With the latest survey indicating just 2,595 narwhal in Eclipse Sound, the Mittimatalik Hunters and Trappers Organization is insisting that Baffinland Iron Mines should reduce shipping traffic, slow the speed of the vessels and not resume icebreaking this year.

The mining company counters that the figures tell a different story when nearby Admiralty Sound narhwal stock is combined with Eclipse Sound, as a 2021 survey showed 75,177 narwhal compared to 36,044 in 2020.

The Mittimatalik Hunters and Trappers Organization’s (MHTO’s) demands are outlined in a letter sent to the Nunavut Impact Review Board (NIRB) and circulated to media on May 6.

The tusked whales were as numerous as 20,000 in an aerial survey conducted in 2004. That number has been dropping steadily in counts since then. However, Baffinland noted that since 2019, updated methods and new technologies have led to greater statistical certainly.

The report makes clear Baffinland’s intentions to resume icebreaking this year, a practice that the company discontinued last summer after high-profile criticism from hunters and trappers.

RELATED REPORTING: Baffinland steers clear of icebreaking this summer

David Qamaniq, chair of Pond Inlet’s hunters and trappers organization, asserts that restarting icebreaking “is not responsible resource development,” particularly in light of harvesters “repeatedly indicating to the NIRB and BIM (Baffinland Iron Mines) that narwhal are being impacted by icebreaking and by shipping in general, and that hunters are having limited success in their attempts to harvest narwhal and feed their families and community.

“Now is the time to slow down and pause, to assess what is happening and make necessary adjustments to the course. The risks to Inuit harvesting rights are too great, and demand the exercise of extreme caution,” Qamaniq writes, noting that Baffinland’s existing commitment of a nine nautical miles per hour shipping speed limit should be reduced further.

The MHTO calls on NIRB to “act immediately.”

Baffinland stated that it worked with interested parties, including the MHTO, the Hamlet of Pond Inlet, the Department of Fisheries and Oceans and other members of the Marine Environment Working Group to develop a Narwhal Adaptive Management Response Plan prior to the 2021 shipping season and “we have committed to update that plan prior to the 2022 shipping season.”

The mining company added that it has already held a meeting with the Marine Environment Working Group to discuss initial reviews of the company’s 2021 annual report to the NIRB, as well as the draft 2021 Marine Mammal Aerial Survey Report.

“Baffinland will consider all proposed mitigations and monitoring measures proposed in the development of the 2022 Narwhal Adaptive Management Response Plan,” the company stated after the MHTO made its complaints public on May 6.

Oceans North, an Ottawa-based conservation group, concurs with the MHTO’s demands, noting that underwater noise monitoring and multiple narwhal studies suggest that “there may be a correlation between narwhal decline and increased shipping.”

Therefore, the precautionary principle should be applied, Oceans North argues, compelling the government to restrict or ban activities that “may cause serious and/or irreversible harm to human health and the environment, even without fully established scientific evidence of a causal relationship.”

Baffinland’s annual report to the NIRB states that icebreaking noise couldn’t have caused any disruption to narwhal in 2021 since that activity did not occur. The report also suggests that there may be a naturally-occurring exchange between Admiralty and Eclipse narwhal populations. It also points to factors such as the availability of prey, ice conditions, climate change and pressure from predators for fluctuating numbers.

“To better understand what is occurring additional engagement and monitoring is needed, inclusive of regional scape monitoring that looks at the population dynamics of the Baffin Bay narwhal stock as a whole,” reads a passage from Baffinland’s report.

The NIRB is deliberating on a proposed iron ore production increase at the Mary River mine. The regulatory body is expected to make a recommendation to Northern Affairs Minister Daniel Vandell in the coming weeks regarding Baffinland’s phase two mine expansion, which would double iron ore output to 12 million tonnes per year, involve the construction of a railway and increase shipping traffic.

Derek Neary

Derek Neary has been reporting on developments in the North for 18 years. When he's not writing for Nunavut News, he's working on Northern News Services' special publications such as Opportunities North,...

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