Successful Deployments for the 2021 Beluga Habitat Program

The Mackenzie Delta, located in the western Canadian Arctic within the Northwest Territories and land claim of the Inuvialuit people is the 2nd largest Arctic delta in the world. Although this region is only ice free for 4 months a year the shallow Mackenzie Estuary (spanning ~200 km from West to East) is an important gathering point for thousands of beluga whales during the ice free summer months. Subsistence harvesting is an important part of the Inuit culture in this region, and has prompted the need for ecological conservation (establishment of the Tarium Niryutait Marine Protected Area) and a better understanding of the influence of climate change on this important sentinel species and its prey. The remote location and turbidity of the water make visual observations in the estuary challenging, so the federal departments of Fisheries and Oceans Canada and Natural Resources Canada, in partnership with Northern Indigenous communities (Aklavik, Inuvik and Tuktoyaktuk) and organizations, have been conducting acoustic monitoring in the Mackenzie Estuary since 2011.

Beluga whales in the shallow, turbid waters of the Mackenzie Estuary. ( K. Scharffenberg)

This long-term program uses coastal observatories (i.e., seabed moorings with acoustic recorders and oceanographic sensors and weather stations) to investigate the influence of changing environmental parameters (waves, weather, ice and coastal erosion) on beluga habitat use, water column biogeochemistry, assess underwater noise/vessel impacts, and monitor indicators in the Tarium Niryutait Marine Protected Area (TN MPA) supporting TN MPA conservation objectives. The impacts of climate change to the natural environment in this region is significant and requires continuous monitoring, missing a year of data would impact the science and the Inuit people that rely on this area for subsistence, travel and livelihood. For them, there is no other option but to continue observing and adapting to the changes across the region and the co-developed beluga habitat program is the perfect avenue for that.

The decreasing Arctic sea ice has created more open water and potential for built up fetch between the land and ice. The increase in Arctic storminess is easy to see with the increased wave action and subsequent coastal erosion in the region, however the full impact to critical ecosystems is still unknown. We rely on oceanographic instrumentation (including the Sofar buoys) to better understand this. (D. Whalen and D. Kasook)

In 2020, mooring instrumentation was expanded to include Sofar spotter buoys to track any mooring movements and to improve our understanding of wave conditions and sea surface temperatures across the estuary. Concurrently, COVID-19 travel restrictions prevented travel of scientists from southern Canada to the north to deploy instruments. The regular deployment plan was adjusted so Northern Indigenous community organizations could conduct field work without the physical presence of southern-based scientists. The new plan enabled community members to assemble, deploy, and recover the moorings after receiving remote training provided by video conference.

The team of ARI technicians assembling the moorings. (E. Amos and G. Elias , ARI)

The addition of Sofar spotters to each mooring was a key to the success of the 2020 program. The GPS tracking feature allowed the team in the south to track the progress of the deployment team and monitor the position of moorings throughout the summer (fortunately, they all remained in place!). They also allowed the collection of real-time sea surface temperature and wave data; these data were shared with local travelers to provide important up-to-date weather and safety information. Data from the spotters will be used to compare wave conditions across the estuary, between years, and during uncommon weather conditions (e.g. storms) to contribute to coastal erosion models and to assess any impacts on beluga whale habitat use.

Study site showing mooring deployment locations in 2020. TN MPA = Tarium Niryutait Marine Protected Area.

On June 24-28, 2021, 3 teams across the Inuvialuit Settlement Region deployed a network of coastal moorings and weather stations to kick off the 2021 beluga habitat program. This year was our most ambitious program yet, as we were able to successfully deploy 9 moorings across all 3 parcels of the TN MPA. We also added a new weather station giving us one station in each parcel of the MPA and making this one of the most comprehensive nearshore environmental habitat studies in the world. Similar to last year, all work was done without the physical presence of southern-based scientists and would not have been possible without the amazing partnerships with Northern community organizations. Mooring frames were built in the south and shipped with instruments to the Aurora Research Institute in Inuvik, where they were assembled and passed off to deployment crews. This year we used three different deployment crews giving us the largest team ever to implement the habitat program, with more than 25 people involved! Crews were enthusiastic about the new mooring designs, and noted that they saw “Erosion, beluga whales, geese eggs, cabins, and plenty of birds” during travel.

Live wave and water temperature data from our mooring buoys are currently available at: https://spotters.sofarocean.com/?user-filter=1448. A Smartphone app with weather station data is forthcoming.

Successful deployment of instrumented seabed mooring and Spotter. (C. Gruben-Elias, Only Way Outfitting)

Funding for this program comes from the following sources:

  • DFO – Inuvialuit Final Agreement
  • DFO – Marine Protected Area
  • NRCan – Climate Change Geoscience Program
  • NRCan – Polar Continental Shelf Program (PCSP)
  • CIRNAC – Beaufort Sea Regional Strategic Environmental Assessment (BRSEA)
  • CIRNAC – Climate Change Preparedness in the North (CCPN)

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