'We need to start now': New project aims to train Inuit researchers

A new research study based on Prince Edward Island and in Pond Inlet, Nunavut, aims to equip local Inuit with the tools they need to monitor the health of marine mammals they rely on for food.

Study will look at the health of ringed seals on Baffin Island, as Arctic climate changes

A new study from the Canadian Wildlife Health Cooperative is set to study the health of ringed seals in Nunavut's Baffin region. (submitted by ARCTIConnexion)

A new research study based in Pond Inlet, Nunavut, and on Prince Edward Island is hoping to equip local Inuit with the tools they need to monitor the health of the marine mammals they rely on for food. 

As part of the project, hunters will harvest blood and tissue samples from the ringed seal population in the Baffin region of Nunavut, in an effort to create a baseline analysis of contaminants and pathogens.

"Frankly, this is work that should have been done 10 years ago, if not 20," said Dr. Pierre-Yves Daoust, a wildlife pathologist with the University of Prince Edward Island and the Canadian Wildlife Health Cooperative. 
'We eat country food. It's our main food," said James Simonee. "We need to know if it's safe to eat.' (submitted by ARCTIConnexion)

With increasing national and international interest in taking advantage of Arctic resources and melting ice in Northern marine corridors, Daoust says it's important to understand how environmental changes are affecting local species.

"We need to start now. We really need to start now to address some of those potential issues."

Local researchers will be 'eyes and ears'

Given the speed at which the Arctic climate is changing, Daoust says a key element for success of monitoring efforts will be having "eyes and ears" on the ground in Nunavut. 

This project, which was recently awarded $75,000 for 1.5 years of research from the Nunavut Research Institute and Irving Shipbuilding last week, will train local Inuit to sample animals and bring them to southern institutions to get a better sense of how wildlife management research is done.

James Simonee pulls an Arctic Char from a net in Pond Inlet, Nunavut. He wants to know what kinds of contaminants are in local food sources. (submitted by ARCTIConnexion)

Since last year, Pond Inlet's James Simonee has been doing similar work, collecting samples from Arctic char for his work with community science group ARCTIConnexion. This spring, he hopes to get scientific results from the first set of samples he sent to southern laboratories for analysis. 

"We eat these all year round. I want to see if they're safe to eat since there are mining activities going on."

Many people in Pond Inlet have expressed concerns about the potential effect of Baffinland's nearby Mary River iron mine. Simonee says it will be good to be able to gather evidence to see "if it's having an effect on marine mammals."

"We eat country food. It's our main food, for most Inuit," he said. "We need to know if it's safe to eat. We can't know just by looking at it."

Tracking safety of traditional food

Daoust says the research is certainly not meant to alarm residents. 

"It's my professional opinion that these animals are still very healthy, still a very good source of food in the North."

Once the samples have been analyzed, Daoust says researchers will return to Nunavut and explain the results to local residents, with the help of people like Simonee. 
James Simonee, one of the researchers for the new study of ringed seals, says more Inuit need to be trained to sample marine animals. (submitted by James Simonee)

Simonee says that should be a big improvement from the way scientists usually disseminate their research, "because we speak the language and we know how to speak with our elders."

"I would like to see more Inuit doing this kind of stuff," he said, "especially in Nunavut." 

Eventually the researchers hope to expand the project to other Northern communities. Another project through the Canadian Wildlife Health Cooperative is looking at the effects of climate change on narwhal and the Dolphin and Union caribou herd.

About the Author

Elyse Skura

Elyse Skura is an associate producer at CBC Ottawa, reporting on the Ontario Election. Find her on Twitter at @eskura or contact her at elyse.skura@cbc.ca.