Inuit, environmental groups praise cruises for agreeing to avoid Eclipse Sound


A marine conservation charity and Inuit hunters are commending cruise operators for agreeing to avoid a Nunavut waterway where thousands of narwhals migrate each summer.

The Association of Arctic Expedition Cruise Operators recently said that its member vessels will not cross Eclipse Sound this summer and will instead pass through Pond Inlet.

Oceans North and the Mittimatalik Hunters and Trappers Organization had requested the relocation as summer narwhal numbers in the area off the northeast coast of Baffin Island have decreased, which they say is due to increased traffic maritime.

“Narwhal continues to decline in our area and has not returned to historic numbers as we had hoped,” David Qamaniq, president of the hunters and trappers organization, said in a press release. “We thank the cruise ship operators for working with us this year to protect the animals that remain.”

Aerial surveys have shown a decline in the number of narwhals migrating to Eclipse Sound from Baffin Bay. Surveys conducted for Baffinland Iron Mines Corp, which operates the Mary River Mine, estimate the numbers have decreased from 5,019 in 2020 to 2,595 in 2021. The company said, however, that its 2022 estimate shows an increase to 4,592 .

Fisheries and Oceans Canada estimated that there were more than 12,000 narwhals in Eclipse Sound in 2016 and more than 20,000 in 2004.

“This area has historically been one of the most important narwhal habitats in the world,” said Chris Debicki, Ocean North’s vice president of policy development, noting that Milne Inlet, a small arm of Eclipse Sound, is a critical area for the I leave.

“Moving the narwhal out of that area not only moves the narwhal out of its preferred habitat, but also potentially makes it much more difficult for harvesters to participate in narwhal hunting.”

Hunters of Mittimatalik, or Pond Inlet, rely on the narwhal for food, livelihoods and culture.

While cruise ships avoiding Eclipse Sound will make a difference, Debicki said, they make up only a fraction of vessel traffic. The Association of Arctic Expedition Cruise Operators said its ships accounted for 14% of those who traveled to the area last year with 15 ships making 26 trips. It said 14 of its members planned 32 stops at Pond Inlet this summer.

Oceans North said the majority of vessels are traveling to and from the Mary River Mine, with 44 vessels making 76 trips to Eclipse Sound and adjacent fjords in 2022, or about 40% of all vessel traffic.

A report by the working groups of the Commission on North Atlantic Marine Mammals and the Joint Canada/Greenland Commission on Beluga and Narwhal released earlier this year concluded that increased shipping traffic is “by far the biggest cause likely” of the decline in narwhal numbers in Eclipse Strait, particularly from iron ore mining.

Baffinland criticized the report and said factors other than shipping may have led to the decrease. She said this includes changing ice conditions and predator-prey dynamics, which the report disputes.

Baffinland spokesman Peter Akman said the company welcomes the cruise operators association’s decision and “any measures that protect marine life and balance the needs of the local community as a whole”.

He noted that Baffinland has several voluntary mitigation measures including the use of convoys, the avoidance of restricted areas, using a fixed sea lane and limiting vessel speeds to nine knots. Akman added that the company employs six full-time and four part-time Inuit expedition monitors at Pond Inlet.

Last summer, the company expressed concern about cruise ships traveling too fast in the area. Akman said he continued to reach out to Oceans North, the Association of Arctic Shipping and Cruise Operators, and cruise ships licensed to travel through the community this summer to support his maritime mitigation measures.

Baffinland, which began operations in 2015, has asked the Nunavut Impact Review Board to increase the amount of ore that can be shipped from the mine to six million tons from 4.2 million tons, as allowed each year since 2018, using up to 84 ore carriers. It’s also asking to ship ore that was stuck in Milne Harbor last year, as well as anything that might be left behind at the end of this year’s shipping season.

Oceans North and the Mittimatalik Hunters and Trappers Organization have asked the federal government to issue an interim order under the Canada Shipping Act to close Eclipse Sound and the adjacent fjord system this summer to all non-essential vessels and impose a cap speed of nine knots. They said Transport Canada should also work with Baffinland to reduce shipping through Eclipse Sound and Milne Inlet.

“We believe these are the minimum steps needed to reduce the risk of extirpation of Eclipse Sound’s narwhal population,” says a March letter from the organizations.

Transport Canada did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

This report from The Canadian Press was first published on June 3, 2023.

This story was produced with financial assistance from Meta and the Canadian Press News Fellowship.

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