Canada and Greenland sign letter of intent on marine conservation area in Arctic

“Citizens in the area feel the changes in nature and in the behavior of animals as a consequence of increased activity and climate change,” said Greenland’s Minister of Agriculture, Self-Sufficiency, Energy and Environment Kalistat Lund. “Dealing with these changes is a common challenge across national borders, and it is gratifying that we are now entering into closer cooperation with Canada on this matter.” (Government of Canada)

Canada and Greenland signed a letter of intent concerning the conservation of a marine area between their two territories, the latest step in a long process started by Inuit that goes back almost a decade.

“This is a milestone for closer collaboration with our international partners and Inuit communities, and is an important step towards ensuring this critical body of water remains healthy and supports the needs of Inuit for years to come,” Diane Lebouthillier, Canada’s minister of Fisheries, Oceans and the Canadian Coast Guard, said in a statement. 

Lebouthillier signed the letter of intent with Greenland’s Minister of Agriculture, Self-Sufficiency, Energy and Environment Kalistat Lund in Reykjavik on Thursday. 

“Citizens in the area feel the changes in nature and in the behavior of animals as a consequence of increased activity and climate change,” Lund said. “Dealing with these changes is a common challenge across national borders, and it is gratifying that we are now entering into closer cooperation with Canada on this matter.”

Largest polynya in the Arctic

The North Water Polynya, also known by its Greenlandic name Pikialasorsuaq, and by Sarvarjuaq, in Nunavut, is a unique area of water between Greenland and Canada’s eastern Arctic territory of Nunavut.

It’s confluence of strong ocean currents means it stays ice-free year round, making it an ecologically rich area important for wildlife activities like mating and feeding.

Ecological Importance of Pikialasorsuaq
  • largest polynya in the Arctic
  • ice-free year round
  • rich feeding area during plankton explosion in spring
  • key location for migratory species
  • important bird and wildlife location for breeding, reproductive activities and forging
  • crucial area for fish, birds
  • vital marine mammals like walrus, beluga and bowhead whales, narwhals, ringed, bearded and harp seals, and polar bears

Source: Government of Canada

Ottawa says the letter is the first phase towards a joint steering committee that will oversee the area.

The committee will have representatives from Inuit groups and governments from both Canada and Greenland and will focus on conservation and ecosystem-based management of resources.

The body will be informed by both Indigenous knowledge and scientific research.

The North Water Polynya, or Pikialasorsuaq « The Great Upwelling » in Inuktitut, is the largest Arctic polynya and the most biologically productive region north of the Arctic Circle. (Courtesy of Inuit Circumpolar Council)

The Inuit Circumpolar Council represents the approximately 180,000 Inuit in Alaska, Canada, Greenland, and Chukotka, Russia and has long pushed for Pikialasorsuaq to become a marine protected area co-managed by Inuit. 

No one from ICC responded to a request for comment for this story, but in an emailed statement said Thursday’s letter was to be applauded.

“We believe that this initiative provides a unique opportunity for us to come together to strengthen Inuit led marine conservation and build new approaches where Inuit share in marine governance and future opportunities,” ICC International Chair Sara Olsvig said.

Free mobility still to be advanced 

“This Letter of Intent is an important step in advancing Inuit led management across Inuit Nunaat and supports a paradigm shift towards implementing the vision of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples,” said ICC’s International Chair Sara Olsvig.(Courtesy ICC)

In addition to conservation and resource management, ICC has also advocated for Inuit to be able to travel freely across the water way as they did before the Canada-Denmark border was established.

The Ottawa statement did not address cross-border mobility, but Olsvig said ICC will continue to work towards the goal.

“The Pikialasorsuaq region bears a deep cultural significance to Inuit, and an invaluable ecological value to the planet. Our main incentive is to maintain access to the living resources generated from Pikialasorsuaq for generations and generations to come,” she said.

“Going ahead, we will continue to advance the mobility Inuit once enjoyed moving freely within Inuit Nunaat and by doing so maintaining our family connections and our culture”.

The letter of intent was signed on the margins of Iceland’s Arctic Circle Assembly, a northern affairs conference.

Comments, tips or story ideas? Contact Eilís at eilis.quinn(at) 

Related stories from around the North: 

Canada: Conservation an important path forward for Nunavut’s economy, says report, Eye on the Arctic

Finland: Conservationists find more critically endangered Arctic fox cubs in Finnish Lapland, Yle News

Norway: Climate change hits back at Svalbard, coal mine flooded by melting glacier in Norway, The Independent Barents Observer

RussiaOral histories unlock impact of climate change on nomadic life in Arctic Russia, says study, Eye on the Arctic

Sweden: Extra billions to SAS – but with stricter climate requirements, Radio Sweden

United States: Conservation groups sue government over Alaska mining road, The Associated Press

Eilís Quinn, Eye on the Arctic

Eilís Quinn is an award-winning journalist and manages Radio Canada International’s Eye on the Arctic news cooperation project. Eilís has reported from the Arctic regions of all eight circumpolar countries and has produced numerous documentary and multimedia series about climate change and the issues facing Indigenous peoples in the North.

Her investigative report "Death in the Arctic: A community grieves, a father fights for change," about the murder of Robert Adams, a 19-year-old Inuk man from Arctic Quebec, received the silver medal for “Best Investigative Article or Series” at the 2019 Canadian Online Publishing Awards. The project also received an honourable mention for excellence in reporting on trauma at the 2019 Dart Awards in New York City.

Her report “The Arctic Railway: Building a future or destroying a culture?” on the impact a multi-billion euro infrastructure project would have on Indigenous communities in Arctic Europe was a finalist at the 2019 Canadian Association of Journalists award in the online investigative category.

Her multimedia project on the health challenges in the Canadian Arctic, "Bridging the Divide," was a finalist at the 2012 Webby Awards.

Her work on climate change in the Arctic has also been featured on the TV science program Découverte, as well as Le Téléjournal, the French-Language CBC’s flagship news cast.

Eilís has worked for media organizations in Canada and the United States and as a TV host for the Discovery/BBC Worldwide series "Best in China."

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