Canada Creates Two Huge Ocean Sanctuaries in the Arctic

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A polar bear swims amid sea ice off the northern coast of Ellesmere Island in the Canadian Arctic. Isabel Kendzior/Shutterstock

These are turbulent times for the Arctic. Not only is it heating up about twice as quickly as the rest of the planet, causing a disastrous decline of Arctic sea ice, but it's also increasingly vulnerable to environmental harm from activities like mining, drilling and fishing.

In hopes of buffering a swath of the Arctic from this upheaval, Canada is creating two new marine sanctuaries in the Arctic Ocean spanning a total of 427,000 square kilometers (165,000 square miles). This alone may not protect the region from climate change, but the Arctic needs all the help it can get, and well-managed ocean preserves can be a significant boost for struggling ecosystems.

'The place where the ice never melts'

The largest of the two new sanctuaries — Tuvaijuittuq Marine Protected Area (MPA), covering about 320,000 square kilometers (124,000 square miles) off the northern coast of Ellesmere Island in Nunavut — was announced by government officials on Aug. 1. The name Tuvaijuittuq means "the place where the ice never melts" in the Inuktitut language, referring to thick, multiyear sea ice that persists throughout the summer. Tuvaijuittuq is located in an area long used by Inuit for travel and hunting, although there are currently no permanent human settlements within or adjacent to the new sanctuary, according to a government fact sheet.

Dubbed the "Last Ice Area" by conservationists, this region is expected to be the last place that retains summer sea ice until climate change renders the Arctic Ocean ice-free in summer, which may happen within just a few decades. That makes it an important refuge for sea ice itself, which has benefits that go far beyond the Arctic, as well as local wildlife that depends on it.

Eureka Sound, Ellesmere Island, Canada
An aerial view of Eureka Sound at Canada's Ellesmere Island. Michael Studinger [CC BY 2.0]/NASA/Flickr

"This remote region has the oldest and thickest sea ice in the Arctic Ocean. As sea ice continues to decline in the Arctic, the ice in this region is expected to last the longest. This makes the area a unique and potentially important future summer habitat for ice-dependent species, including walrus, seals and polar bears," according to Fisheries and Oceans Canada.

Under the ministerial order that designates the Tuvaijuittuq MPA, no new human activities will be allowed to occur in the area for up to five years, with a few exceptions. These include the exercise of Inuit rights for wildlife harvesting, scientific research consistent with the MPA's conservation objectives, and activities related to safety, security and emergency response.

"Freezing any new human activities will help ensure the ice that never melts will remain true to its name," Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said at a press conference in the Nunavut city of Iqaluit.

The MPA will provide interim protection for the area while government officials, Inuit leaders and others hash out the prospect of longer-term protection. In addition to preserving this sanctuary for sea ice and those who depend on it, the MPA is also being touted as a model for including indigenous groups in the planning of big conservation efforts like this.

As Sarah Gibbens reports in National Geographic, the Canadian government will not only protect the region from industrial exploitation, but will also create local jobs in research and data collection, and build infrastructure like boating docks.

"This deal will turn Tuvaijuittuq into one of the world's largest conservation areas while also supporting local food security, infrastructure and employment needs," says Paul Okalik, senior adviser for Arctic conservation at WWF Canada and former premier of Nunavut, in a statement. As he tells Gibbens, "We're trying to maintain a viable, conservation-based economy."

Narwhals and seabirds and bears, oh my

narwhal at Baffin Bay, Canada
Tallurutiup Imanga provides critical habitat for a variety of wildlife, including 75% of the global narwhal population. wildestanimal/Shutterstock

While the unveiling of Tuvaijuittuq is a first step for that MPA, Trudeau and other officials also announced the completion of another ocean refuge, known as the Tallurutiup Imanga National Marine Conservation Area, that has been in the works for years.

Located south of Ellesmere Island, Tallurutiup Imanga protects about 108,000 square kilometers (42,000 square miles) of priceless marine habitat and cultural context in Lancaster Sound and Baffin Bay between Devon and Baffin islands.

"It is a large natural and cultural seascape that is one of the most significant ecological areas in the world," according to Parks Canada. "It is critical habitat for species such as the polar bear, bowhead whale, narwhal and beluga whale. For Inuit living in the region, called both Tallurutiup Imanga and Tallurutiup Tariunga by the Inuit, it is a place rich in culture and wildlife."

Tallurutiup Imanga is home to 75% of the global population of narwhals, for example, as well as 20% of Canada's beluga population and the largest population of polar bears in the Canadian Arctic, according to the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN). It also hosts ringed, harp and bearded seals, walruses, and bowhead whales, while serving as feeding and breeding grounds for one-third of Canada's colonial seabirds.

"The scale of the biological productivity of may be difficult to fathom," the IUCN's Mike Wong wrote in 2017, noting that nearly 150,000 metric tons of Arctic cod are eaten by marine mammals and seabirds at Tallurutiup Imanga every year.

As with Tuvaijuittuq, Canada is also investing in infrastructure for the Tallurutiup Imanga area. These investments, which include funding to build harbors and a training center, total about 190 million Canadian dollars ($143 million U.S.) over seven years.

'A model of what can be achieved'

iceberg in Lancaster Sound, Canada
An iceberg drifts through Lancaster Sound, part of the Tallurutiup Imanga National Marine Conservation Area. wildestanimal/Shutterstock

Together, these two ocean sanctuaries protect a swath of marine habitat larger than California. Their creation means 14% of Canada's marine and coastal areas will be protected, exceeding the country's target of protecting 10% of these areas by 2020.

And while conservation efforts sometimes clash with the needs of local people, these refuges stand out as an example for how to do it the right way, according to P.J. Akeeagok, president of the Qikiqtani Inuit Association, who helped negotiate the protections.

"By protecting Tallurutiup Imanga, and seeking permanent protection for Tuvaijuittuq, we not only save these pristine Arctic ecosystems, but also lay the foundation for a conservation economy in sustainable industries such as fisheries," Akeeagok says in a statement from the Prime Minister's Office. "These investments in jobs and infrastructure will have profound impacts in the High Arctic and serve as a model of what can be achieved when we work as equal partners in the spirit of reconciliation."