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Ottawa, Inuit agree on boundaries for Arctic marine conservation area

POND INLET, Nunavut — Inuit groups say their lobbying and traditional knowledge is behind a huge expansion in the boundaries for what is to become Canada's largest national marine conservation area.

"Our organizations worked extremely hard to ensure the extended boundary was accepted," said P.J. Akeeagok, head of the Qikiqtani Inuit Association.  

"It was Inuit traditional knowledge that determined the extent and the purpose of how Inuit used this particular very important body of water, and we're now here celebrating today the expanded boundaries."

Federal Environment Minister Catherine McKenna joined Akeeagok and other Nunavut leaders in Pond Inlet on Monday to celebrate a deal that will more than double the size of the Lancaster Sound national marine conservation area — now to be known as Tallurutiup Imanga.

The sound, off the north coast of Baffin Island, is a particularly rich area of the Arctic. Its cliff-studded coastline is interspersed with bays, inlets and deep fiords. Most of the world's narwhal, as well as large numbers of beluga and bowhead whales, swim amongst the icebergs that bob in its waters.

Polynyas — large sections of year-round, ice-free water — make rich habitat for seals and walrus, which in turn attract numerous polar bears. Seabirds flock there in the millions.

For centuries, Inuit have depended on its waters.

"It's the cultural heart of our region," said Akeeagok.

Inuit began fighting in the 1960s to have the waters protected.

In 2009, they went to court to block a German research vessel from conducting seismic tests that would have assessed the sound's potential for oil and gas. The tests were blocked.

Some say the furor over the court case was behind the Harper government's 2009 decision to launch a study into how big the conservation area should be and where to put its boundaries.

The Harper proposals, which were on the table as late as last year, called for setting aside about 48,000 square kilometres. Monday's announcement creates an area of about 110,000 square kilometres.

Together with existing adjacent protected areas, more than 130,000 square kilometres of ocean will be protected from mining, energy development, dumping and overfishing.

"(The Inuit association) played a critical role (in the expansion)," said McKenna. Elders and Nunavut communities such as Pond Inlet were also heavily involved.

Shell Canada also helped. Facing a lawsuit over alleged invalid exploration permits it held in the region, the company chose last year to relinquish rights to more than 8,000 square kilometres of ocean.

McKenna said the new marine conservation area — Canada's fifth — will be governed jointly with local Inuit. An impact-and-benefits agreement, complete with promises on new infrastructure and jobs, is planned for April.

"Inuit will be directly involved in decision-making."

The talks will be crucial not only for Lancaster Sound, but for future protected areas, said Chris Debicki of The Pew Charitable Trusts Oceans North Canada.

"This is the start of negotiations between Inuit and the federal government that will determine how protection is going to look in the 21st century," he said. 

The Lancaster Sound expansion brings the portion of Canada's marine waters under some form of protection to 3.5 per cent from 1.5 per cent. McKenna acknowledged that's still below the government's promised 10 per cent by 2020.   

"We're working really hard," she said. 

"We need to be doing this in partnership with Indigenous peoples, with different provinces and territories. Environmentalists and businesses are involved."

— By Bob Weber in Edmonton. Follow him on Twitter at @row1960

The Canadian Press

Note to readers: This is a corrected story. An earlier version said the protected area was called Tallurutiup Tariunga.

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