The federal Conservative government will establish the boundaries of a new marine park in Lancaster Sound, an area rich with wildlife where proposed seismic testing was halted at the last minute this summer after court action by the local Inuit.
The agreement to proceed with public consultations on a potential boundary "will protect one of the world's greatest ecological treasures," Environment Minister John Baird told a news conference Monday morning.
A steering committee will ensure that northern interests are considered, he added. "This place has been called the Serengeti of the north," because it is the breeding ground for so many different species.
The Environment Minister said the announcement sends a message to the world that Canada is serious about protecting the Arctic. Lancaster Sound is part of the Northwest Passage, he noted, and the establishment of a marine protected area will not prevent commercial shipping.
Mr. Baird's predecessor, Jim Prentice, announced a year ago that the government was spending $5-million to study the possibility of creating a marine sanctuary in the sound that is home to narwhal, beluga whales, seals, polar bears and walruses on which traditional life and culture depend in five Arctic communities.
"We are very pleased that the federal government is taking proactive steps to safeguard this globally significant marine ecosystem," said Chris Debicki, Nunavut director for Oceans North Canada. "This visionary plan will ensure that Lancaster Sound remains a thriving waterway, vital to Inuit of the High Arctic."
In August, the Inuit successfully halted a 65-day Eastern Canadian Arctic Seismic Experiment financed by the German government that was to be carried by the Alfred Wegener Institute for Polar and Marine Research with the approval of federal and territorial governments. The Inuit feared that the air-gun blasts from the seismic testing would scare away the animals they depend on and that the testing would ultimately be used for oil and gas exploration – something the Wegener Institute and the federal government denied.
A national marine park would prevent oil and gas extraction in the area of Canada's northeastern Arctic that is roughly twice the size of Lake Erie. Mr. Baird made it clear that any major oil and gas reserves in the region could impact the location of the boundaries. "But there is no doubt that a lot of oil will be taken off the table," he said.
The announcement on Monday comes a month after Mr. Prentice, in his final days as environment minister, rejected a proposed $815-million gold and copper that would have resulted in the destruction of Fish Lake in British Columbia because an environmental review was far too "scathing" to allow the mine to be built. That decision won the applause of the aboriginal community and environmentalists.
But Mr. Baird will find himself the target of criticism by environmental groups when he travels to Cancun, Mexico this week for an international meeting on climate change.
He was asked about his government's rejection of the Kyoto accord on climate change at the Lancaster Sound press conference. The Environment Minister replied that there can be no true solution to greenhouse gas emissions without an internationally binding agreement that includes big emitters like the United States and China.
But Canada has been singled out by environmental groups for its continued development of the Alberta oil sands. "This is a global challenge that requires global solutions," Mr. Baird said.