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Ottawa moves to protect Serengeti of the Arctic

The shorline of Lancaster Sound is shown in a Parks Canada handout photo.

The federal government will begin consultations to determine the boundaries of a new national marine conservation area in the Lancaster Sound at the northern tip of Baffin Island.

Those lines will designate an ecologically sensitive body of Arctic water, approximately twice the size of Lake Erie, that is off limits to resource exploration and extraction.

It has been a year since the government first said it would spend $5-million to study the feasibility of creating a protected area at the mouth of the Northwest Passage. Environment Minister John Baird says such safeguards will become increasingly important as the effects of global warming lead to greater human activity in Canada's North.

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Mr. Baird said Monday that a steering committee, to include members of the Qikiqtani Inuit Association and representatives of the government of Nunavut as well as federal officials, will decide where the conservation area should begin and end.

The announcement was made on the eve of the minister's departure for an international climate-change conference in Mexico, where Canada was recently named "fossil of the day" by 500 international environmental groups for its denouncement of the Kyoto Protocol on greenhouse-gas reduction.

Recent developments in Lancaster Sound

Inuit leaders and environmentalists were shocked this summer to learn that a group of scientists had been given permission to use seismic testing to map the ocean floor in the Sound.

Although the research group from Germany's Alfred Wegener Institute, which had been enlisted by Natural Resources Canada, insisted it had no plans to use the findings for oil and gas exploration, the Inuit had their doubts. And they feared that the loud booms would frighten the animals they depend upon for sustenance.

In August, just one day before the tests were to begin, the Nunavut Court of Justice granted the Qikiqtani Inuit Association's request for an injunction that prevented the seismic exploration. The court found that the study posed too many dangers to northern marine animals and agreed with the association that local communities weren't adequately informed of the plans.

The move to a national marine conservation area

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The establishment of a marine conservation area in Lancaster Sound will immediately close the door to any future seismic testing, said Mr. Baird.

Once the boundaries have been established, the waters that lie within them will be protected from oil and gas exploration.

But commercial vessels would still be able to travel through the area. The Sound could become a thoroughfare providing access to other regions of the Canadian Arctic where oil companies may want to explore and drill. It is also a route that Mr. Baird says could be used by a burgeoning tourism industry as the water remains navigable for increasingly longer periods of the year.

The diversity of the Lancaster Sound ecosystem

The waters that lie between Baffin and Devon Islands in Canada's Arctic teem with marine life and are a major breeding ground for many northern species.

Sometimes called the Serengeti of the Arctic, the Lancaster Sound's Deep channels, currents and upwellings combine with open water areas, even in the depth of winter, to sustain a complex variety of animals, said Mr. Baird.

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Hundreds of thousands of seabirds nest among the cliffs that flank the fiords and glaciers. But the region is particularly famous for its marine mammals, including walruses, seals, polar bears, narwhals and beluga and bowhead whales.

The power play - oil, gas and other interests in the region

Two years ago, the United States Geological Survey estimated there were 90 billion barrels of oil waiting to be discovered north of the Arctic Circle.

Greenland recently awarded seven oil and gas exploration licences in the portion of Baffin Bay that borders the Lancaster Sound.

Before the boundaries of a marine conservation area are established in Lancaster Sound, the government intends to assess the resource values of the region.

"Everything is on the table, obviously, if we are going to have meaningful consultation," said Mr. Baird when asked if discoveries of large quantities of oil could have a significant impact on what areas will be protected.

In establishing the marine conservation area, the Canadian government is also reasserting its claim that the waters of the Northwest Passage belong to Canada - something that has been disputed by the Americans, among others.

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About the Author
Parliamentary reporter

Gloria Galloway has been a journalist for almost 30 years. She worked at the Windsor Star, the Hamilton Spectator, the National Post, the Canadian Press and a number of small newspapers before being hired by The Globe and Mail as deputy national editor in 2001. Gloria returned to reporting two years later and joined the Ottawa bureau in 2004. More

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