03/02/2014 10:00 EST | Updated 05/02/2014 05:59 EDT

Manitoba Eyes Better Beluga Protection As Shipping Traffic Set To Increase

WINNIPEG - Manitoba is promising increased protection for one of the largest populations of beluga whales in the world as shipping traffic is poised to increase through their summer home in western Hudson Bay.

NDP Conservation Minister Gord Mackintosh says the beluga population is healthy right now and the province wants it to stay that way. As shipping traffic increases in the North, Mackintosh said Manitoba wants to minimize the impact on the iconic sea mammals.

"We are looking at a strategy that's preventative in nature, particularly given in the years ahead we can anticipate more shipping traffic in Hudson Bay and more industrial uses of that water body," Mackintosh said in an interview. "It's important to achieve a healthy coexistence."

The southwestern coast of Hudson Bay is home to one of the largest concentrations of belugas in the world when sea ice recedes in the summer. About 60,000 belugas migrate to three Manitoba estuaries to feed, give birth and nurse their young. The shallow estuaries also provide protection from killer whales, which can't fit down the rivers.

Many say the belugas need protection against what could become a bigger threat as the Arctic region becomes increasingly industrialized and the shipping season lengthens due to disappearing sea ice.

Omnitrax Canada, which operates the port of Churchill on Hudson Bay, has said it could eventually ship year-round with the right ice-breakers. The company also has plans to haul millions of litres of crude oil across its remote rail line to the port and ship the oil out through Hudson Bay.

Mackintosh said the province is looking at limiting shipping traffic through the estuaries, where it has jurisdiction, and at calling on the federal government to increase protection for the whales in federal waters.

"We'll be looking at what guidelines can be put in place in terms of traffic, both industrial and tourism traffic, and make sure we can get the right balance."

The province is forming a working group of environmentalists, hydro and industrial companies, Mackintosh said. The group will draft a management plan which will be put out for public comment, he said.

That's welcome news to those who have spent years studying the white whales. Chris Debicki, Nunavut projects director for The Pew Charitable Trusts Oceans North Canada, said belugas are habitual creatures that return year after year to the same estuaries.

One oil spill or dam on an estuary upstream could have devastating consequences to the whales, he said.

"It's really essential that before we see any major increases in shipping or changes in the nature of shipping that strategies to ensure their long-term protection are in place," Debicki said.

"We're not saying development is necessarily incompatible with a thriving beluga population, but what we are saying is that a thriving beluga population has to be taken into account when making those development decisions."

Shannon Martin, conservation critic for the Opposition Progressive Conservatives, said he's seen beluga whales up close and appreciates their value. But he suggests the NDP protection plans are scant on concrete details.

"Belugas are an important component of our northern tourism strategy, not to mention the cultures of local indigenous peoples," Martin said. "But being migratory animals, their protection is a shared responsibility that goes beyond provincial jurisdiction."

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