Nearly five decades after Canada’s Inuit began their fight to preserve a unique marine ecosystem, the federal government, the Territory of Nunavut and the Qikiqtani Inuit Association announced Monday that they’ve reached an agreement on the final boundary for a national marine conservation area (NMCA) in the Canadian Arctic.
The new conservation area on the eastern approach to the fabled Northwest Passage will protect a large part of Tallurutiup Imanga, also known as Lancaster Sound.
The proposed marine park will cover an area twice the size of Nova Scotia, making it the largest marine conservation area in Canada, said Catherine McKenna, Minister of Environment and Climate Change responsible for Parks Canada.
A unique habitat
Along with Sirmilik National Park, Prince Leopold Island Migratory Bird Sanctuary, and Nirjutiqavvik National Wildlife Area, the conservation area will cover more than 131,000 square kilometres.
Most of the world’s narwhal and one-seventh of its beluga whales—as well as bowhead whales; walruses; and ringed, harp, and bearded seals, and polar bears—use the waters of Tallurutiup Tariunga for feeding, giving birth, and migrating, said a document by The Pew Charitable Trusts, which had campaigned for decades to have the area designated a national marine park.
These waters are also essential to the survival of several million seabirds that occur in concentrations not found anywhere else in the Arctic, according to The Pew Charitable Trusts.
“Protecting this area is critically important,” McKenna said in joint announcement with Joe Savikataaq, Nunavut’s Minister of Environment, and P.J. Akeeagok, president of the Qikiqtani Inuit Association.
“Like most of the Arctic, the region is threatened by climate change.”
— Minister C. McKenna (@ec_minister) August 14, 2017
Rising temperatures and melting sea ice are shrinking habitats, and putting vulnerable sea life under pressure, she said.
“Inuit, who for millennia relied on these species for food, clothing, and shelter, have found their livelihoods endangered and their futures at risk,” McKenna said.
Guided by Inuit traditional knowledge
The agreement launches the negotiation of an Inuit Impact Benefit Agreement (IIBA) that will provide long lasting benefits for Inuit, McKenna said.
Once it is designated a Marine Conservation Area, Tallurutiup Imanga will be permanently off limits for any exploration for and exploitation of hydrocarbons, minerals, aggregates, and any other inorganic matter, the government said.
The new conservation area will also protect Inuit harvesting rights guaranteed under the Nunavut agreement and ensure the protection of species at risk, the government said. Inuit traditional knowledge will be used in future decision making for the management and protection of the conservation area.
“Today is an important day for Inuit because of the profound significance of Tallurutiup Imanga to our communities,” Akeeagok said in a statement. “This area is the cultural heart of the region: these waters thriving with marine life have supported the lives of Inuit since time immemorial.”
The agreement is part of the Liberal government promise to protect five per cent of Canada’s marine areas by 2017.
A five-decade quest
The Inuit began their quest seeking its protection for Tallurutiup Imanga when oil and gas development was proposed in the late 1960s.
In 1987, Parks Canada began a feasibility study for a marine conservation area, covering roughly 48,000 square kilometres —twice the size of Lake Erie. That project was put on hold at the request of Inuit until the Nunavut Land Claims Agreement was finalized.
The Qikiqtani Inuit Association, the regional Inuit association that represents over 14,000 Inuit of the Qikiqtani (the Baffin Island region), signed a memorandum of understanding in December 2009 with the Government of Nunavut and Parks Canada to begin evaluating the feasibility of a National Marine Conservation Area.
In June 2016, Shell Oil relinquished offshore oil and gas leases totaling 8,700 square kilometres just east of Tallurutiup Tariunga, clearing the way for the federal government to expand the park boundaries even further.