A Vast Arctic Marine Wilderness Moves One Step Closer to Protection

Shell Canada has donated offshore oil and gas leases to a marine conservation effort.
A beluga whale in the Arctic Ocean. (Photo: Kevin Schafer/WWF)
Jun 10, 2016· 2 MIN READ
Emily J. Gertz is an associate editor for environment and wildlife at TakePart.

Shell Canada has given up 30 offshore oil permits in Canada’s eastern Arctic, clearing a major roadblock to the formal protection of nearly 40,000 square miles of globally significant marine wilderness.

Shell Canada announced the move jointly with the Canadian government and conservation groups on Wednesday at a World Oceans Day event in Ottawa.

About 75 percent of the world’s narwhal population and a fifth of the global beluga whale population migrate through Lancaster Sound, which runs along the northern end of Baffin Island in the Canadian Arctic Archipelago. The sound’s waters are rich in copepods, microscopic organisms at the foundation of the marine food chain. “That attracts fish, so you’ve got lots of Arctic cod. The fish attract marine mammals. The seals attract polar bears. You end up with this huge system that brings together a lot of wildlife,” said John Lounds, CEO of the Nature Conservancy of Canada, which played a central role in the deal.

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Shell Canada has received no financial benefits for transferring the permits to the Nature Conservancy of Canada, which in turn has relinquished them to Parks Canada, the federal agency that will lead government efforts to formalize a Lancaster Sound national marine conservation area.

Inuit and conservation groups objected to this 2010 proposal, by the Canadian government, that left Shell's 30 oil exploration permits in Lancaster Sound out of a proposed marine conservation area. (Map: Nature Conservancy of Canada)

WWF-Canada sued the government in late April over the status of the permits—which dated from the 1970s—unaware that Shell had been talking with his group and the government about relinquishing them, said Lounds.

“Informal talks began in the winter, in February, and quickly led to finding common ground and then proceeded from there,” he said. “In hindsight, we should have been having the conversation with WWF and others as well.”

Under Canadian law, the territorial government of Nunavut and local Inuit communities must agree to the boundaries of the marine conservation area for it to become a reality. That process stalled several years ago after the Qikiqtani Inuit Association, representing 14,000 Inuit across 13 communities in the region, objected to the government’s boundary proposal, which left Shell’s permits outside the protected zone.

The association was kept informed of the recent discussions with Shell, said executive committee member Olayuk Akesuk.

“It’s great news for Inuit of Baffin Island,” Akesuk said. Now that Shell has given up its permits, “we’re excited, and our goal is to make sure the marine conservation area is in place sooner than later.”

“People have been living off the animals in that area for thousands of years,” Akesuk said. “It’s a very beautiful area. It’s something we want to protect and make sure our great-great-grandchildren have a place to hunt and live off the land.”

Less than 1 percent of Canada’s coastline is protected from commercial activity, said Paul Crowley of WWF-Canada. The Inuit-backed proposal for Lancaster Sound would almost double that area, he said, and help the administration of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau make good on promises to protect 5 percent of the nation’s coastline by 2017 and 10 percent by 2020.

“The Inuit wanted a larger boundary to enable better protection of the ecosystem,” said Crowley. “Now that that is out of the way, they will be able to set a boundary that everyone can agree on, and agree on a management plan and on the investment that needs to occur in the region to support the national marine conservation area.”

“This is a very large area,” he said, “so I think everyone will be very motivated.”