It may seem counterintuitive to protect a habitat that isn't in danger, but proponents of a new initiative to create a national marine conservation area in western Hudson Bay say that now is the time to act.
Winnipeg-based Build Films has teamed up with Oceans North Canada and the Manitoba Government to raise awareness of the Seal, Nelson and Churchill River estuaries, which are an important habitat for beluga whales and support a vast range of other Arctic wildlife.
Filmmaker Chris Paetkau said the area is currently thriving, but threats from climate change and human activity loom in the near future.
"The beluga population is very healthy, but we don't want to see it go the way of the St. Lawrence," he said. "We don't know how shipping is going to look in a rapidly changing Arctic and sub-Arctic. We basically want to establish a baseline before it's too late; then we can all walk in step knowing that this place will be developed ... but in a sustainable manner that doesn't wreck the gem we have here."
Every summer, some 57,000 belugas migrate to the estuaries to mate and feed. Their presence is not only significant to the local ecosystem, but to the Inuit who inhabit the Hudson Bay coastline. Paetkau's film also explores a 1000-year-old Thule hunting camp in the area in which the remains of tent rings, kayak stands and food caches can still be found.
"It's not possible to get these places protected without the people who live there," he said. "They're the champions; we're just the conduit."
Last week the Manitoba Government unveiled a draft strategy for protecting the estuaries. Tom Nevakshonoff, Minister of Conservation and Water Stewardship, said the plan is intended to bring various northern stakeholders to the table to discuss the future of the western Hudson Bay.
"The manifestation of climate change is certainly evident in our north," he said. "It's incumbent upon us to be proactive."
Nevakshonoff added he is anticipating a favourable response to the plan from federal Fisheries Minister Hunter Tootoo when he visits Manitoba next week.
In the meantime, Paetkau is hoping to get his film out to as wide an audience as possible to drum up support for a national marine conservation area.
"You can send out three thousand words or a PowerPoint presentation but bringing the whales to people’s eyes really helps to convince people that this is a place that is worthy of protection," he said.