Ottawa and Inuit groups say they’ve reached a deal on a vast new marine protected area in Canada’s Arctic that will directly benefit the people living there.
The agreement makes the waters north of Baffin Island — more than 100,000 square kilometres of some of the richest and most productive seas in the North — one step closer to becoming Canada’s largest protected area.
“This is about the people,” said P.J. Akeeagok of the Qikiqtani Inuit Association, who signed the deal Tuesday in Grise Fiord, Nunavut, with federal Environment Minister Catherine McKenna — the same day an American study called Canada a conservation leader in North America.
Formerly called Lancaster Sound, it is now Tallurutiup Imanga National Marine Conservation Area.
Its cliff-studded coastline is laced with bays, inlets and deep fiords. Most of the world’s narwhal, as well as large numbers of beluga and bowhead whales, swim amongst its bobbing icebergs.
Rich habitat for seals and walrus attracts numerous polar bears. Seabirds flock there in the millions.
Inuit have fought to protect the area since the 1960s. In 2009, they went to court to block seismic tests that would have assessed the area’s oil and gas potential.
“It’s an incredible place, incredibly important habitat,” said McKenna. “It’s also an incredibly important place for Inuit.”
The deal includes jobs as guardians for Inuit in the five Nunavut communities near the area.
The communities also will get their first small-craft harbours to allow people to safely dock and disembark. The deal includes promises of mobile food processing facilities to support local hunters and increase the amount of food they can provide for their communities.
“The potential for Inuit to truly create an economy out of nutritious country food is a game-changer,” said Akeeagok.
He said talks are on track to have Tallurutiup Imanga officially created in March.
The government also announced it will consider a second protected area in waters even further north, off the northern coast of Ellesmere Island. Inuit groups, Nunavut and Canada will begin discussing the area called the High Arctic Basin or Tuvaijuittuq — Inuktitut for “the ice never melts.”
It’s more good news, said Chris Debicki of the environmental group Oceans North. But he said the government should now focus on protecting the so-called North Water Polynya, where year-round open water creates highly productive habitat used by many of the same animals that use Tallurutiup Imanga.
“That’s the critical next step. If we just look at protecting isolated areas without looking at larger connections, we’re just rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic.”
He said northern regulators will also have to ensure the area isn’t threatened by the Mary River iron mine, which is asking for permits to increase its shipments by 600 per cent.
The announcement came as the Center for American Progress praised Canada’s conservation policies.
“There’s a lot of momentum and Canada is really adopting a leadership role,” said Ryan Richards, who compared the rate of land and sea conservation in Canada, the U.S. and Mexico for the left-of-centre think tank.
Although Mexico and the U.S. have more land under some form of protection, Richards said the rate of conservation in Canada is higher. Mexico has been static and the U.S. has actually opened formerly protected land to exploitation.
All three countries have signed agreements to protect 17 per cent of their land and 10 per cent of their oceans by 2020. Canada has protected about eight per cent of both.
— Follow Bob Weber on Twitter at @row1960
Bob Weber, The Canadian Press