The Beaufort Sea is a marginal sea of the Arctic Ocean, located north of the Northwest Territories, the Yukon, and Alaska, and west of Canada's Arctic islands. The sea is named after Sir Francis Beaufort, a hydrographer. The Mackenzie River, the longest in Canada, empties into the Canadian part of the Beaufort Sea west of Tuktoyaktuk, which is one of the few permanent settlements on the sea's shores.
The sea, characterized by severe climate, is frozen over most of the year. Historically, only a narrow pass up to 100 km (62 mi) opened in August–September near its shores, but recently due to climate change in the Arctic the ice-free area in late summer has greatly enlarged. Until recently, the Beaufort Sea was known as an important reservoir for the replenishment of Arctic sea ice. Sea ice would often rotate for several years in the Beaufort Gyre, the dominant ocean current of the Beaufort Sea, growing into sturdy and thick multi-year ice.
Claims that the seacoast was populated about 30,000 years ago have been largely discredited (see below); present population density is very low. The sea contains significant resources of petroleum and natural gas under its shelf, such as the Amauligak field. They were discovered in the period between the 1950s and 1980s, and since the latter part of that period their exploration has become the major human activity in the area. The traditional occupations of fishery and whale and seal hunting are practiced only locally, and have no commercial significance. As a result, the sea hosts one of the largest colonies of beluga whales, and there is no sign of overfishing. To prevent overfishing in its waters, the US adopted precautionary commercial fisheries management plan in August 2009. In April 2011 the Canadian government signed a memorandum of understanding with the Inuvialuit as a first step in developing a larger ocean management plan. The Canadian government announced in October 2014 that no new commercial fisheries in the Beaufort Sea will be considered until research has shown sustainable stocks that would be made available to Inuvialuit first.
The Canadian government designated blocks of the Beaufort Sea as Marine Protected Areas (MPAs). The Anguniaqvia niqiqyuam MPA surrounds the Parry Peninsula in the Amundsen Gulf, and the Tarium Niryutait MPA is located at the Mackenzie River delta and estuary. The protected areas are set to protect species and habitats for the Inuvialuit community.
The shoreline of the Beaufort Sea is covered with tundra and marks the northern limit of the terrestrial range of the polar bear in North America. The Mackenzie River is an important habitat for whales and seabirds and is still relatively untouched by commercial traffic. The delta of Mackenzie River contains numerous lakes and ponds which are inhabited by muskrat.
The sea hosts about 80 species of zooplankton, more than 70 species of phytoplankton, and nearly 700 species of polychaetes, bryozoans, crustaceans and mollusks, but their total volume is relatively small owing to the cold climate. Major fish species include polar cod (Boreogadus saida), Arctic cod (Arctogadus glacialis), saffron cod (Eleginus gracilis), Arctic char (Salvelinus alpinus), chum salmon (Oncorhynchus keta), Arctic cisco (Coregonus autumnalis), least cisco (Coregonus sardinella), lake whitefish (Coregonus clupeaformis), broad whitefish (Coregonus nasus), Pacific herring (Clupea pallasii), fourhorn sculpin (Myoxocephalus quadricornis), inconnu (Stenodus leucichthys) and flatfish.
The eastern part of the sea is a major habitat of beluga whales with an estimated population of 39,000. This population is stable and might even be increasing; it is not affected by the offshore oil exploration in the area. Belugas spend summer in the coastal area and Mackenzie River delta, which are free of ice then, and in winter migrate long distances to the polynyas of the deep sea. Genetic analyses have confirmed that belugas of the Beaufort Sea are clearly distinct from those of other Canadian and Alaskan waters, despite often sharing a common wintering habitat.
The food chain of the Beaufort Sea is relatively simple: It starts with phytoplankton and epontic algae (single-cell algae associated with the lower interface of sea ice), which provide energy to zooplankton, and epontic and coastal amphipods. The latter serve as a food for seabirds and fish, primarily as polar cod and Arctic char. Polar cod is a major food of Arctic char, beluga, narwhal, seabirds and seals, which are dominated by the bearded seal (Erignatus barbatus) and ringed seal (Pusa hispida). Bearded seal and walrus also feed on benthic invertebrates. On top of the food pyramid stands the polar bear, which feeds primarily on seals, but also on any large marine mammals when it has a chance, such as carcasses and whales trapped in ice fields.