The Inuit of Labrador and the federal government have signed a deal that will see the Inuit use their traditional knowledge to develop a marine-management plan covering more than 380,000 square kilometres of coastal waters on the far eastern end of the Northwest Passage.
The plan, which is expected to govern shipping, resource extraction, water quality, species management, conservation of historical sites and other matters of importance to the Inuit, comes as climate change and the decline of Arctic sea ice are opening the passage to an increasing amount of ship traffic.
The end result is expected to be the first Indigenous protected area in Canada – a region where Indigenous people are the recognized custodians of the environment.
"We see this as a clear way to make sure that Labrador Inuit have some input into how our waters are being managed," Darryl Shiwak, the Minister of Lands and Natural Development for the Nunatsiavut government, said Thursday in a telephone interview. "We consider ourselves people of the ocean. So this would give us a way to have more control and more ways to manage that."
Environment Minister Catherine McKenna is one of four federal ministers who are in the small town of Nain on the Labrador Sea this week for a meeting with officials of Nunatsiavut, the first Inuit region of Canada to have achieved self-government. On Friday morning, she and her colleagues will join with the Nunatsiavut politicians to announce their co-operation on the proposed marine-management plan.
"In the Arctic and sub-Arctic, climate change and human activity are affecting the landscape and traditional ways of life. Our government is proud of this historic opportunity to partner with the Nunatsiavut government," Ms. McKenna said Thursday in an e-mail. "Together, we will not only help protect a region under threat from the impacts of climate change but, through environmental stewardship, training and employment, will provide economic opportunities for Inuit communities along the coast."
The area of Labrador Sea covered by the marine-management plan will be divided into two zones, one extending 12 nautical miles out from the coast along the 17,000 kilometres of Nunatsiavut's shoreline, and the other that will start where the first zone ends and stretch an additional 188 nautical miles out to sea, or almost halfway to Greenland.
In the zone closest to shore, which will be known as the Labrador Inuit Settlement Area, the plan will preserve culture, communities and the environment, potentially creating marine protected areas for some species while increasing fishing and tourism opportunities for the Inuit.
But Nunatsiavut government also wants to set some parameters for the second, larger zone.
Mr. Shiwak said the Inuit are concerned about the number of ships travelling through their waters as the Northwest Passage becomes increasingly easy to traverse. "And how much will oil and gas exploration increase?" he said. "And how much of an impact will it have on our fishery? Having a say in that and having a way to manage it is very, very important."
Louie Porta, the vice-president of Oceans North, an ocean-conservation group, said the plan should at least mean that decisions made by industry are informed by the knowledge of the people who have lived in the region for thousands of years.
There is some urgency on the part of the federal government to get the marine-management plan in place because it is expected to count as part of Canada's commitment, under the United Nations Convention on Biological Diversity, to conserve 10 per cent of the country's coastal and marine areas by 2020.
Nunatsiavut government officials intend to spend the next six months gathering information from elders and those who are regular users of the sea. They will ask about important breeding grounds for fish, seals or other water mammals, about key bird habitats that could become tourist destinations, and about sites that are important to Inuit culture.
The marine-management plan would be drafted in the six months that follow. And it will take another six months to negotiate the final version with the federal government.
While Canada's Coast Guard and other agencies would be largely responsible for ensuring compliance with any new regulations, the Inuit hope to take over responsibility for some of the plan's enforcement, perhaps by creating stewardship programs to protect heritage spaces, conducting water monitoring, or forming groups of watchmen like those who protect the Aboriginal rights and title in Haida Gwaii on the West Coast.
Since the 1990s, Australia has had what it calls Indigenous protected areas where land management is conducted by Indigenous people. But those areas do not include the conservation of vast swaths of sea. If the Nunatsiavut protected area is not the first of its kind in the world, environmentalists say it is certainly the most ambitious.
"Canada is realizing its international conservation targets by reaching an understanding with the Inuit of Labrador" and speaking with one voice from a both a government perspective and an Indigenous perspective, Mr. Porta said. "This agreement brings parties together to have that common voice and common vision in a way that has not been seen anywhere else."