A marine conservation charity and Inuit hunters are praising cruise operators for agreeing to avoid a Nunavut waterway where thousands of narwhal migrate each summer.
The Association of Arctic Expedition Cruise Operators recently said its members' ships would not travel through Eclipse Sound this summer and instead go through the Pond Inlet strait.
Oceans North and the Mittimatalik Hunters and Trappers Organization had requested the move as numbers of summering narwhal in the area off the northeastern coast of Baffin Island have decreased, which they say is due to increased shipping traffic.
“Narwhal continue to decline in our area and have not bounced back to historical numbers as we had hoped," David Qamaniq, chair of the hunters and trappers organization, said in a news release. "We thank the cruise ship operators for working with us this year to protect the animals that remain."
Aerial surveys have shown a drop in the number of narwhal migrating to Eclipse Sound from Baffin Bay. Surveys conducted for Baffinland Iron Mines Corp, which operates the Mary River Mine, estimate numbers decreased from 5,019 in 2020, to 2,595 in 2021. The company said, however, its 2022 estimate shows an increase to 4,592.
Fisheries and Oceans Canada estimated there were more than 12,000 narwhal in Eclipse Sound in 2016 and more than 20,000 in 2004.
"This area historically is some of the most important narwhal habitat anywhere in the world," said Chris Debicki, Ocean North's vice president of policy development, noting Milne Inlet, a small arm of Eclipse Sound, is a critical calving area.
"Displacing narwhal from that area not only moves narwhal out of their preferred habitat, but also potentially makes it much harder for harvesters to participate in narwhal hunts."
Hunters from Mittimatalik, or Pond Inlet, rely on narwhal for food, livelihoods and culture.
While cruise ships avoiding Eclipse Sound will make a difference, Debicki said, they make up just a fraction of ship traffic. The Association of Arctic Expedition Cruise Operators said its ships accounted for 14 per cent of those travelling through the area last year with 15 ships making 26 trips. It said 14 of its members have planned 32 stops in Pond Inlet this summer.
Oceans North said the majority of ships are travelling to and from the Mary River Mine, with 44 vessels making 76 trips in Eclipse Sound and adjacent fiords in 2022, or around 40 per cent of all ship traffic.
A report from working groups from the North Atlantic Marine Mammal Commission and Canada/Greenland Joint Commission on Beluga and Narwhal published earlier this year concluded increased shipping traffic is "by far the most likely cause" of declining narwhal numbers in Eclipse Sound, particularly from the iron ore mine.
Baffinland has criticized the report and said factors other than shipping may have led to the decrease. It said that includes changing ice conditions and predator-prey dynamics, which the report disputes.
Baffinland spokesperson Peter Akman said the company welcomes the decision by the cruise operators association and "any measures that protect marine life and balance the needs of the local community as a whole."
He noted Baffinland has several voluntary mitigation measures including the use of convoys, avoiding restricted areas, using a fixed shipping route and capping vessel speeds at nine knots. Akman added the company employs six full-time and four part-time Inuit shipping monitors in Pond Inlet.
Last summer the company raised concerns about cruise ships travelling too fast in the area. Akman said it has continued to reach out to Oceans North, the Association of Arctic Expedition and Cruise Operators and cruise ships approved to travel through the community this summer to support its marine mitigation measures.
Baffinland, which began operations in 2015, has a request with the Nunavut Impact Review Board to increase the amount of ore its allowed to ship from the mine to six million tonnes from 4.2 million tonnes, as it has been permitted annually since 2018, using up to 84 ore carriers. It is additionally asking to ship ore that was stranded at the Milne port last year, as well as any that could be left behind at the end of this year's shipping season.
Oceans North and the Mittimatalik Hunters and Trappers Organization have called on the federal government to issue an interim order under the Canada Shipping Act to close the Eclipse Sound and adjacent fiord system this summer to all non-essential vessels and enforce a speed limit of nine knots. They said Transport Canada should also work with Baffinland to reduce shipping through Eclipse Sound and Milne Inlet.
"We believe these to be the minimum steps needed toward reducing the risk of extirpation of the Eclipse Sound narwhal population," a March letter from the organizations states.
Transport Canada did not immediately respond to a request for comment.