Deal on Northwest Passage marine park close: Inuit group

Canada is moving to firm up control over the disputed Northwest Passage by designating the waters of its eastern entrance a national marine conservation area.

Canada is moving to firm up control over the disputed Northwest Passage by designating the waters of its eastern entrance a national marine conservation area.

The federal and Nunavut governments as well as the regional land claim organization are close to signing a memorandum of understanding intended to make Lancaster Sound Canada's fourth such protected region.

"It's getting close to signature," said Terry Audla, director of the Qikiqtani Inuit Association. "Talks are going on and we'll see how far it gets."

'One-of-a-kind jewel'

Lancaster Sound, just off the northern tip of Baffin Island, is an area of rich ecological diversity and stunning beauty that has been on Parks Canada's wish list for protection since 1987.

"Lancaster Sound is a one-of-a-kind jewel," said Scott Highleyman of the Pew Environment Group, an international environmental organization.

Its dramatic coastline is dominated by 300-metre cliffs, and interspersed with bays, inlets and deep fiords. Most of the world's narwhal, as well as large numbers of beluga and bowhead whales, swim below 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.

"When you do a survey of the whole Arctic, it just jumps out at you," said Highleyman.

But 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 voyaging is slowly increasing, as is pressure to exploit Arctic energy and fishery resources.

U.S., EU dispute Canada's claim

Experts agree on the need for some regulatory regime for the area. But countries such as the United States and the member nations of the European Union dispute Canada's control over the passage.

Creating a national marine conservation area in Lancaster Sound would ban ocean dumping, undersea mining and energy exploration as well as manage fisheries for sustainability. It would also demonstrate Canada's will to control the region, say Arctic experts.

"It would constitute an advancement of Canada's declared political will to provide protection," said Michael Byers, a professor of international law at the University of British Columbia.

 Rob Huebert of the University of Calgary's Centre for Strategic Studies also welcomed the move.

"If you are going have sovereignty, this would be one way to do it," he said.

But both warned creating a national marine conservation area isn't enough. Huebert said the implementing regulations could still contain a loophole for international shipping.

"Do we make it clear that ships coming in have to follow Canadian regulations because it's a park?" he asked.

Park status may not carry weight: expert

Byers pointed out that declaring something a national park doesn't necessarily carry any international weight.

He points out that Lancaster Sound has been on UNESCO's list of potential World Heritage Sites for at least 25 years, a status that would include international acknowledgment of Canada's responsibility and right to look after it.

Creating the marine park, says Byers, "is nowhere near as significant as achieving World Heritage Site status."

Byers said a series of Canadian governments have backed off the UNESCO designation for fear of prompting a challenge from the U.S.

"[The park] is a good idea that should be quickly built upon by re-engaging with UNESCO," Byers said.

Audla said any formal designation of Lancaster Sound is still two or three years off and depends on negotiating benefits and co-management agreements with local Inuit. But if signing a memorandum of understanding on the intent will bolster Canada's claim, he's all for it.

"This brings about awareness to the rest of the world and the rest of Canada that Nunavut is up in that area and that it's not an isolated outpost of some military base," said Audla, whose people consider the water and sea ice of the Sound an extension of the land they've hunted for hundreds of years.

"If people realize that people live in the area and hunt in the area, that certainly brings Canada's position into a stronger place."