Opinion

Stop Seismic Testing in Lancaster Sound

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At the eastern edge of the Northwest Passage, two glacier-capped islands mark the entrance to one of the greatest ecosystems in the Northern Hemisphere. This is Lancaster Sound, a migration route for 85 per cent of the world's narwhal and beluga whales, and home to walrus and seals.

Its rich biological diversity and importance to Inuit culture has prompted calls to recognize the Sound as a UNESCO World Heritage site, and its strategic location pulls it into the Arctic sovereignty debate. To his credit, Prime Minister Stephen Harper announced plans in 2007 to create the Arctic's first national marine conservation area there. Last December, Ottawa and Inuit leaders signed an agreement to begin work on the marine park -- and then the federal government angered local residents by scheduling oil-related seismic testing in the region, set to begin in August.

Lancaster Sound's nutrient-rich waters sustain millions of Arctic cod, food for thriving marine mammal populations. Bowhead whales, once hunted by Europeans to the brink of extinction, have returned in healthy numbers. Each summer, more than 30,000 beluga (about one-third of the world's population) and at least 60,000 narwhal migrate through the sound after wintering in Baffin Bay. Residents of Pond Inlet, Arctic Bay, Resolute Bay and Grise Fiord depend on hunting in these waters as their primary food source -- a healthier, less expensive alternative to the fare in local stores.

Ottawa's renewed plans reflect a collective amnesia enveloping much of Canada's Arctic policy, says John Amagoalik, one of the Inuit leaders who helped create Nunavut. He remembers the last oil and gas controversy in Lancaster Sound in the 1970s when Inuit protested an offshore drilling proposal. A federal panel ultimately overruled the project, citing the region's critical importance to the Inuit way of life.

Today, the Inuit are just as passionate about defending the waters they call Tallurutiup Tariunga after the image of a tattooed woman's chin etched by the elements in the towering cliffs of the sound's northern shores. During community hearings this spring, hunters and their families told federal officials that they feared seismic testing would disrupt whale migrations and pave the way for future oil and gas activities. They asked the government to stop seismic work and move forward with the national marine area.After these consultations, a federal official told the press that Natural Resources Canada was "not going to be going out to collect the full range of seismic data in Lancaster Sound." But last week, Inuit learned that the government is proceeding with seismic work in Lancaster Sound. The German research vessel MV Polarstern, commissioned for seismic testing in the sound as well as Baffin Bay, is on its way from Bremerhaven.

Environment Minister Jim Prentice responded to Inuit protests by saying that seismic blasting "needs to be done" to map seabed resources as part of creating the marine conservation area. He insisted it has no connection to oil development. Yet this testing is part of a $100-million program the government describes as "designed to stimulate new and more effective exploration for energy commodities in northern Canada."

Seismic testing is not legally required to create the marine area. The government already owns extensive seismic data about Lancaster Sound, dating back to the 1970s. A government report concluded in 1989 that this data provided an "adequate" basis for a resource assessment for a marine park, noting that "further seismic acquisition would not noticeably enhance (the federal government's) assessment capabilities." The government recently chose that very approach when it relied on older seismic data to finalize plans for a national marine park in Gwaii Haanas, B.C.

Centuries of Inuit use and occupation of Tallurutiup Tariunga provide a strong argument under international law for Canada's sovereignty in the region. Conservation measures are another way to assert sovereignty, something Canada did when the Manhattan, a U.S. oil tanker, transited the Northwest Passage without permission in 1969. Parliament responded with environmental legislation to bolster its claim to these waters.

Inuit have spoken on the need to protect and preserve Lancaster Sound. It is time for Ottawa to do the same.