Hunters and environmental groups in Nunavut say shipping activity at Baffinland’s Mary River mine is having a real and potentially lasting effect on the number of narwhals in the area.
They are asking the mining company to change its shipping plans again this year as a precaution.
In a letter to Nunavut regulators last week, the Pond Inlet-based Mittimatalik Hunters & Trappers Organization (HTO) says the abundance of narwhals summering in Eclipse Sound has steadily declined over the past years and that Baffinland is responsible for it.
The company agrees that narwhal numbers are down in Eclipse Sound – but suggests there may be other reasons.
Eclipse Sound is a natural waterway through the Arctic Archipelago, northwest of Pond Inlet, and it’s where narwhals migrate from Baffin Bay each summer. It is also the route taken by ships transporting ore from the port of Baffinland.
Last year, the company agreed to avoid spring icebreaking to minimize negative impacts on narwhal. This decision was based on “the precautionary principle which is the basis of our adaptive management plan,” Baffinland’s CEO said in a statement at the time.
Baffinland intends to resume icebreaking this year, according to the company’s most recent annual report.
The Mittimatalik HTO says that’s a bad idea.
“Now is not the time to move forward with icebreaking,” reads the HTO’s letter to the Nunavut Impact Review Board (NIRB).
“Now is the time to slow down and take a break, assess what is going on and make any necessary adjustments to the course. The risks to Inuit harvesting rights are too great and require the exercise of extreme caution.
The letter says narwhals in the area are less abundant, their behavior is changing, and hunters are struggling to harvest enough to feed their families.
‘Almost no’ narwhals for hunters, group says
Baffinland’s own narwhal monitoring studies tell the story, says Kristin Westdal of the environmental group Oceans North.
“We’re really concerned about that,” Westdal said.
“Clearly, the shipping that’s going on right now is having a serious impact on this population of narwhals. We know that from observational studies. We know that from acoustic studies. We know that from survey data. aerial.”
An aerial survey of Eclipse Sound conducted for Baffinland last August revealed about 2,595 narwhals in the area – just over half of what had been seen the previous year (5,018 narwhals) and about a quarter of estimates previous years of 10,489 animals in 2013, and 12,039 animals in 2016. Baffinland began shipping ore from the Mary River mine in 2015.
“It’s a big concern from a marine conservation perspective and also from a food security perspective… Last summer there were hardly any narwhals to hunt,” Westdal said.
Baffinland acknowledges the drop in Eclipse Sound numbers, but argues there is no clear evidence that its boating activities are to blame. This could be due to other environmental factors, such as changing sea ice conditions or new predator and prey dynamics, the company suggests.
Maybe not a separate stock
Baffinland argues that the narwhals that summer in Eclipse Sound may not be a distinct group, but rather part of a larger stock of narwhals that frequent Eclipse Sound and Inlet the Admiralty.
The company says the combined numbers from the Eclipse Sound and Admiralty Inlet surveys do not show the same decline in recent years and have in fact more than doubled to 75,177 animals between 2020 and 2021. This suggests that the Narwhal populations in the area are not suffering, a spokesperson said.
“A review of available Inuit knowledge and scientific monitoring data shows that the Admiralty Inlet and Eclipse Sound narwhal stocks may in fact represent a single stock with a natural interchange of animals between the two. supposed summer areas,” company spokesman Peter Akman wrote in an email to CBC. News.
The Department of Fisheries and Oceans considers the summer aggregations of narwhals in Eclipse Sound and Admiralty Inlet to be separate stocks for harvest management. In a 2020 reportthe ministry reviewed the evidence of mixing between the groups and suggested harvest limits should take this into account. But the report concluded that the data “does not warrant a change in the definition of management units”.
This report also suggested that the narwhal in Eclipse Sound “could be displaced by an increased level of shipping traffic from mining and cruise ships, icebreaking, and anthropogenic development.” He also cited killer whales as a possible factor in narwhal attendance.
When asked if the company would change its icebreaking plans again this year, as requested by the Mittimatalik HTO and Oceans North, Akman said Baffinland is still working on a plan.
“Baffinland will consider all proposed mitigation and monitoring measures as part of the development of the 2022 Narwhal Adaptive Management Response Plan,” Akman’s email states.
According to Oceans North, there is no time to waste. The group, which sits on a marine environment working group with the company and local hunter-trapper organizations, wants an urgent meeting to discuss Baffinland’s sailing plans. The group, along with the Mittimatalik HTO, suggests the company do more than just pause icebreaking this year.
The group wants other measures such as limiting the number of ships in the area, or reducing the speed of ships to minimize noise pollution.
“We look forward to doing this because another year of low narwhal numbers could be the disappearance or complete removal of these animals from this area,” Westdal said.