The Mittimatalik Hunters and Trappers Organization (MHTO) in Pond Inlet is demanding that Baffinland Iron Mines’ icebreaking activities cease during the 2021 shipping season due to concern for narhwhal, seal and other ocean life.

Eric Ootoova, chairperson of the MHTO, submitted a letter to the Nunavut Impact Review Board on June 25 citing “mounting evidence that Baffinland’s operations are seriously disturbing marine mammals, especially narwhal.”

Ootoova references Inuit observations, aerial surveys that show a decline in narwhal in the area of Eclipse Sounds, a study published in 2020 by university researchers that reveals an increase in the stress hormone cortisol in narhwal and a 2021 article in the journal Marine Policy on the potential impacts of underwater noise from ships, which have been increasing in number and distance travelled in Arctic waters. Baffinland alone projected close to 100 voyages by vessels in 2020.

The summer presence of narwhal in Eclipse Inlet and Admiralty Sound, measured by third parties, has dropped to an estimated 36,000 animals in 2020 compared to 45,500 in 2013.

“For years Inuit have been saying that this mine is negatively affecting marine mammals. Science is finally catching up with Inuit Qaujimajatuqangit (traditional knowledge) by recognizing the disturbance to narwhal. It’s time for Baffinland to take serious action to stop this disturbance, including cancelling its planned icebreaking,” Ootoova stated.

The 2020 study, published by NRC Research Press, describes a “significant increase” in cortisol in narwhal but mentions a number of possible causes in addition to increased ship traffic, such as changing ice conditions, altered food sources in the Arctic and an influx of killer whales, which hunt narwhal.

“Thus, there is a need for continued monitoring of stress responses (i.e., cortisol levels) and other health indicators in narwhals to understand how individual fitness and the population will be impacted over time,” the study states.

In an April 7 letter to the Nunavut Impact Review Board, Lou Kamermans, Baffinland’s senior director of sustainable development, pointed out that contractor Golder Associates also considered the construction of a small-craft harbour in Pond Inlet, which involves the driving of piles into the harbour bed, as another source of “high-energy noise” that could be contributing to the displacement of whales.

“Baffinland is committed to taking a precautionary approach and modifying its shipping activities on an interim basis. Baffinland will also increase project level monitoring during 2021 respecting narwhal abundance in Eclipse Sound and to evaluate the additional modifications to project shipping that are planned for 2021,” Kamermans wrote.

However, Ootoova rejected the mining company’s proposed mitigation measures in his June 25 letter due to “uncertainty” over their effectiveness.

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