North

Open for comment: Darnley Bay marine protected area closer to reality

The federal government is inviting the public to comment on a plan to create a marine protected area north of Paulatuk, N.W.T. — an area almost half the size of Prince Edward Island.

Area north of Paulatuk, N.W.T., would be one of the largest marine protected areas in Canada

Boats line the shore of Paulatuk, N.W.T. A marine protected area is proposed for parts of Darnley Bay, offshore from the community. (David Thurton/CBC)

The federal government is inviting the public to comment on a plan to create a marine protected area north of Paulatuk, N.W.T. — an area almost half the size of Prince Edward Island.

The protected-area designation in Darnley Bay would ban activities such as oil and gas drilling and commercial harvesting, but makes broad exceptions for traditional hunting and fishing.

At 2,361 square kilometres, it would be one of the largest marine protected areas in Canada.

"The community of Paulatuk has been involved since day one," said Lawrence Ruben, chair of the Paulatuk Community Corporation.

Ruben said at the onset of talks, Inuvialuit were assured by the government "that the rights and benefits within the ISR [Inuvialuit Settlement Region] would not be closed off or disallowed in the marine protected area."

Broad exemptions

People in the community of Paulatuk traditionally hunt beluga whales and birds, and fish for char out in Darnley Bay, which will still be allowed as part of the agreement.

Lawrence Ruben, chair of the Paulatuk Community Corporation, says the community has been involved since the beginning of talks. (David Thurton/CBC)

Some other activities, like dredging in the area around Paulatuk, will also be allowed, and ships will still be able to pass through the area. Activities related to national defence and emergency services will also be exempt.

Some areas used by the oil and gas industry to store barges over the winter have been left out of the planned protected area altogether.

"We ensured that those are kept out of the Marine Protected Area, because it would benefit the [Inuvialuit Regional Corporation] and beneficiaries in terms of jobs and whatnot," says Ruben.

Even with all the exemptions, the regional oceans director with the Department of Fisheries and Oceans, Cal Wenghofer, says the protected area is going to be a boon to the health of the local marine ecosystem.

"A designation under the Oceans Act will ultimately provide that long-term protection to safeguard the environment, prevent species loss and allow any ecosystem concerns to be addressed through the regulations and ultimately a management plan," Wenghofer said.

The area of interest, called Anguniaqvia niqiqyuam, is located in Darnley Bay, N.W.T., and borders the east coast of the Parry Peninsula, near the community of Paulatuk. The approximate size is 2,361 square kilometres. (Department of Fisheries and Oceans)

Little progress on big goal

As part of an international agreement — the United Nations Convention on Biological Diversity — the federal government has committed to protecting five per cent of Canada's oceans by 2017, and 10 per cent by 2020.

Meeting that goal is going to keep government planners busy for years to come.

"It's going to be a challenge, no doubt," Wenghofer said. "It's a significant undertaking."

A 2014 comparison of marine protected areas in G20 countries found Canada's performance sorely lacking, with just 0.11 per cent of its oceans fully protected against any extractive industry, like oil and gas or fishing. Nearly 10 per cent of the oceans in the U.S. and U.K.'s oceans are protected.

The new designated area will not include any strict "no-take" areas that are closed off to everyone, including Inuvialuit beneficiaries.

Ruben says the community originally asked the government for a larger protected area.

"We made a big, big map of that area, and the federal government said it was too big so we had to decrease the size," he said.

A Fisheries and Oceans Canada report last year said the protected area could be as large as 9,500 square kilometres; the area currently being proposed is about a quarter of that size.

The marine protected area is expected to cost the federal government around $1.7 million to manage over the next 20 years.

Public comment on the proposed regulations will be open until July 25.

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