The South Flaherty Islands are a group of about 300 islands located at the southwestern end of the Belcher Islands. The Belcher Islands, including the main island of Flaherty, are in southeastern Hudson Bay, about 100 km west of the Quebec mainland. The islands, which vary from 1 to 500 ha in size, are either low glacier-scoured islands, rough islands with steep sides, or closer to Flaherty, composed of gravel and cobble. The shallow water surrounding the islands often has a strong current, but the tidal amplitude is small at a half to one metre. The site supports a number of polynyas that occur mostly near Agiaraalluk, the steepest and most prominent island in the area. The islands have sparse vegetation composed of moss, grass, sedge, low willow and Dwarf Birch. Occasionally, the larger islands will support other plant species, amongst sheltered rock crevices, on sandy beaches, or alongside freshwater ponds. The area provides good habitat for wintering Polar Bears, which are hunted by people from the community of Sanikiluaq. Beluga whales winter here, and wintering Walrus were seen here recently after a several decade absence.
The South Flaherty Islands are a crucial breeding and wintering area for the Common Eider (subspecies sedentaria). Recent observations suggest that certainly more than half, and maybe a large majority of the sedentaria subspecies, about 15,000 birds or more, winter in the ice floe edges and polynyas of South Flaherty. During the breeding season, South Flaherty Islands had about 4,093 breeding pairs when first surveyed in 1986. But a 1997 survey showed a decline in numbers to 1,543 pairs. This decline is thought to be due to the cold winter of 1991-92, when many polynyas and other open water areas froze over.
Also, the waters in the South Flaherty area are thought to be extremely important for moulting sea ducks, such as Surf and White-winged Scoter. In 1997, thousands of male scoters were seen on the sea, along with large numbers of King Eiders, Oldsquaw, Common Goldeneye and Common Merganser. It is not known how many thousands of scoters use the area in late summer, but if as many as 5,000 scoters of each species were present, then this would equal about 1% of the North American populations of White-winged and Surf scoters. Other birds that are found in the South Flaherty Islands include, Snowy Owl (usually at least 10 wintering birds), Black Guillemot (approximately 250 breeding pairs) and Glaucous Gull.
Conservation responses/actions for key biodiversity
There are no immediate threats to the eiders of South Flaherty, although the eiders are hunted by the people of the growing community of Sanikiluaq. Environmental management decisions for the Belcher Islands are implemented by the Sanikiluaq Hunters and Trappers Association. Eiders in the Belcher Islands are taken for both meat and eggs, and in the near past the down from their nests was collected as part of an eider down industry. In recent years this industry has indefinitely ceased due to low market demand. The marine environment could be effected if a proposed snow crab fishery goes ahead. Also, as with other seabird colonies, locations such as South Flaherty are vulnerable to oil pollution or other toxins in the ocean.
This area has been visited infrequently by ornithologists (summers 1987 and 1997, and winters 1998-99), although the people of Sanikiluaq have extensive knowledge of the area.