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A new report from Oceans North calls on the Canadian government to create a National Marine Conservation Area in Western Hudson Bay. (Christopher Paetkau/Build Films )

A new report is calling on the Canadian government to protect the beluga whales that call Churchill, Man. home every summer by creating a national marine conservation area in Western Hudson Bay.

The report, called Western Hudson Bay and Its Beluga Estuaries: Protecting Abundance for a Sustainable Future , was released by Oceans North Friday morning.

"There is close to 55,000 beluga whales in Western Hudson Bay in the summertime and that is the largest summering population of summering beluga whales in the world," said Kristin Westdale, a marine biologist working with Oceans North, who helped work on the report.

"So we have a very important part of the global population of belugas right at our back door."

Every spring, as the ice along the Western Hudson Bay melts, one-third of the world’s beluga whale population migrate to the region’s major estuaries on the Churchill, Nelson and Seal rivers to moult, calve, feed and seek protection from predators.

National marine conservation areas are marine areas managed for sustainable use, and can include the seabed, the water above it and any species that occur there, according to Parks Canada’s website .

The designation would prohibit oil and gas development in the area, protect harvesting rights for Indigenous communities like the Inuit, who hunt the animals and rely on them, and see more funding provided for research on the belugas, says Westdale. This map shows the path taken by beluga as they migrate into the Western Hudson Bay every spring. (Submitted/Oceans North) While Westdale says the Western Hudson Bay belugas are not currently endangered and the population is considered to be in good health, designating their habitat as a conservation area now will make sure they stay that way in the future.

"As with any population it’s always nice to look after something while it’s in good health as opposed to waiting for issues to arise and then try to figure out how to fix that problem."

She says the effect of climate change on the region — which could mean a marked increase in shipping through the area — makes it all the more important the protections are in place.

"We have quite a bit more open water than we did even 10 or 20 years ago and we don’t really know what that environment is going to look like in the future," she said.

"We wanted to call attention to the fact that this is an important area." Report a ‘roadmap and guideline’

In November 2015, the federal Liberals pledged to protect five per cent of Canada’s marine and coastal environment by 2017. The total area designated as protected would double to 10 per cent by 2020 as part of a global agreement under the Convention on Biological Diversity.

Less than one per cent of Canada’s waters are currently protected.

Westdale says the federal government has announced it is considering designating Churchill as an NMCA, and calls the report a "roadmap and guideline" for the government in the process.

The report recommends the government engage with local communities, Indigenous populations, governments — both local and provincial — as well as stakeholders and the people who rely on the whales as the first step in the process.She says it’s now up to the federal government to start those consultations."The federal government is really committed to protecting 10 per cent of our oceans by 2020 and Churchill could be a large piece of that puzzle," she said.Oceans North worked with Hudson Bay communities, including local Indigenous communities and local […]

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