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Recovery Potential Assessment of Beluga Whale (Eastern Hudson Bay and Ungava Bay populations)

National Peer Review - National Captial Region

Febrary 20-24, 2023
Montreal, Quebec

Chairperson: Véronique Lesage


After the Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada (COSEWIC) assesses an aquatic species as Threatened, Endangered or Extirpated, Fisheries and Oceans Canada (DFO) undertakes a number of actions required to support implementation of the Species at Risk Act (SARA). Many of these actions require scientific information on the current status of the wildlife species, threats to its survival and recovery, and the feasibility of recovery. Formulation of this scientific advice has typically been developed through a Recovery Potential Assessment (RPA) that is conducted shortly after the COSEWIC assessment. This timing allows for consideration of peer-reviewed scientific analyses into SARA processes including recovery planning.

The Eastern Hudson Bay (EHB) Beluga designatable unit (DU) has declined substantially (by about 50%) over the past 30—35 years (i.e., two generations). The population is still hunted for subsistence and is at low numbers. While removals have been reduced, current harvest levels are considered the primary factor responsible for this decline. Noise from increased vessel traffic, particularly in the overwintering areas of Hudson Strait and the Labrador Sea, related in part to declines in ice cover due to climate change, is also a concern. EHB beluga was first assessed by the COSEWIC as Threatened in April 1988; the status was re-examined and the population designated Endangered in May 2004; the status was most recently re-examined by COSEWIC and was assessed as Threatened in November 2020.

The Ungava Bay (UNG) Beluga was assessed by COSEWIC as Endangered in April 1988; the status was re-examined and confirmed in May 2004 and November 2020. The beluga population residing in Ungava Bay is either at very low numbers or may be extinct. It is difficult to confirm their status because belugas from other populations may visit Ungava Bay during their migration. According to COSEWIC, unsustainable hunting caused the population decline and it continues in Ungava Bay, posing a threat to any remaining whales. Although the southern portion of Ungava Bay and the Whale and Mucalic river estuaries have been closed to hunting since 1986, harvesting continues in most of Ungava Bay and low harvest numbers were allowed in the Mucalic river in 2021 and 2022.

Neither EHB nor UNG beluga DUs have been listed under Canada’s Species at Risk Act (SARA).

To help inform a listing recommendation for EHB and UNG beluga populations, DFO Science has been asked to undertake an RPA, based on the national RPA Guidance (DFO, 2007). The advice in the RPA may be used to inform both scientific and socio-economic aspects of the listing decision, development of a recovery strategy and action plan, and to support decision making with regards to the issuance of permits or agreements, and the formulation of exemptions and related conditions, as per sections 73, 74, 75, 77, 78 and 83(4) of SARA. The advice in the RPA may also be used to prepare for the reporting requirements of SARA s.55. The advice generated via this process will update and/or consolidate any existing advice regarding EHB and UNG beluga population.


To provide up-to-date information, and associated uncertainties, to address the following elements:

Biology, Abundance, Distribution and Life History Parameters

Element 1: Summarize the biology of beluga.

Element 2: Evaluate the recent species trajectory for abundance, distribution and number of populations.

Element 3: Estimate the current or recent life-history parameters for beluga.

Habitat and Residence Requirements.

Element 4: Describe the habitat properties that beluga needs for successful completion of all life-history stages. Describe the function(s), feature(s), and attribute(s) of the habitat, and quantify by how much the biological function(s) that specific habitat feature(s) provides varies with the state or amount of habitat, including carrying capacity limits, if any.

Element 5: Provide information on the spatial extent of the areas in EHB and UNG beluga distribution that are likely to have these habitat properties.

Element 6: Quantify the presence and extent of spatial configuration constraints, if any, such as connectivity, barriers to access, etc.

Element 7: Evaluate to what extent the concept of residence applies to the species, and if so, describe the species’ residence.

Threats and Limiting Factors to the Survival and Recovery of EHB and UNG beluga.

Element 8: Assess and prioritize the threats to the survival and recovery of the EHB and UNG beluga.

Element 9: Identify the activities most likely to threaten (i.e., damage or destroy) the habitat properties identified in elements 4-5 and provide information on the extent and consequences of these activities. 

Element 10: Assess any natural factors that will limit the survival and recovery of the EHB and UNG beluga.

Element 11: Discuss the potential ecological impacts of the threats identified in element 8 to the target species and other co-occurring species. List the possible benefits and disadvantages to the target species and other co-occurring species that may occur if the threats are abated. Identify existing monitoring efforts for the target species and other co-occurring species associated with each of the threats, and identify any knowledge gaps.

Recovery Targets

Element 12: Propose candidate abundance and distribution target(s) for recovery.

Element 13: Project expected population trajectories over a scientifically reasonable time frame (minimum of 10 years), and trajectories over time to the potential recovery target(s), given current EHB and UNG beluga population dynamics parameters.

Element 14: Provide advice on the degree to which supply of suitable habitat meets the demands of the species both at present and when the species reaches the potential recovery target(s) identified in element 12.

Element 15:Assess the probability that the potential recovery target(s) can be achieved under current rates of population dynamics parameters, and how that probability would vary with different mortality (especially lower) and productivity (especially higher) parameters.

Scenarios for Mitigation of Threats and Alternatives to Activities.

Element 16: Develop an inventory of feasible mitigation measures and reasonable alternatives to the activities that are threats to the species and its habitat (as identified in elements 8 and 10).

Element 17: Develop an inventory of activities that could increase the productivity or survivorship parameters (as identified in elements 3 and 15).

Element 18: If current habitat supply may be insufficient to achieve recovery targets (see element 14), provide advice on the feasibility of restoring the habitat to higher values. Advice must be provided in the context of all available options for achieving abundance and distribution targets.

Element 19: Estimate the reduction in mortality rate expected by each of the mitigation measures or alternatives in element 16 and the increase in productivity or survivorship associated with each measure in element 17.

Element 20: Project expected population trajectory (and uncertainties) over a scientifically reasonable time frame and to the time of reaching recovery targets, given mortality rates and productivities associated with the specific measures identified for exploration in element 19. Include those that provide as high a probability of survivorship and recovery as possible for biologically realistic parameter values.

Element 21: Recommend parameter values for population productivity and starting mortality rates and, where necessary, specialized features of population models that would be required to allow exploration of additional scenarios as part of the assessment of economic, social, and cultural impacts in support of the listing process.

Allowable Harm Assessment

Element 22: Evaluate maximum human-induced mortality and habitat destruction that the species can sustain without jeopardizing its survival or recovery.

Expected Publications

Expected Participation



Participation to CSAS peer review meetings is by invitation only.

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