Nunavut mine shipping ore must consider narwhal health, say hunters and trappers, feds

When the last ship leaves Milne Inlet port near Pond Inlet, Nunavut, is up for debate at technical hearings for an expansion at Baffinland's Mary River Mine.

Hunters and trappers want Baffinland to end iron ore shipping season mid-October, company says that's too soon

Fisheries and Oceans is asking Baffinland Iron Mines to consider monitoring the stress levels of narwhal during summer shipping season. (Paul Nicklen/WWF)

Nunavut hunters and trappers say they want the last ship that leaves the Milne Inlet port, near Pond Inlet, to be in mid-October in order to protect marine mammals and community land use.

The debate was brought up during a Nunavut Impact Review Board teleconference gathering. It's a week-long series of technical meetings that started Monday for an environmental review for expanding the Mary River Mine, operated by Baffinland Iron Mines Corporation. The mine is about 176 kilometres southwest of Pond Inlet.

Right now Baffinland can ship iron ore until the ice begins to close in late fall, but the company is offering to set a hard close date for shipping on Oct. 30.

But the Mittimatalik Hunters and Trappers Association want the shipping season for the mine to close two weeks earlier and they also want to have more say on when the shipping season opens. 

"During the ice break up in spring, narwhals do come around, a lot of them, and what Inuit hunters are observing is, when the icebreaking starts … the marine mammals seem to move away or abandon the place," said Enookie Inuarak, vice chairperson for the association. 

But Lou Kamermans, director of sustainable development with Baffinland, said on Wednesday that ending shipping that soon isn't feasible given the amount of ore the company says it needs to move. 

"We are committed to work with the [Mittimatalik Hunters and Trappers Association] to better understand what land use is occurring during the fall shoulder season," he said. 

Baffinland's application with the Nunavut Impact Review Board is to double production at the mine outside of Pond Inlet, from 6 million tonnes of iron ore each year to 12 million tonnes. This also means doubling the amount of ore carriers coming in, as well as larger vessels than visit the mine now.

Inuit and government ask mine to measure narwhal stress, seal habitats 

Right now Baffinland is tracking the impacts of shipping on narwhal by population numbers and location.

It's using low numbers of narwhal calves as an indicator of whether the whales are struggling. For example, the mine says it would make changes if it saw a 10 per cent decrease in calve numbers compared to baseline numbers collected by the mine and the communities.

Hunters asked Baffinland to pay more attention to any changes at Eclipse Sound — a summer home for one of the largest global populations of narwhal — particularly at the floe edge, an area of open ice where animals congregate and Inuit hunt. 

Both the federal department of Fisheries and Oceans and Pond Inlet community leaders are asking Baffinland to look at narwhal and seal health factors too, like their habitats, breeding patterns and diet, as well as stress levels and contaminants in the meat and blubber. 

"The hamlet is concerned that the early warning indicators should be expanded beyond the abundance of calves and yearlings and wants to note that the health of species is important, not just numbers," said Frank Tester, technical advisor for the Hamlet of Pond Inlet. 

Fisheries and Oceans suggested the mine measure levels of cortisol in narwhal, a stress hormone. 

But environmental specialists with a Baffinland contractor, Golder Associates, said there are other stressors in the region that would raise cortisol levels in narwhal, like hunting by people and predation by orcas. 

In a previous letter to the review board, communities jointly said they are seeing "skinny narwhal," but the mine said narwhal in the region come to mate during the summer, not to forage, so being skinny would be a result of winter behaviour and available food. 

Nunavut Tunngavik Incorporated, the group that represents Inuit in Nunavut, said spring shipping can overlap while seals are still moulting, but the mine said the shipping wouldn't negatively impact seals at that time because the animals don't need ice to moult. 

The mine is doing aerial surveys to see where marine mammals are travelling, so ships can avoid them. Baffinland researchers say they expect narwhal to change their behaviour when they are within five kilometres of a vessel. 

If the mine expansion is approved, Baffinland says it will restrict the number of vessels in one area at a time, and is trying to reduce vessel drifting by providing an anchorage site where vessels can wait if the port is full. 

Baffinland is waiting for results of an acoustic study that shows the actual underwater noise of vessels in the region. Models were done on what expected ship noise would be. The mine says it does not know of any ship strikes to marine mammals so far.

Oceans North, an environmental non-profit taking part in the technical meetings, said not enough is known about the impacts of ship noise on marine mammals for the mine to define what "quiet" shipping is.           

Baffinland says it is committing to begin a seal monitoring project and that it will be releasing a final list of commitments it is making throughout the course of the technical meetings.                                 

The hearings run until the end of Friday.