuvaijuittuq MPA

This culturally and historically significant marine area lies in the High Arctic off the northwest coast of Ellesmere Island, Nunavut. It is globally, nationally and regionally unique because it has multi-year pack ice.

Tuvaijuittuq is the first Marine Protected Area designated by ministerial order under the Oceans Act for interim protection in 2019. Under the order, no new or additional human activities will be allowed in the area for up to five years, with the following exceptions:

  • The exercise of Inuit rights respecting wildlife harvesting as provided for under the Nunavut Agreement
  • Marine scientific research consistent with the conservation objectives of the MPA
  • Safety, security and emergency activities
  • Certain activities carried out by a foreign national, entity, ship or state.

The MPA provides interim protection to the area while the Qikiqtani Inuit Association, the Government of Nunavut, and the Government of Canada work with Inuit and northern partners to explore longer-term protection for this area

To contribute to the conservation, protection and understanding of the natural diversity, productivity and dynamism of the High Arctic sea ice ecosystem.

How are these Marine Protected Areas managed?

Local and Indigenous populations can take the first steps to create a Marine Protected Area, and they can manage it once it is established. Three National Wildlife Areas on the northeast coast of Baffin Island were identified as part of the Inuit Impact and Benefit Agreement for National Wildlife Areas and Migratory Bird Sanctuaries in the Nunavut Settlement Area. The Agreement is a collaboration between the Inuit of the Nunavut Settlement Area and the Government of Canada, under the authority of the Nunavut Claim. These agreements require co-management committees to be established for the National Wildlife Areas to advise the federal Minister of Environment and Climate Change on all aspects of planning and management. Collaborative management with communities and Indigenous Knowledge holders ensures that both Inuit expertise and the best scientific data are combined effectively in all decision-making relating to the MPA.

Investing in marine conservation in Canada

The Arctic is now home to a number of recently established Marine Protected Areas in Canada. The Arctic marine environment is fragile, slow to change, and easy to disturb. It is very sensitive to the effects of climate change and human activities.53 Marine Protected Areas and other conservation measures can be useful tools in maintaining this unique ecosystem and traditional way of life

Emerging issues and knowledge gaps / Concluding remarks toward bridging different ways of knowing

Mobilizing Inuit Knowledge for marine conservation, monitoring, management, research and decision-making

There are several knowledge gaps in our understanding of Arctic marine mammals, especially the impact of threats such as climate change. The wealth of knowledge from Inuit complements scientific research and monitoring and it is crucial that it be mobilized and applied to better inform our predictions of the future and protection of marine mammals.

In the past, researchers often considered Indigenous Knowledge as "data," but Indigenous Knowledge is in fact much broader. It is holistic, and includes expertise on culture, society, language, ethics, relationships, practices, and more. Future work would benefit from all researchers having an appreciation and acceptance of Indigenous Knowledge on par with scientific knowledge, and establishing respectful and equitable working relationships with Indigenous experts.54 It is important that Indigenous Knowledge holders explain what contributions their expertise can make, and how it can be shared and used for monitoring and research.

Indigenous Knowledge about specific places is essential for identifying possible Marine Protected Areas and for other matters concerning wildlife. This is often gathered at workshops, using maps to compile and document information on topics ranging from species location, migration routes, ice edges, harvest areas, and nesting areas, to trails, camp locations, and traditional sites.

Interviews, often at a camp or hunting sites, are another common method. For example, Inuvialuit experts on the behaviour and health of beluga whales have identified indicators of beluga health.55 These include colour and texture of the uqsuq (fat layer), the shape of the body (broad or round back, fat rolls described as 'love handles'), and signs of infection.56 The indicators have been added to the regular scientific monitoring program.57

The results from workshops and interviews are usually compiled into a written document, usually by a researcher who is not an Indigenous Knowledge holder.58 The original information — whether in the form of audio or video recordings, maps, verbatim transcripts from meetings, or written reports approved by Indigenous Knowledge holders — are preserved. Together, all these records contribute reliable and valuable expertise to inform marine protected area monitoring, and marine mammal management, research, and decision-making.


We thank Madeleine Redfern of Ajungi Arctic Consulting for organizing and supporting Indigenous Knowledge components of this paper. We thank Kate Broadley of Fuse Consulting for the creation of the infographics, John Bennett of Polar Knowledge Canada for the plain language editing of this paper, as well as Laura Bowley and the Neolé team for facilitation of the collaborative knowledge assessment. We thank the participants of the Polar Knowledge Regional Planning and Sharing Workshop, held in March 10–11, 2020, for providing the insight and context for the creation of this assessment. We thank the many Indigenous Knowledge holders who have shared information that has shaped our collective understanding, past, present and future.


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