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The Canadian Coast Guard icebreaker Louis S. St-Laurent sails past a iceberg in Lancaster Sound as part of a sovereignty and research patrol through Canada's Arctic in July 2008. ((Jonathan Hayward/Canadian Press))

Officials in some of Nunavut's most northerly communities say they're getting mixed messages about Lancaster Sound, where the federal government has separate plans to create a conservation area and explore for oil and gas.

High Arctic residents have recently learned of a proposal by the Geological Survey of Canada to conduct seismic testing for potential oil and gas resources this summer in Lancaster Sound, located at the eastern entrance to the Northwest Passage.

At the same time, the federal government is studying the idea of making a national marine conservation area there, in order to protect marine mammal and bird species as well as assert Canada's sovereignty in the Arctic.

"One hand is doing the one thing while the other hand is just doing the opposite thing. That's of concern for sure," said Marty Kuluguqtuaq, the senior administrative officer in Grise Fiord, Nunavut.

The Nunavut Impact Review Board, which is screening the proposed survey work within the territory, is accepting public comments until April 26. A decision is expected to be made in mid-May.

Kuluguqtuaq said the hamlet of Grise Fiord, along with the local hunters and trappers organization, are jointly opposing the seismic testing at this time.

Concerned about wildlife

Jack Willie, manager of the hunters and trappers organization in Arctic Bay, Nunavut, said he first heard of the seismic testing plans over a week ago, and has since sent a letter of concern to the review board.

Willie said his organization is worried about the effects of seismic testing on marine habitat in Lancaster Sound, noting that the air-powered acoustic devices used in tests will scare wildlife away from hunting grounds.

"Most of the concerns were [about] sea mammals and sea birds being affected," he told CBC News, adding that he's concerned about beluga and narwhal, as well as various bird species, moving to other feeding areas.

The proposed seismic testing project, called the Eastern Canadian Arctic Seismic Experiment, is a collaboration between the Geological Survey of Canada and the German Federal Institute of Geoscience, according to documents filed with the review board.

The project aims to "investigate the crustal structure of the Eastern Canadian Arctic margin," with the hopes of better understanding the "development and evolution of the thick sedimentary basins and their hydrocarbon potential."

Tests to begin in August

In the documents, the proponents state that the work would take place this August and September in Lancaster Sound, Jones Sound and eastern Baffin Island.

The seismic testing is not expected to significantly affect any sea bird, marine mammal or marine fish species in the area, according to the proponents.

Project leader Gordon Oakey from the Geological Survey of Canada could not be reached for further comment.

The proposed seismic testing comes as Parks Canada continue to have talks with the Qikiqtani Inuit Association about designating Lancaster Sound as a national marine conservation area.

The area is a habitat for narwhal, beluga and bowhead whales, as well as for seals, walrus and polar bears. Seabirds flock to Lancaster Sound in the hundreds of thousands.

Underwater mining and energy exploration would be banned in Lancaster Sound if it is designated as a marine conservation area.

The federal government announced in December that it will spend $5 million for a feasibility study on the marine conservation area proposal.

"There are three different departments who want to do work around Lancaster Sound: Parks Canada wants to do this study, Geological Survey of Canada wants to do seismic work, and I understand Indian Affairs also wants to do some studies there," said John Amagoalik, the Qikiqtani Inuit Association's director of lands and resources.

"We're not sure if they're talking to each other."