Protecting Lancaster Sound
“Seismic data is not legally required to create a marine conservation area”
Oceans North Canada
At the eastern edge of the Northwest Passage, two glacier-capped islands mark the entrance to one of the greatest ecosystems in the northern hemisphere.
This is Lancaster Sound, a migration route for 85 per cent of the world’s narwhal, as well as home to beluga whales, walrus and seals. Its rich biological diversity and importance to Inuit culture has prompted calls to recognize the sound as a UNESCO World Heritage site and its strategic location pulls it into the Arctic sovereignty debate.
Prime Minister Stephen Harper announced plans in 2007 to create the Arctic’s first national marine conservation area there. Last December, Ottawa and Inuit leaders signed an agreement to begin work on the marine park — and then the federal government angered local residents by scheduling oil-related seismic testing in the region, set to begin next month.
Lancaster Sound’s nutrient-rich waters sustain millions of Arctic cod, food for thriving marine mammal populations. Bowhead whales, once hunted by Europeans to the brink of extinction, have returned in healthy numbers.
Each summer, more than 30,000 beluga — about one-third of the world’s population — and at least 60,000 narwhal migrate through the sound after wintering in Baffin Bay. Residents of Pond Inlet, Arctic Bay, Resolute Bay and Grise Fiord depend on hunting in these waters as their primary food source — a healthier and less expensive alternative to the over-processed fare sold in local stores.
Ottawa’s renewed plans to conduct seismic tests reflect a collective amnesia that envelops much of Canada’s Arctic policy, says John Amagoalik, one of the Inuit leaders who helped create Nunavut.
He remembers the last oil and gas controversy in Lancaster Sound in the 1970s when Inuit protested an oil consortium’s proposal for offshore drilling. A federal panel ultimately overruled the project, citing the region’s critical importance to the Inuit way of life.
Today, the Inuit are just as passionate about defending the waters they call Tallurutiup Tariunga after the image of a tattooed woman’s chin etched by the elements in the towering cliffs of the Sound’s northern shores.
During community hearings this spring, hunters and their families told government officials that they feared seismic testing would disrupt whale migrations and pave the way for future oil and gas activities.
They asked the federal government to stop the seismic work and move forward with the creation of a national marine conservation area in Lancaster Sound. More than 11,000 other Canadians lent their support by signing a letter asking Prime Minister Harper to intervene.
After these community consultations, a federal official told the press on June 23 that Natural Resources Canada was “not going to be going out to collect the full range of seismic data in Lancaster Sound that [Natural Resources] had set out to do.”
Inuit leaders and the Nunavut Research Institute were told that a scaled-back proposal would be submitted for the German ship RV Polarstern, commissioned for the seismic testing in the Sound and Baffin Bay.
But last week, Inuit learned that the government will proceed with seismic work in Lancaster Sound and that the RV Polarstern is on its way to Nunavut from its home port in Bremerhaven.
Environment Minister Jim Prentice responded to Inuit protests by saying that seismic blasting “needs to be done” to map seabed resources as part of creating a national marine conservation area. He insisted it has no connection to oil development.
Yet this seismic testing is part of a $100 million federal program the government describes as “designed to stimulate new and more effective exploration for energy commodities in northern Canada.”
Seismic data is not legally required to create a marine conservation area and the government already owns extensive seismic research about Lancaster Sound, dating back to the 1970s.
The government concluded in a 1989 report that this data was “adequate” to form the basis for a resource assessment for a marine park noting that “[f]urther seismic acquisition would not noticeably enhance [the federal government’s] assessment capabilities.”
The government recently chose that very approach when it relied on existing seismic data to finalize plans for a new national marine conservation area in Gwaii Haanas, B.C., announced in June.
Prime Minister Harper deserves praise for his forward-looking decision to protect Lancaster Sound.
Now Ottawa needs to fulfill this vision of a robust marine conservation area. Promises to listen and respond to Inuit hopes and concerns for Lancaster Sound must be honoured.
Centuries of Inuit use and occupation of Tallurutiup Tariunga provide a strong argument under international law for Canada’s sovereignty in the region.
Conservation measures are another way to assert sovereignty, something this country has a history of doing. When the Manhattan, a U.S. oil tanker, transited the Northwest Passage without permission in 1969, Parliament responded with environmental legislation aimed at bolstering its claim to these waters.
Inuit have spoken loud and clear on the need to protect and preserve Lancaster Sound. It is time for Ottawa to do the same.
Christopher Debicki is Nunavut projects director for Oceans North Canada and lives in Iqaluit.