Nunavut approves geomapping project amidst chorus of boo-birds

Shewchuck: real culprit may be misinformation, not project


(Updated July 26, 12:00 p.m.)

The Nunavut Research Institute has approved a research license for a controversial project amid howls of outrage from Inuit and environmental groups.

The NRI license was the last regulatory obstacle faced by the Eastern Canadian Arctic Seismic Experiment, and its approval clears the way for the project to go ahead.

Okalik Eegeesiak, the president of the Qikiqtani Inuit Association, said Nunavut Environment Minister Dan Shewchuk informed her of the decision July 23.

Ship-based seismic testing will map the sea floor of Baffin Bay and the mouths of Lancaster and Jones sounds, but the project has met with months of determined opposition.

During consultation meetings in five North Baffin communities last May and April residents expressed unanimous – and often aggressive – hostility to the Eastern Canadian Arctic Seismic Experiment.

Community-level opposition centred around concerns that the sound generated by seismic testing – produced by a specialized compressed air gun towed behind a ship – would damage the sensitive hearing of marine mammals, leaving them disoriented and possibly deaf.

Natural Resources Canada is doing the work with a German vessel called the RV Polarstern, operated by the Alfred Wegener Institute in Bremerhaven. Canadian and German scientists will work together on the research.

Part of the area covered by the project overlaps with a planned marine conservation area in Lancaster Sound, which Inuit communities in the region and environmental groups have long pushed for.

The year-round open water polynas of the proposed protected area make it a critical migration route for Arctic marine mammals as well as a seasonal habitat for millions of migratory birds.

ECASE is part of a wider project that Prime Minister Stephen Harper announced in August 2008, called Geomapping for Energy and Minerals Initiative.

The Nunavut Impact Review Board approved the Baffin Bay-Lancaster Sound segment of project his past May. They have also approved other research work in Hudson Bay and Foxe Basin.

In their May 21 screening decision, the NIRB suggested that seismic data gathered in the proposed marine protected area in Lancaster Sound might actually help in the creation of a marine park in Lancaster Sound.

“[The research] may provide valuable information to assist Parks Canada and other agencies in identifying the requirements for a non-renewable resources assessment,” NIRB said in the decision.

Such an assessment must be part of a marine park feasibility study that the federal government and the Qikiqtani Inuit Association have already agreed to.

To deal with marine mammal hearing damage, the NIRB requires that researchers use a slow “ramp-up” period for the air-gun noisemaker to give mammals a chance to get out of the area.

Also, the air-gun may not be used when a bird colony or marine mammal is visible within a kilometre of the ship, and the visibility has to be good enough to spot them.

The terms of the research license from NRI add a requirement that the ship must have two marine mammal observers aboard, one to watch in front of the ship and the other to watch the wake.

During the community consultations, Canada-Nunavut Geosciences chief geologist Donald James said the project would be looking for local Inuit hunters to fill those jobs.

The NIRB recommended against holding an environmental review for the project — which suggests the regulator isn’t overly worried about the potential for marine mammal hearing damage.

But Oceans North, a conservation group funded by the Pew Environment Group, accused the ECASE project of laying the groundwork for future petrochemical exploration and exploitation in the sensitive Arctic ecosystem.

And the QIA echoed concerns about wildlife and possible resource development, and also complained that they had not been adequately consulted in the mandatory public consultation phase of the project’s regulatory approval.

QIA president Okalik Eegeesiak accused the federal government of violating the Nunavut Land Claims Agreement by proceeding with the project despite the local opposition voiced in community consultations.

She said the Government of Nunavut should have learned from the example of Newfoundland and Labrador Premier Danny Williams and deny the project until the federal government signs a devolution agreement with Nunavut for the potential oil and gas revenues the region might produce.

Eegeesiak said the terms of the NIRB’s approval demanded the project’s parameters be altered in response to local Inuit concerns.

“The proponent shall schedule its project activities appropriately based on information acquired from consultation with local residents, so as to ensure that project activities will not interfere with Inuit wildlife harvesting or traditional land use activities,” reads the NIRB approval of the project.

A July 21 letter of response to Eegeesiak from the minister responsible for NRI, Dan Shewchuk, downplayed such concerns and seemed to suggest the problem is misinformation, not the project itself:

“Although I recognize the communities’ very legitimate concerns for maintaining healthy marine ecosystems, I believe the impacts of this project have been blown out of proportion… It appears that at least some of the communities’ concerns arise from a lack of information about the purpose and potential impacts of the ECASE project,” it reads.

“I am in the process of considering how to best address the concerns expressed during the recent community consultations,” Shewchuk went on to say.

As a result of the emotional outcry in North Baffin communities, chief geologist James said that he would take the public’s hostility to the project to his superiors, saying this might produce changes to parts the project.

However, Mary-Ellen Thomas of the Nunavut Research Institute said the ECASE project application has not changed the route that the research ship would take, a route that stretches along the east coast of Baffin Island into Lancaster Sound and by the entrance of Jones Sound.

NRI’s research license was the last piece of regulatory paperwork required before the project could begin.

In voicing its opposition, Oceans North issued a press release urging Shewchuk and the GN not to grant an NRI research licence to the ECASE scientists.

“The federal government promised to listen to local communities and revise its seismic plans in light of their strong opposition,” said Oceans North’s Nunavut director Chris Debicki.

“We urge Nunavut Environment minister Daniel Shewchuk to intervene and not issue the permit for seismic work in Lancaster Sound.”

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