After more than 20 years of negotiation and delay, federal wildlife officials say Canada is about to declare its first marine sanctuary for bowhead whales.
“I think we’re there,” said Bill Gummer, director of the Canadian Wildlife Service for the Prairies and Northern region. “We’re just knocking on the door.”
The waters of Isabella Bay, on the northeast coast of Baffin Island near the community of Clyde River, are covered by ice nine months of the year. But by mid-July, the sea ice breaks up and the bay’s currents grow rich in the tiny marine animals bowheads eat. That’s when the open water teems with whales the size of a city bus.
“You can see them every day,” said Joelie Sanguya, a Clyde River resident who’s fought to have the bay declared a national wildlife area since 1982.
“The whales slap at the water with their tails and also with their flippers. We see the young ones, too.”
The 20-metre-long whales rub their noses and clean their skin by brushing along sandbars in the area, Sanguya said.
Wildlife officials have estimated the number of whales who visit Isabella Bay – Igaliqtuuq in Inuktitut – at about 300, although local Inuit say there are many more. Not only is the bay rich in food, the depth and profile of Isabella’s sea floor help protect the bowheads against orcas, their main predator.
The area is also rich in human history.
The remains of 19th-century whaling stations that almost exterminated Baffin’s bowheads dot the area. So do Inuit hunting campsites dating far back into prehistory.
“We want to keep the area as clean as possible, as much as we can,” said Sanguya.
Clyde River is eager not only to protect the area, but to cash in on any tourism benefits. The Arctic is becoming an increasingly popular route for cruise ships full of moneyed ecotourists looking for wildlife and cultural experiences.
The community has backed the sanctuary proposal since a 1982 vote and there are no industrial users to object. The federal government has been on side since 1992.
But Isabella Bay has been continually tied up in talks. The situation grew even more complex with the 1994 signing of the Nunavut land claim, which requires Inuit impact and benefits agreements for any new sanctuaries.
Gummer said talks are finally down to one last sticking point – inflation protection for any payments made to Inuit groups as a result of any deal.
“An agreement is within reach,” he said. “We’re just waiting for the conclusion.”
About time, said Paul Kaludjak, president of Nunavut Tunngavik Inc., which oversees the implementation of the land claim.
“This has been on the table for two decades now,” he said.
He says the number of federal departments involved – and conflicts over their roles – added to the delay.
Kaludjak pointed out federal Environment Minister Stephane Dion is scheduled to visit Nunavut in early August.
“This will be one of the issues that will be raised,” Kaludjak said. “We always have high hopes that he can deliver something.”
Department officials say no announcements are yet planned.
Some infrastructure would be required, including solid shelters to protect visitors from polar bears. Sanguya said $20,000 a year would pay for an administrator to run the sanctuary.
It’s critical to protect the environment now, said Gummer. Isabella Bay is not currently threatened by industrial development, but climate change could lead to increased shipping through the area if the Northwest Passage opens up.
“Putting conservation first and getting in there now is incredibly important.”
There are approximately 8,000 bowhead whales across the Arctic, mostly in the west.