Understanding James Bay
A glimpse into research on one of Canada’s least understood bodies of water
The Cree Nation’s plans for developing protected areas in James Bay took a giant leap forward last summer when two major expeditions gathered extensive data about its mysterious waters.
With significant changes observed by Cree communities in recent years, oceanography research can help predict potential impacts on traditional practices and inform global conservation efforts.
Before the National Geographic’s Pristine Seas expedition documented the marine region’s environment last August, Cree entities had already spent years planning for the James Bay expedition aboard the research vessel William Kennedy. The converted fishing vessel is the first of its kind dedicated to studying the Hudson Bay region.
“Through planning that expedition over several years, we formed a Cree Research Needs Working Group with representatives from various Cree entities on both sides of the James Bay coast,” explained Angela Coxon, director of the Eeyou Marine Region Wildlife Board.
“It’s such an amazing opportunity – we can’t establish these protected areas without data.”
Ottawa-based organization Oceans North, which is dedicated to supporting marine conservation in partnership with Indigenous and coastal communities, was instrumental in establishing both the project and working group. Chief scientist CJ Mundy from the University of Manitoba worked with Cree representatives to help identify research priorities.
“Creating that working group opened a way for us to work across the bay to better understand each other,” said EMRWB biologist Stephanie Varty.
“Main goals were better understanding the bay’s water flow and quality and collecting information on biodiversity.”
James Bay is one of the least studied and understood bodies of water in Canada. Before the William Kennedy’s two-year expedition began in 2021, an oceanographic exploration hadn’t been conducted in nearly 50 years, prior to the huge hydroelectric projects in the 1970s and the more recent impacts of climate change.
“James Bay is all so uncharted,” Mundy said.
“We definitely added some mapping transits that didn’t exist. It was to update our knowledge of the oceanography, emphasizing ocean circulation, freshwater influx and carbon cycling in the system, and what’s feeding it.”
Operated by the Arctic Research Foundation in partnership with the University of Manitoba’s Churchill Marine Observatory, the 20-metre William Kennedy can accommodate up to 14 scientists in addition to its crew. With only a 3.6-metre draft, it’s uniquely suited to work in James Bay’s shallow waters for focused studies.
“A huge thing we dealt with was moving the ship slowly through hidden shoals,” explained Mundy.
“We’d be steaming along in 80 metres of water, then suddenly it’s 10 metres and the captain would put it in reverse – the whole ship would shake. We never grounded, but almost did a couple of times.”
Five oceanographic moorings were deployed during the expedition’s first phase in 2021 and retrieved last year, demonstrating changing conditions over the seasons through sediments falling in the water column and sensors monitoring numerous variables. Other measurements were taken every five nautical miles while hydrophones enabled crew to listen to whales and other marine mammals.
While it will take a few years before conclusions can be drawn from the data, the heavy influence of rivers into the bay are anticipated to yield surprising results. Arctic Ocean waters circulating counterclockwise from the northwest meets warmer river water reaching to the bay’s bottom, substantially transforming what pours out into eastern Hudson Bay.
“What blew me away about James Bay is the mixing that occurs in the system,” said Mundy.
“Between Eastmain and Waskaganish, the river water around seven degrees is mixing right down to 80 metres. The river addition of nutrients and organic matter that get broken down quickly can feed primary producers and create carbon production in the marine environment.”
Nutrients emptied from rivers may help explain why as many as 10,000 beluga whales exist in southern James Bay, which was thought to be an oligotrophic (low nutrient) sea. The expedition collected samples at different depths and from the bottom of the bay to better understand the base of the region’s food web.
“They presented a preliminary report explaining some of the impacts of freshwater input and early information on fish and invertebrates they were finding,” Varty said.
“Understanding how things have changed over time can help us focus on specific areas where change is being felt intensely or is important to the people living along the coast.”
Biodiversity was assessed through environmental DNA sampling, “like a snapshot of all the organisms in the water.”
With current projections showing parts of Hudson Bay won’t have any ice forming by mid to late century, the shifting food web has made killer whales the new top predator in some areas and introduced invasive species like rainbow smelt into the EMR.
“There are sobering consequences of climate change occurring in front of our eyes right now,” Mundy said.
“I was just at a polar bear symposium in Churchill and there’s strong potential for a polar bear population crash in 30 to 40 years. The sea ice is forming too late and breaking up too early for those particular polar bears to survive.”
Along with environmental observation aboard the William Kennedy, the highly innovative Churchill Marine Observatory will be opening the Ocean-Sea Ice Mesocosm facility in late summer. Adjacent to Canada’s only Arctic deepwater port, the facility is designed to accommodate controlled experiments to determine effects on the ecosystem.
“A big aspect is looking at how to deal with oil spills in sea ice cases,” Mundy explained.
“Shipping is increasing in the Arctic, meaning more potential for accidents. This sees how we detect (spills), how does it degrade naturally and can we use things to clean it up.”
While the James Bay Expedition’s data is compiled and analyzed, published research is emerging from the William Kennedy’s first project near Southampton Island in 2018.
Although scallops and “bait fish” were observed in James Bay, a publication declaring sea stars the seafloor’s equivalent to polar bears highlights the potential vulnerability of these ecosystems.
“If we were to start having a shrimp fishery in that region and combed up all the sea stars, maybe the walrus population would crash because it’s all connected,” said Mundy.
“The point is to be more cautious about these contained ecosystems that are so unique because they are separated from the south.