Ottawa to sign deal to protect Northwest Passage

The Canadian Press has learned that the federal government is moving to create an environmentally protected area at the eastern gates of the Northwest Passage.

The Canadian Press has learned that the federal government is moving to create an environmentally protected area at the eastern gates of the Northwest Passage.

A deal to be signed by Environment Minister Jim Prentice on Tuesday calls for a feasibility study into setting up Canada’s fourth marine conservation area. It would be in Lancaster Sound off the north coast of Baffin Island.

“We’ve always considered that area unique,” Terry Audla of the Qikiqtani Inuit Association, which will be one of the signatories to the deal, said Friday.

“It’s used quite often by people in the High Arctic. The work towards the feasibility of establishing a marine park is one end to bringing attention to us in the North.”

But while the deal is good news for Arctic environmental conservation, some are questioning the timing of the announcement. The signing ceremony comes as a global climate change summit gets underway in Copenhagen. Canada has drawn heavy international criticism leading up to the talks.

“They’ve been using their actions on conservation to blunt the attack (that) they’re doing nothing on greenhouse gas emissions and climate change,” said Dennis Bevington, New Democrat MP for the Western Arctic.

Bevington notes that when he asked about climate change during question period recently, Conservative MP Mark Warawa sidestepped the issue with a response referring to the expansion of Nahanni National Park. Prentice has taken similar lines, Bevington said.

Tuesday’s announcement continues that strategy, he suggests.

“It’s pretty clear they’re already doing that, trying to deflect from their poor performance on climate change on to whatever they’ve done on conservation.”

Agreement between the parties has been close for weeks. The Canadian Press reported on Oct. 12 that a deal was imminent.

Ocean dumping, undersea mining and energy exploration would be banned in a marine conservation area. The designation would also allow the government to manage fisheries in an area once considered for a World Heritage Site.

Its dramatic coastline is dominated by 300-metre cliffs and is interspersed with bays, inlets and deep fiords. Most of the world’s narwhal, as well as large numbers of beluga and bowhead whales, swim amongst the icebergs that bob in its waters.

Polynyas — large sections of year-round, ice-free water — make rich habitat for seals and walrus, which in turn attract numerous polar bears. Seabirds flock there in the hundreds of thousands.

Lancaster Sound is also the eastern gateway into the Northwest Passage, a waterway that melting Arctic sea ice is making increasingly accessible. Commercial shipping and private voyages are slowly increasing, as is international pressure to exploit Arctic energy and fishery resources.

Arctic experts have said a marine conservation area would demonstrate Canada’s will to regulate the area.

Tuesday’s signing is just the first step in creating a park. Any formal designation is still two or three years off and depends on successful negotiating of benefits and co-management agreements with local Inuit. An assessment of minerals and other resources also has to be done.

“Lancaster Sound is certainly a high-priority jewel,” said Craig Stewart of the World Wildlife Fund’s Arctic program. “(The deal) is a solid step forward.”

But the government should forgo the mineral assessment, he added.

“If you’re going to protect it, then protect it. A mineral assessment involves running sonic shocks through this shallow whale habitat. That’s a perverse part of a park establishment process.”

Scott Highleyman of the Pew Environment Group, an international organization, praised the Canadian plans.

“What’s really interesting about this is that you have an Inuit-led process,” he said.

“That’s just pretty rare in the North. Canada can be a world leader here.”

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