Baffinland slams report saying shipping is responsible for narwhal displacement
A new report predicts there will be almost no narwhals in an area off the northeast coast of Baffin Island this summer, and says shipping traffic from the nearby Mary River iron ore mine is to blame.
Working groups from the North Atlantic Marine Mammal Commission and the Canada/Greenland Joint Commission on Beluga and Narwhal met in Denmark in December and released their report this week, which the mine operators say omits important information.
The report concludes that increased shipping is “by far the most likely cause” of the declining numbers of narwhals in Eclipse Sound, where they migrate from Baffin Bay each summer.
“Unless navigation is increasingly regulated or narwhals adapt to the changes and re-inhabit the abandoned areas, we can expect long-term consequences for the population that will far exceed the currently observed narwhal agglomeration,” it said.
It is highly unlikely that the whales will return as long as there is disturbance in the region and it is impossible to rule out a worst case scenario where the displaced narwhal could become extinct within 100 years.
Hunters in Pond Inlet, known as Mittimatalik in Inuktitut, have reported seeing fewer narwhals in areas where they were once abundant, and the tusk whales’ behavior is changing, affecting their ability to capture the animals which they depend on for food, livelihood and culture.
They have also said, along with marine conservation organization Oceans North, that this is due to increased shipping from the mine, which began operating in 2015.
“The migration of narwhals from areas where they have traditionally been hunted is devastating to the Inuit and the integrity of the region’s ecosystem,” the Mittimatalik Hunters and Trappers Organization wrote in a submission to the Nunavut Impact Review Board.
Aerial photographs taken for Baffinland Iron Mines Corp., owner of the Mary River Mine, have shown a decline in narwhal numbers in Eclipse Sound. A survey in 2021 estimated there were 2,595 in the region, up from 5,019 in 2020. Fisheries and Oceans Canada estimated that there were more than 12,000 narwhals in Eclipse Sound in 2016 and more than 20,000 in 2004.
Baffinland said factors other than shipping may have led to the decline in numbers, including changing ice conditions and predator-prey dynamics or natural migration to Admiralty Inlet, where the number of narwhals seen over the summer has increased.
But the report – which examined aerial photographs, results of a narwhal tagging program and a metapopulation model – concluded that there is no evidence the displacement of narwhals from Eclipse Sound was caused by climate change or predators such as orca.
“It is concluded that increased shipping traffic is by far the most likely cause of the enormous – almost complete – displacement of the narwhal population from Eclipse Sound,” the report states.
The report recommends further research, including continued aerial photography, tagging studies and collecting tissue from harvested animals.
Baffinland said it was not made aware of the workshop or invited to share its research with the working groups, and questioned the report’s findings.
“Baffinland has conducted the most extensive research in the region,” spokesman Peter Akman wrote in a statement.
Akman said Baffinland’s monitoring program has shown that the effects of passing ships on narwhals are localized and temporary. He added that the company’s shipping activities peaked in 2019 when it was found that the abundance of narwhals was stable compared to the estimated numbers in 2013 and 2016.
Akman said the working groups failed to consider the impact of other activities, such as piling, related to a small craft dock in Pond Inlet, which he said created intense, high-impact noise during the 2020 shipping season.
The company is taking several mitigation measures to reduce potential shipping impacts on marine mammals, he said. These include a nine knot speed limit for ships and the use of convoys of ships to reduce underwater noise. The company also agreed not to use icebreakers for the last two shipping seasons in response to Inuit concerns.
“Baffinland’s marine surveillance program and ocean-related mitigation efforts are unprecedented in the industry,” Akman wrote.
He said the company will continue to work with the Hamlet of Pond Inlet, the Mittimatalik Hunters and Trappers Organization, the Qikiqtani Inuit Association, federal and Nunavut governments, and environmental NGOs to finalize its 2023 Adaptive Management Response Plan.
Since 2018, around 6 million tons of iron ore have been extracted from the Mary River Mine and transported by ship from Milne Inlet every year.
Federal ministers rejected Baffinland’s proposal to double the mine’s annual production to 12 million tons of ore in November.
This story was produced with financial support from the Meta-Canadian Press News Fellowship, which is not involved in the editorial process.