World's first bowhead whale sanctuary created in Canada
Since the 1980s, WWF has worked with the community of Clyde River (Kangiqtugaapik in Inuktitut) in NE Baffin Island (see map) to help document and protect a critical feeding area for bowhead whales. On August 7, 2009, WWF joined Inuit from Nunavut Tunngavik Inc, the Qikiqtani Inuit Association, the community of Clyde River, and Students on Ice, in a great celebration of the creation of this sanctuary – which is now called 'Ninginganiq' (or Isabella Bay on English maps).
The sanctuary regulations are due to be finalised by the Government of Canada next month, which will formally establish the Ninginganiq National Wildlife Area, and thereafter a local committee will be completing the Management Plan for the new sanctuary. It is hoped that this will lead to the creation of a safe gravel airstrip and small accommodation facility, which will allow tourists to witness this spectacular place and the 100 or more bowhead whales that gather here each summer-autumn to feed on the abundant Calanus copepod zooplankton blooms that occur in two deep troughs in Isabella Bay.
In the 25 years since WWF-Canada’s first support for community-based projects on this special bowhead habitat, WWF has provided almost $1 million for research; monitoring; and training of local Inuit in techniques for recording valuable information on the whales, their diet, and behavior in Isabella Bay. We have also helped to build a field survey station there (with electric safety fence to protect from the many polar bears there in summer!).
The bowhead whale is the longest-lived mammal species on the planet – 100-150 year lifespan for many adults, and some now known to have reached over 200 years old. This gentle giant of the silent arctic land and seascapes has evolved with sea ice. Bowheads have no dorsal fin, and can break through ice at least 1m thick to breathe. But as glaciers and sea ice melt and retreat due to accelerating global warming, bowheads are experiencing major challenges at unprecedented rapid rates. The recent sharp increases in orcas/killer whales – which do attack and kill bowheads and narwhal – troubles many Inuit and whale conservationists alike. On top of this pressure, bowheads are well known to be very sensitive to acoustic disturbance in the silent depths of the arctic ocean in which they have evolved. Increased commercial shipping, military activities, and hydrocarbon exploration and development (including seismic projects offshore) present a cocktail of threats on top of the fundamental retreat and melting of the bowheads’ sea ice habitats.
The bowhead whale was very heavily exploited in the 19th century by Scottish and American whalers who worked closely with local people to harvest and export valuable whale oil and baleen to southern markets. Isabella Bay was one of many centres for the whaling industry at that time. By the early 1900s most bowhead whales had been taken and the industry collapsed. But since female bowheads probably don’t breed until they are 20 years old, and only have a calf every 3-4 years or so , they are very slow to regain their original numbers – that may take many centuries in fact.
WWF is proud to have been a part of the creation of this first bowhead sanctuary, and congratulates the people of Nunavut in this great world-class accomplishment. We look forward to seeing an effective management plan for the site, and more people being able to visit the sanctuary and witness these magnificent giants in one of their key habitats. A big 'Thankyou'/ 'Qujannamiq' to the people of Clyde River, to NTI and QIA, to bowhead field researchers, and to WWF supporters who have helped make this sanctuary a reality. Special thanks to Joelie Sanguya, Bruce Uviluq, Kerry Finley, and Ben Wheeler.