Nestled between Amundsen Gulf and the mouth of the Hornaday River, Darnley Bay is one of the most important ecological and cultural regions in Canada’s western Arctic. Every summer, as the sea ice recedes, the bay transforms into a summer feeding ground for beluga and bowhead whales, ringed seals, and dozens of fish species, including the recently discovered blue char. During these critical spring and summer months, the coastal cliffs at Cape Parry, a headland on the northwestern side of the bay, host the only known breeding colony of thick-billed murres in Canada’s western Arctic, as well as up to 20,000 king and common eiders and long-tailed ducks.
Darnley Bay is also the traditional harvest area for the nearby village of Paulatuk, home to 330 Inuvialuit who rely heavily on the abundance of wildlife in its waters. The health of the community is closely tied to that of the marine environment, and protection of the bay’s beluga habitat is a top priority.
The Anguniaqvia Niqiqyuam Marine Protected Area
In 2015, the federal government is expected to designate part of Darnley Bay as the Anguniaqvia Niqiqyuam Marine Protected Area. (See Map 1.) Together with the existing Tarium Niryutait Marine Protected Area in the Mackenzie River estuary, this new marine protected area (MPA) will create a regional network that safeguards key summering habitat for about 28 percent, or close to 40,000, of the world’s belugas. The MPA’s regulations will help ensure that emerging development activities, such as oil and gas exploration, shipping, and commercial fishing, do not adversely affect this important marine habitat.
Map 1: Proposed Boundaries of the Anguniaqvia Niqiqyuam Marine Protected Area
Click on the map to expand.
However, the proposed boundary for the MPA excludes several ecologically significant areas that have been identified. Map 2 shows three additional, overlapping areas that the federal government and Inuvialuit organizations consider to be important for the conservation of biological abundance, diversity, and productivity.
One solution is to create an expanded monitoring and management zone that would incorporate these vital ecological areas and ensure that development activities adjacent to the MPA do not undermine its habitat. (See Map 3.) A larger MPA could also lead to additional research funds and employment.
Inuvialuit co-management of the MPA
Effective marine conservation in the western Arctic should contribute to regional prosperity and provide meaningful benefits to local residents. The Anguniaqvia Niqiqyuam MPA is an opportunity to implement a community-based model for managing and monitoring sensitive areas in the Arctic. Under the co-management system created by the Inuvialuit Final Agreement, Inuvialuit are well-positioned to lead in the administration, management, and monitoring of this MPA.
Working with communities
Inuvialuit traditional knowledge long ago identified Darnley Bay as an important beluga harvesting area. Since 2013, Oceans North Canada has helped support the Inuvialuit Settlement Region’s Community Based Monitoring Program, which collaborates with the Paulatuk Hunters and Trappers Committee to conduct research in Darnley Bay about the presence, abundance, and habitat use of beluga whales and other marine mammals. The studies use passive investigative methods, including hydrophones, remote video, and recording of local observations.
This approach has effectively combined both traditional and scientific methods, and it has provided a chance to gain insights into how and when belugas use the area. The research has underscored the importance of an expanded monitoring zone that includes essential habitat throughout the region and considers broader ocean uses and impacts.
Oceans North Canada supports the proposed Anguniaqvia Niqiqyuam Marine Protected Area and an expanded management and monitoring zone that encompasses key habitat and ecological areas outside the proposed boundaries. This expanded zone would provide greater benefits to local residents and would ensure that the conservation objectives of the MPA are not undermined.
Did you know?
- In 2004, half of Paulatuk households relied on traditional foods for the majority of their diet. Sport hunting is also a significant part of the local wage economy.
- Bowhead whales, which thrive in Darnley Bay, have a longer life span than any other marine mammal, living an average of 50 to 75 years.
- The town of Paulatuk was named for the coal found in the area in the 1920s. In the local Inuit dialect, the word Paulatuuq means "place of coal." On the northwestern side of Darnley Bay, the hills of Cape Bathurst are composed of vast deposits of sulfur-rich lignite, or oil shales, that ignite spontaneously as erosion exposes the minerals to the air. These “smoking hills” have been burning for centuries.