Marine mammals in a changing Arctic Ocean

A new paper shares some of the recent collaborative research on Arctic marine mammals focusing on species such as beluga, bowhead, and narwhal.

In March 2020, a Regional Planning and Knowledge Sharing Workshop was held by POLAR at the campus of the Canadian High Arctic Research Station (CHARS) located in Iqaluktuuttiaq (Cambridge Bay), Nunavut, Canada. 

The primary objective of the workshop was to gather insights from Indigenous Knowledge Holders, knowledge producers, and knowledge users in Nunavut and the Northwest Territories, to identify important thematic areas relevant to Northern communities. Following productive discussions, the participants of the 2020 workshop ultimately decided on five themes that were deemed to be of the utmost relevance to Northern communities.

One of the five identified themes was “Marine mammals in a changing Arctic ocean.” A series of virtual Collaborative Assessment workshops in 2021 brought together a multi-author team of Indigenous Knowledge Holders, researchers, and wildlife managers to facilitate knowledge exchange on this theme. Through this, the theme was further developed, research results and trends were discussed, future research areas were identified, and knowledge was synthesized and tailored to a Northern audience.

The result of this collaborative work is now published in the special edition of the Polar Knowledge Aqhaliat Report (PDF), in Inuktitut, Inuinnaqtun, French and English. The paper addresses a wide range of issues of concern, including the impacts of climate change and shifting ice on Arctic marine mammals, changes in Arctic whale distribution (see the killer whale infographic below), shipping and vessel impacts on Arctic marine mammals, and tools for conserving marine species and their habitats in the Canadian Arctic.

The paper highlights the importance of bridging different ways of knowing, emphasizing that Indigenous Knowledge encompasses more than ‘data,’ and includes holistic expertise on culture, society, language, ethics, relationships, practices, and more. To advance future work and enhance our understanding and protection of Arctic marine mammals and their habitats, researchers are encouraged to establish respectful, collaborative and equitable working relationships with Indigenous experts. 


Halliday, W., McBeth, S., Vergara, V., Ferguson, S., Loseto, L., Marcoux, M., Westdal, K., Niemi, A., Harwood, L., Gold, M., Koonoo, D., Qillaq, N. and Lennie, J., 2022, Marine mammals in a changing Arctic Ocean. Polar Knowledge: Aqhaliat Report, Volume 4, Polar Knowledge Canada, p. 58–83. DOI: 10.35298/pkc.2021.03.eng


Canada’s Arctic marine world teems with life. From microscopic plants that live under the ice and power the ecosystem by turning nutrients and sunlight into food, to hundred-tonne Bowhead whales that can break through the ice to breathe, it’s an ecosystem like no other — a complex, interdependent web governed by seasonal rhythms of the sea ice.

It’s also an ecosystem that’s fragile and vulnerable to climate change. As average Arctic temperatures rise, sea ice is forming later in fall, breaking up earlier in spring, and covering less of the ocean. This has consequences for fish and marine mammals, and for the health of the Inuit communities that depend on them for food.

New species are arriving. Not long ago, for example, killer whales were rare in the high Arctic, but Inuit there are seeing them more now. These small whales avoid sea ice as it damages their tall dorsal fins. With more open water they can move north, where they find plenty of prey that is easy to catch. Narwhals, an important source of food in some Inuit communities, have little experience with Orcas and have not learned to be wary of them.

With warming waters, southern fish like Atlantic salmon and capelin are becoming more common in parts of the Arctic. Salmon have appeared in Arctic lakes and rivers and may be spawning there. Inuit in Pangnirtung, Nunavut have observed that beluga whales in Cumberland Sound have shifted their diet from Arctic cod to capelin. During the open-water season, they are seeing new species such as humpback whales, minke whales, and dolphins.

Less sea ice makes it easier for ships to reach the Arctic and lengthens the shipping season. Vessel traffic tripled in the Canadian Arctic between 1990 and 2015, mostly in Nunavut waters. Ship noise stresses whales by masking the sounds they use to communicate with each other, navigate, and find food. More traffic increases the risk of oil spills and of ship strikes, which are often fatal to whales.

Conservation measures, like Marine Protected Areas, can safeguard marine ecosystems and help maintain the food security and economies of communities that depend on them. There are three Marine Protected Areas in the Canadian Arctic. Shipping corridors, speed limits (which reduce ship strikes), and accurate navigational charts to lower accident risk can also help protect whales and other marine life.

Effective Arctic marine conservation requires a thorough understanding of the local environment and the factors that affect it. The most effective way to achieve this is through research that combines the strengths of both science and Indigenous Knowledge.

Inuit must play a direct role in establishing and applying Arctic marine conservation measures, as they have for the three Marine Protected Areas. Communities know they have the most at stake in protecting the Arctic marine environment — because their health depends on it.

Select figures

Infographic showing how marine mammals impact and are impacted by many things in the marine environment.
Summary of Whale population and marine ecosystem biodiversity.

Summary of Whale population and marine ecosystem biodiversity.

Infographic showing killer whale distribution.
Killer whales are increasingly spotted more frequently and in new locations in the Arctic, seen north and west of the Labrador Sea, moving into Hudson Bay, the Tallurutiup Imanga NMCA (Lancaster Sound) and as far as Cambridge Bay. Whales who are present in the Beaufort Basin can rarely be spotted in the Western Arctic.

Authors and affiliations

William Halliday*, Wildlife Conservation Society Canada/University of Victoria
Samantha McBeth*, Polar Knowledge Canada
Valeria Vergara, Raincoast Conservation Foundation
Steve Ferguson, Fisheries and Oceans Canada
Lisa Loseto, Fisheries and Oceans Canada/University of Manitoba
Marianne Marcoux, Fisheries and Oceans Canada
Kristin Westdal, Ocean North
Andrea Niemi, Fisheries and Oceans Canada
Lois Harwood, Fisheries Joint Management Committee, Northwest Territories
Maya Gold, Fisheries and Oceans Canada
Dexter Koonoo**, Arctic Bay, Nunavut
Johnny Lennie**, Inuvik, Inuvialuit, Northwest Territories
Nysana Qillaq**, Clyde River, Nunavut

* Corresponding author
**Indigenous Knowledge Holders

Our annual report is out now!

Get highlights from the year, our science, flagship projects, staff and volunteers, as well as a peek at what’s in store for the coming year.

Research scientist, Adam Warner conducting genetics research in our genetics lab.
Photo by Alex Harris / Raincoast Conservation Foundation.