NSERC intern ‘flies north' for the summer

June 29, 2006, volume 36, no. 5
By Diane Luckow

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Joel Heath flies off to Sanikiluaq this summer, a tiny Inuit community on the Belcher Islands of Hudson Bay.

“This is where I've been doing my research on eider ducks wintering in sea ice habitats,” says Heath, a PhD student in biological sciences. He recently received a $10,000 northern internship award from the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council.

He has spent several months each winter in Sanikiluaq studying a special race of eider ducks that don't migrate south over the winter. They're traditionally an important species to the Belcher Island Inuit, since there are few caribou to provide their food and clothing.

The Inuit collect the ducks' eider down, the warmest in the world, to line their parkas. The birds are also an important food source.

In the 1990s, however, the Inuit noticed a massive die-off in the eider duck population. They asked the Canadian Wildlife Service (CWS) to investigate the cause and Heath began working with CWS in 2002 to monitor the ducks.

He's trying to determine how the ducks adjust their behaviour and balance their energy requirements during changes in environmental processes like tides, sea ice formation, weather, winds, and temperature.

“We're trying to see how much flexibility they have to deal with differences in these factors associated with environmental change,” he explains.

Heath will spend a month this summer tenting in the wilderness among the Inuit elders, hunters and families to further understand their perspectives on the eider ducks and environmental change. He'll also inform them about his research findings to date.

 When his thesis is finished next spring, it will shed new light on the possible implications of environmental change on the ducks' winter survival and their population dynamics.

“This will be useful in informing co-management decisions between the Inuit and government agencies,” he says.

Heath has also done a lot of broadcast quality videography in the islands, much of it capturing the underwater activities of the ducks.

“Originally, the film was to show to the community,” he says. “Now, it has expanded into a bigger project to let Canadians know about climate change in Hudson Bay and how it's affecting wildlife and Inuit communities.”

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