Arctic shipping and the noise and environmental pollution left in its wake are driving narwhals and other animals farther away from those who depend on them.

Lisa Koperqualuk points to the Inuit community of Mittimatalik (Pond Inlet), a northern Baffin Island hamlet with a population of around 1,500, as an example of how shipping has affected Inuit Nunangat, the Inuit homeland stretching through Russia, Alaska, Canada and Greenland.

Over the past decade, the number of ships has increased in Mittimatalik’s waters. The increase of ships includes shipping vessels transporting iron from the Mary River Mine on Baffin Island 160 kilometres south of the community, as well as cruise and cargo ships, carrying both tourists and supplies to the North. It’s caused narwhals to veer far from their normal migratory routes to escape the noise and environmental pollution of shipping, Koperqualuk said.

Over the past five years, the average number of ships passing through Mittimatalik (Pond Inlet) because of the mine is around 71, Peter Akman, head of stakeholder relations and communications, told Canada's National Observer. However, that number was around 10 ships lower in 2022, as numbers can fluctuate depending on the size of the ships, Akman added.

In 2022, 22 cruise ships visited Mittimatalik (Pond Inlet) with more ships expected in 2023, according to a territorial website commenting on the town's infrastructure plan. A handful of private yachts also visit the island throughout the shipping season, according to Nunatsiaq News.

That, in turn, has forced Inuit hunters from Mittimatalik to adapt and travel long distances to find narwhals and other marine life. Meat from narwhals and other whales is an important cultural food, often referred to in Inuit communities as country food for its comfort and symbolism of home.

Koperqualuk, vice-chair of the Inuit Circumpolar Council and president of the Canadian wing of the Inuit political organization, attended the International Maritime Organization’s meeting last week to advocate for Inuit demands, including new guidelines for underwater noise and reductions to greenhouse gas emissions from the shipping industry. The outcome was disappointing for her and other Indigenous communities to the south.

Koperqualuk told Canada’s National Observer new voluntary guidelines for underwater noise were agreed upon at the IMO, which is a United Nations agency responsible for regulating international shipping. However, they are dependent upon the “trust” and “goodwill” of individual ship owners. There are no mechanisms to ensure the ships comply, Koperqualuk said.

Baffinland, the company who operates Mary River Mine, told Canada's National Observer that they use several mitigation measures to help curb effects on marine life, Akman said.

The company employs six full-time and four part-time Inuit shipping monitors based in Mittimatalik (Pond Inlet) to address community concerns and questions. The Inuit shipping monitors also track vessels in the region and report when ships exceed speed limits or stray from a set route.

Inuit share the same values and viewpoints as Pacific islanders because both regions share the same vulnerability to a changing climate and a dependence on ocean ecosystems. #ShippingNoise

Ships that carry product for the mine are confined to a narrow shipping route, travel in convoys to reduce underwater sound, and are restricted to a maximum speed of nine knots, which is around 16 kilometres an hour, Akman said.

The company also tracks narwhal numbers and shares it with a working group composed of government agencies, non-governmental organizations and Inuit-led organizations.

"We have voluntarily implemented these strict mitigation measures to reduce the potential impact of our shipping activities on marine mammals, especially narwhal," Akman said.

However, until shipping can move away from fossil fuels like diesel and natural gas, the industry will still pollute waters, including through black carbon.

IMO members agreed to a 30 per cent reduction in greenhouse gas emissions by 2030 when compared to 2008 levels, which would keep global warming to 1.7 C, Bloomberg reports. But that number fell short of the 1.5 C limit that Inuit and Indigenous communities in the South Pacific were demanding. The shipping industry will reach its share of the world’s carbon budget — which also aims to limit warming to 1.5 C — by approximately 2032, according to Bloomberg.

Koperqualuk called the Pacific islanders “climate champions” for pushing the IMO for reductions and believed it was those communities that secured a better deal.

“If it hadn't been for them, I think the deal, the new strategy would have been still weaker; the outcome could have been worse,” she said.

Inuit share the same values and viewpoints as Pacific islanders because both regions share the same vulnerability to a changing climate, as well as a dependence on ocean ecosystems.

The federal government has acknowledged the Arctic is warming at four times the speed of the rest of the planet, creating drastic changes to the environment and Inuit way of life. In the South Pacific, entire islands are at risk of being submerged by sea level rise.

For example, shipping impacts the Arctic differently than in other locales due to the cold water of the Arctic Ocean, which causes sounds to travel farther, Koperqualuk said. Inuit harvesters have observed that marine life can hear ships even a day away, moving a day or two ahead of the arrival of a ship, she added.

“What we succeeded in doing was having an Inuit knowledge or Indigenous knowledge taken into consideration when operating ships as they pass through the Arctic waters.”

Matteo Cimellaro / Canada’s National Observer / Local Journalism Initiative

Updates and corrections

| Corrections policy
July 13, 2023, 11:45 am

This story has been updated to include comments from Baffinland, the company who operates Mary River Mine.

A previous version of this story stated that shipping related to mining have increased over the years. However, all shipping near Mittimatalik (Pond Inlet), including private yachts, cruise and cargo ships carrying tourists and supplies respectively, has increased.

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