At the eastern entrance to the newly navigable Northwest Passage, a planned marine conservation area will protect a fragile ecosystem. It could be a model for the entire planet
A new marine conservation area in Lancaster Sound aims to protect the “Serengeti of the Arctic.” Will it?
The Canadian and Nunavut governments and Indigenous stakeholders recently announced the creation of the country’s biggest marine protected area in Lancaster Sound, known to the Inuit who have relied on its bounty since time immemorial as Tallurutiup Imanga. The protected area will be almost 110,000 square kilometres in size. The proposed Tallurutiup Imanga/lancaster Sound national marine conservation area is currently being negotiated between the governments of Canada and Nunavut and the Qikiqtani Inuit Association. Those negotiations will hopefully be completed by March 2019, with enforcement for the protected area going into place shortly after. It will shelter vulnerable Arctic species — but that’s not its only function. Here’s a bigger look at what’s happening and who’s involved.
The Arctic ice might look barren, but it’s teeming with life. This region is sometimes known as the Serengeti of the Arctic because of all the animals and plants that live there. The biodiversity, which includes species that the Inuit hunt for food, such as belugas and harp seals, led Inuit politicians to begin advocating for protected status for the region as far back as the 1970s. Arctic scientists agree: though there is some debate about the usefulness of marine reserves, given the recognized importance of this region, making it an area of special concern can have real value.
Tallurutiup Imanga is home to iconic species covered elsewhere in this issue of Canadian Wildlife, like the polar bear, but it’s also an important region for many others. It’s crucial for ocean-dwellers like narwhals and bowhead whales, who make use of the seasonal polynyas — large ice-free patches of ocean. Seventy-five per cent of the world’s narwhal population relies on this site, for instance. The proposed new protected area includes breeding grounds for seabirds like the black-legged kittiwake and thick-billed murre: in total, about one-third of eastern Canadian seabirds breed in this region.
Making this region into a protected zone will prevent oil and gas development and help protect the area from the potential impacts of the opening of the Northwest Passage. As part of the agreement, a moratorium — rather than a ban — has been placed on oil and gas development, as well as minerals exploration. When an agreement is reached, that moratorium will become permanent. Although commercial fishing will be prohibited and other activity will be regulated, the residents of Resolute Bay, Arctic Bay and Pond Inlet will all continue their traditional hunting and fishing in the protected area.
“This area is the cultural heart of the region; these waters thriving with marine life have supported the lives of Inuit since time immemorial,” P.J. Akeeagok, president of the Qikiqtani Inuit Association, told Canadian Geographic in August 2017 when the proposed protected area’s boundaries were announced.
Three governmental bodies are working on the agreements that will shape the protected area: the federal government, the government of Nunavut, and the Qikiqtani Inuit Association. Although their announcement last August was a statement of principle, one major document must be drafted and signed before the protected area can be formally established: an Inuit impact and benefit agreement.
The five communities that make up the Qikiqtani Inuit are all part of consultations on this agreement, which legally has to be signed before the protected area can be created. This is a test case for relations between the three governments — local, territorial and federal — in Nunavut, which is governed by different laws about consultation than the rest of the country. And though the planned deadline for the agreement is less than a year away, there’s a lot to work on.
When the plan was announced, federal Environment Minister Catherine Mckenna was quoted in a government press release as saying, “We are implementing a sensible and integrated plan that will sustain biodiversity and sustain traditional ways of life.” But there’s a definite tension between the three governments. The federal government maintains it wants to work on the agreement with Nunavut and local government, who will “participate” in administering it. But representatives of the Qikiqtani Inuit Association say their participation should go farther. In December, at a conference in Toronto, QIA chief negotiator Sandra Inutiq said, “What we’re envisioning is for Inuit to fully manage and control the conservation area.” The
These waters, thriving with marine life, have supported the Inuit since time immemorial
communities of 3,600 total people who live around the area and rely on it for traditional foods and other products have the biggest interest in its well-being, she says, and know it best.
The federal government, though, has other concerns. Though the announcement of this proposed protected area has had political benefit for the current government, it’s also true that its establishment has important consequences for Arctic sovereignty. Like the hunt for the Franklin Expedition ships before it, part of the government’s political action now on something that the residents of the Baffin Island region have been agitating for since the 1970s is related to the increased attention to maintaining Canadian control of the Arctic.
The federal government has shown it is willing to negotiate: when the agreement was announced last August, the prime minister’s office also signed a whole-of-government agreement, which means that during the negotiations, all cabinet members will be involved. Hopefully, this means that everyone from Mckenna to the fisheries and oceans minister can come to an agreement, cutting down on red tape.
Although the protected area will be the largest one in Canada, it’s only part of the universally vulnerable Canadian Arctic. From a conservation standpoint, its creation will be a positive step, but there are still many questions.
Among these is the question of funding, which remains to be announced after the Inuit impact and benefit agreement is signed. Inutiq said earlier this year that administrating the protected area could help bring economic well-being to the communities that rely on it, which suffer from infrastructural issues like problems with access to internet and have high unemployment rates. The Inuit impact and benefit agreement could help secure opportunities for the region and empower people to take action.
Conservation science is also evolving as the Arctic is changing: new research about pollution, ship movements and Arctic species is complementing traditional knowledge, demonstrating that we’re in a critical time for Arctic biomes. Getting this conservation area right — for both the Inuit and the natural world — is more important than ever.1
“THE SERENGETI OF THE ARCTIC” A flock of eider ducks (Somateria mollissima) over Lancaster Sound
A hunter travels the coastline; a bowhead whale (Balaena mysticetus) under the ice LIFE ABOVE AND BELOW