For years, the plans of Baffinland Iron Mines Corp to increase their iron mining operations on the northern tip of Baffin Island in Canada’s Nunavut were met with severe opposition by conservationists and the Inuit community living in the region. While the area is known to have one of the richest iron ore deposits on the planet, it is also home to the world’s largest narwhal population.
Following four years of consultation, the Nunavut Impact Review Board rejected the company’s Mary River mine expansion request that would increase shipping activities in the area and would lead to the wiping out of the narwhal population.
In a statement published on Friday, 13 May, the review board argued that the mine expansion project would have had “significant and lasting negative effects on marine mammals, the marine environment, fish, caribou and other terrestrial wildlife, vegetation and freshwater.” It also said: “In the Board’s view, these negative effects could also impact Inuit harvesting, culture, land use and food security.”
Baffinland already operates an ore mine in the region that annually ships 6m tonnes of iron ore. However, the company seeks to increase the shipped iron ore amount to 12m tonnes a year. The expansion would also include the building of a second railway to another port from which 18m additional tonnes would be shipped.
The company’s involvement in mining in the region which started in 2015, already led to the decline of the narwhal population, according to marine biologist Kristin Westdal: “If you look at the surveys [since 2014], you see this incredible, statistically significant decline in the narwhal population in this area – we see 12,000, 10,000, 5,000, 2,000.” As narwhals use echolocation to communicate, scientists believe that the noise of transport ships and mining operations drives the narwhals out of the region.
This also affects the local Inuit communities which have relied on hunting narwhals in summer for generations. Enookie Inuarak, vice-chairperson of the Mittimatalik Hunters and Trappers Organization, commented: “We rely on narwhals for diet, for health and also economically.” However, last summer, hunters barely found any narwhals, according to Inuarak.
While conservationists and the Inuit community celebrate the review board’s statement, the threat of the expansion remains as the federal government will have the final decision on whether the expansion plans will go ahead or not. They are expected to make the decision in the next three months.
If you want to read more about the Narwhal population in Nunavut, read our feature here.