The Canadian Coast Guard icebreaker Louis S. St-Laurent passes an iceberg in Lancaster Sound in July 2008. The federal government announced on Monday has begun the formal process of designating the Sound a national marine conservation area. ((Jonathan Hayward/Canadian Press))

The federal government says it's moving to protect Lancaster Sound, a marine area in the Eastern Arctic that is known as a corridor for whales and a habitat for seabirds, polar bears and other animals.

Environment Minister John Baird announced on Monday that Ottawa has begun the formal process of designating Lancaster Sound a national marine conservation area.

Baird said the government will consult Inuit in the area, as well as the Nunavut government and other groups on protecting the 44,500-square-kilometre sound, which is about twice the size of Lake Erie.

"This place has been called the Serengeti of the Arctic," Baird told reporters in Ottawa. "Deep channels, currents and upwellings, combined with open water areas — even in the depth of winter — sustain a complex variety of marine life."

Located near the eastern entrance to the Northwest Passage, Lancaster Sound is a known migratory corridor for most of the world's narwhal, bowhead and beluga whale populations, as well as a habitat for seabirds, polar bears, walruses and other marine species.

It is also believed to contain potentially significant deposits of oil and natural gas.

Shipping still allowed

Designating Lancaster Sound as a national marine park means resource exploration or extraction will not be allowed in the area, Baird said, although he added that commercial shipping will still be allowed in the area.


Speaking to reporters Monday in Ottawa, Environment Minister John Baird said the federal government will hold consultations on the proposed Lancaster Sound designation. ((CBC))

"We have substantive protections in place — environmental laws in place — to protect this and, frankly, all areas," Baird said.

"But as the effects of climate change are felt in decades to come, we'll have to constantly be reviewing the regulations to make sure that it delivers for the environment."

The announcement comes a year after the federal government, the Nunavut government and the Qikiqtani Inuit Association — the group representing Inuit in communities near Lancaster Sound — agreed to start a feasibility study on creating a national marine conservation area.

Seismic tests cancelled

In August, the Nunavut Court of Justice stopped scientists with the federal Natural Resources Department from carrying out seismic tests for potential oil and gas resources in the sound.

The Qikiqtani Inuit Association sought to block the seismic tests, arguing that such testing would impact the migration routes of whales and serve as a prelude to drilling.

On Monday, Baird confirmed that the seismic testing project has been cancelled outright. Existing data will be used in planning for the marine park, he said.

"We are elated," Chris Debicki of the environmental group Oceans North told CBC News.

"This decision is a real indication that the federal government has responded to the concerns of Inuit in the High Arctic."

Boundaries to be worked out

Baird said the federal departments involved in the process have agreed on potential boundaries for a marine conservation area in Lancaster Sound, setting the stage for consultations to begin.

A steering committee will be set up in partnership with the Nunavut government and the Qikiqtani Inuit Association to carry out the consultations.

"Inuit discussed a potential boundary last month, so we will … start to discuss how we could put the two together, and perhaps, it will be bigger," said Okalik Eegeesiak, the Inuit association's president.

Eegeesiak joined Baird in Ottawa for the announcement, as did Peter Taptuna, Nunavut's minister of economic development, and Nunavut Conservative MP Leona Aglukkaq.

Both Eegeesiak and Taptuna said they welcome the latest development and look forward to discussing what the final boundaries will be for the marine conservation area.