Canada’s New Marine Protected Area Envisions a Better Future for Narwhals and Belugas

By Dan Hubbell, EIA Policy Analyst

Canada has one of the longest coastlines in the world, touching the Pacific, Arctic, and Atlantic Oceans. Yet in spite of the vast breadth of its waters and the remarkable biodiversity within them, Canada has protected just one percent of its waters with marine protected areas (MPAs). Moreover, industrial activities such as dredging, commercial fishing, or oil and natural gas exploration and production are prohibited in just 0.01 percent of Canadian waters. But Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has taken some surefooted steps towards addressing this gap, including last month’s announcement of the new boundaries for the planned Tallurutiup Imanga/Lancaster Sound National Marine Conservation Area (NMCA). When completed, the new MPA will cover 110,000 km², making it the largest area of protected ocean in Canadian waters.

The Sound was identified as an Ecologically or Biologically Significant Area (EBSA) by the Convention on Biological Diversity in 2011, in acknowledgement of the site’s incomparable ecological value. Roughly three quarters of the world’s narwhal population lives near Lancaster Sound or relies on it as a migratory route between winter and summer habitat. More than 20,000 belugas and 5,000 bowhead whales also reside near the Sound or migrate through the area each year. Many other iconic Arctic wildlife, from seals to seabirds, make use of this remarkably productive and vital waterway.

Designating Tallurutiup Imanga is more than just a symbolic recognition of this ecological treasure trove, it is an example of forward thinking policy and the vital importance of collaborating with local communities. The newly expanded designation is the product of discussions in good faith between the government, NGOs, and the Qikiptani Inuit Association. A final Inuit Impact Agreement is under negotiation to enshrine the rights of the five indigenous communities within the MPA, including hunting and fishing rights, that incorporates traditional ecological knowledge.

While indigenous activities will continue in Tallurutiup Imanga, the area will be closed forever to oil and natural gas exploration. Long considered a possible site for oil development, one considerable delay in the MPA’s designation was Shell’s claim to 30 offshore exploration permits near the mouth of Lancaster Sound. After an investigation by Greenpeace Canada revealed the permits were likely expired and a 2016 lawsuit filed by the WWF Canada, Shell relinquished the permits. Tallurutiup Imanga closed the door to future interests.

Lancaster Sound is also the eastern gateway to the Northwest Passage, a fabled shipping route from Europe to Asia that has been a target for development by European shipping interests since the disastrous Franklin expedition of 1846. As Arctic sea ice levels decline, the route will finally become seasonally viable by the 2030s. Cruise ships, like the Crystal Serenity of Crystal Cruises, have already begun to traverse the Passage through Lancaster Sound. Passage of these ships creates noise that can disrupt belugas and other migrating whales, poses the risk of an accidental or illegal discharge of oil in the marine environment, and could potentially introduce invasive species. While Tallurutiup Imanga does not explicitly include any new regulations on shipping, the Environmental Investigation Agency hopes that the developing management plan will add further protections, especially against heavy fuel oil (HFO) and incorporating marine mammal avoidance into voyage planning.

After 30 years of negotiations, protection is finally in sight for these remarkable Arctic waters. EIA commends the hard work of the Canadian government, the Qikiptani Inuit Association, and the many NGOs and individuals that pursued the creation of Tallurutiup Imanga/Lancaster Sound for decades. Hopefully other nations will follow suit and contribute to a stronger network of Arctic marine protections.