VANCOUVER - What do you serve 25,000
beluga whales who drop in for a summer picnic?
The first fish survey of Canada's
icy Beaufort Sea has finally figured it out.
"Those whales have to eat
something," said Jim Reist, a Department of Fisheries and Oceans biologist
who presented some early findings from the survey at a conference of Arctic
scientists in Vancouver this week.
Every summer, the whales converge in
the Canadian part of the Beaufort Sea. They come to calve and shed their old
skin in the shallow coastline waters and river estuaries of the Northwest
Territories. They also make up an important food source for the local
Science has never fully understood
what made up the food source for the whales. Until now.
Reist and his fellow scientists cruised
the sea last summer on board the fisheries vessel Frosti as part of the
Beaufort Regional Environmental Assessment. Initiated to help develop
regulations for any future offshore resource development, the assessment was
the first time scientists took a look at what was in the water beyond the first
couple hundred of metres from shore.
The scientists realized that the
Beaufort is actually a layer-cake of sea water with various temperatures and
salinity. At about 200 metres down, water originating in the Pacific Ocean
begins to give way to colder, saltier water coming from the Atlantic.
"It's a mixing zone," said
"Mixing areas tend to be very
species-rich and they also tend to be very productive. It concentrates the food
and productivity in the area."
This zone was true to form.
"It provides the larder for one
of the key species in the area — the Arctic cod, a small fish but a very
pivotal one," Reist said.
Team members found the cod in
"huge concentrations." They also found the answer to what the beluga
have been eating.
Although data about the size of the
fish population is still being analyzed, Reist said calculations suggest it
would take millions and millions of the 12-centimetre-long fish to support the
area's beluga and seal numbers.
"The findings are pretty
impressive," he said. "We suspected that this concentration of Arctic
cod had to be there, but we haven't had that confirmation.
"I was pleasantly
Such a basic link in the Arctic food
web being a mystery until now shows how much remains to be understood about the
Beaufort. Reist said the cruise also found at least six species of fish that
nobody knew were there.
That kind of basic environmental
understanding will be crucial to the development of any offshore energy
resources, suggested Reist.
"It allows us to better define
what the fish species biodiversity is (and) associate that biodiversity with
particular habitats. It also allows us to identify key habitat.
"That in turn will hopefully
allow the regulatory process to proceed from a much better information
There are currently 10 energy
companies with exploration leases in the Beaufort. Although there are currently
no applications to drill, a report prepared for the federal government last
spring suggested that activity in shallow waters would begin in 2016, to be
followed by deep-water drilling two years later.
Reist expects to return on the
Frosti to the Beaufort next summer as part of an $11-million, five-year study.