MPA Showcase Across Canada’s Three Oceans: The Arctic

Pair of walruses on an ice floe in the Canadian Arctic

By Hameet Singh

Hameet Singh is part of a team of CPCIL Research and Knowledge Gatherers producing content and compiling resources on themes such as inclusion, ecosocial justice, partnerships, conservation, organizational sustainability, climate change and biodiversity, connection to nature, conservation financing, and ecotourism, to support effective and equitable leadership and inclusion in parks and protected areas across Canada.

With the longest coastline in the world and a motto of A Mari Usque Ad Mare or “From Sea to Sea,” Canada has a vested interest in protecting its marine resources. Fourteen Marine Protected Areas (MPAs) and 4 National Marine Conservation Areas (NMCAs) have been implemented to preserve a healthy marine environment, support cultural and socioeconomic facets of local communities and the nation as a whole. This post is the first of a three-part series, highlighting a Canadian MPA from the nation’s three oceans – the Arctic, Pacific and Atlantic. For more information on what an MPA is, please visit this post

The Arctic – Tuvaijuittuq

The frozen and rugged terrain of the Arctic Cordillera
Figure 2: The frozen and rugged terrain of the Arctic Cordillera (DFO, 2020)

In the remote, Artic tundra of Canada’s far north lies the country’s largest and northernmost protected area (both marine and terrestrial) in terms of surface area – Tuvaijuittuq, or “the place where the ice never melts” in Inuktut (1). Designated in August 2019, it encompasses a surface area of 319,411 km2 (larger than the entire land area of Italy) and is located on the northwest coast of Ellesmere Island, Nunavut, above the boundary of the Arctic Circle and just below the Geographic North Pole. It constitutes 5.5% of Canada’s ocean territory, bringing the total to 13.82% (2). That’s a big deal, considering that it’s implementation enabled Canada to surpass its goal to protect 10% of its ocean territory by 2020 after it became signatory to the United Nation’s Convention on Biological Diversity (UN CBD), or Aichi Target 11, in 2010 (1). It was also instrumental in achieving Canada’s national Marine Conservation Targets (3).

Geological and Ecological Significance

The frozen and rugged terrain of the Arctic Cordillera
Figure 2: The frozen and rugged terrain of the Arctic Cordillera (DFO, 2020)

Situated in the High Arctic Basin of Nunavut (Figure 1), Tuvaijuittuq’s environment is locked in time, characterized by extreme cold, unrelenting winds, and the jagged mountain ranges and frozen cathedrals of the Arctic Cordillera terrestrial ecozone and the Canadian Arctic Archipelago/Arctic Basin bioregions (1) (Figure 2). The landscape is ethereal and almost unworldly, featuring mountain peaks protruding through blanketed valleys and buried under 900 m of ice (4). The glaciated peaks and polar ice fields paint an alien and unique scenery of the Canadian High Arctic. It is the land of the midnight sun, where the sun can remain visible for 24 hours a day from April to September, and is shrouded in darkness due to the  unearthly polar night phenomenon from October to February (5). The region’s distinctive geography and glaciology was instrumental in its designation of an MPA.

Figure 3: LEFT: Pair of walruses on an ice floe in the Canadian Arctic (CBC, 2016); RIGHT: Ctenophores/comb jellies and Siphonophores, two marine invertebrates found under sea ice in Tuvaijuittuq (DFO, 2020)
Figure 3: LEFT: Pair of walruses on an ice floe in the Canadian Arctic (CBC, 2016); RIGHT: Ctenophores/comb jellies and Siphonophores, two marine invertebrates found under sea ice in Tuvaijuittuq (DFO, 2020)

The ice found at Tuvaijuittuq is exceptionally unique, determined to be the oldest and thickest in the entirety of the Arctic Ocean (1). Research has dated the ice shelves in this area to be from the mid-Holocene, some 5,000 to 7,000 years ago (6). It is also the last stronghold of the Arctic’s multi-year sea ice, sourced by the Beaufort Gyre, and is expected to last the longest as climate change intensifies in the region (1). This has far-ranging and highly significant ecological implications for the unforgiving and seemingly desolate landscape. The barren nature of the geology gives the impression that it is devoid of life, but instead is astoundingly biodiverse. This all-year sea ice is projected to be a final oasis for the species dependent on it for habitat and survival, both on and under the ice (7). The Arctic marine ecosystem in this area comprises of walruses, seals, belugas, polar bears, narwhals (2), and microscopic algae (Figure 3), which provides energy for the entire food web (1). The seabed community is a lot richer and more diverse than formerly anticipated, important for the support of larger marine mammals. Because of this, the Tuvaijuittuq MPA is considered a globally significant protected area, designed to safeguard the prolific and dynamic High Arctic ecosystem. 

Management and Governance

The MPA is governed under the Ocean’s Act and co-governance plays a key role in its management (for more information on co-managed MPAs, please visit this post). Its establishment was a collaborative effort between the Government of Canada, the Government of Nunavut and the Qikiqtani Inuit Association (QIA), established through a memorandum of understanding (1). Scientific assessments of the MPA feature Inuit Qaujimajatuqangit, or Inuit traditional knowledge, passed on over millennia and encompassing beliefs, values and skills (8). All human activity is prohibited in the MPA for up to five years, besides: 

  • Exercising of Inuit rights to harvest wildlife 
  • Marine scientific research in alignment with conservation 
  • Safety, security and emergency activities
  • Certain activities carried out by a foreign national, entity, ship or state.

The QIA hopes that this co-managed model with Indigenous groups be an exemplar of marine conservation going forward (9). The Inuit have long advocated for the protection of these areas for decades (10). PJ Akeeagok, QIA’s president commented on the establishment of the MPA and stated that, “When the negotiations started, it was in the spirit of reconciliation” (9). This indicates the new potential of parks and protected areas in restoring Canada’s relationship with its Indigenous communities and repairing its tainted track record, as parks have been historically used as a tool to drive Indigenous peoples out of their lands (10).

Future Threats

Milne Ice Shelf, located within Tuvaijuittuq

While protected, the region is not without its vulnerabilities. Arctic sea ice has been diminishing at unprecedented rates, and over the last three decades, the Arctic Ocean has lost sea ice parallel to the land areas of Manitoba and Quebec combined (1).This melting is witnessed by the Inuit first-hand, who practice their traditional hunting rights in the area. Climate change has always been a factor, but due to its unique thickness, government scientists predicted that the year-round sea ice in this area would not disappear until at least 2050 (10). They were then astounded to discover that less than a year later, in July 2020, radar imagery came back showing that nearly half of the Milne Ice Shelf, located within Tuvaijuittuq, had disintegrated into the ocean, resulting in a 79 km2 ice island 50% larger than Manhattan (11) (Figure 5). Warming in the Arctic is occurring at an alarming rate, twice as much as the global average (12). In addition to threatening the area’s wildlife, this melting of ice is also making the Arctic susceptible to jurisdictional conflict between countries as they dispute over once unpassable waters (9). Increased shipping activity, fishing, tourism, oil and gas, and mining is also a concern as the ice continues to shrink (13). Threats like climate change indicate that further measures, in addition to setting aside protected areas, are warranted to ensure the longevity of the Canadian Arctic.

References

  1. DFO (2020). Tuvaijuittuq Marine Protected Area (MPA). Retrieved from: https://www.dfo-mpo.gc.ca/oceans/mpa-zpm/tuvaijuittuq/index-eng.html
  2. CPAWS (2019). Canada exceeds goal of 10% ocean protection with announcement of Tuvaijuittuq marine protected area, Nunavut. Retrieved from: https://cpaws.org/canada-exceeds-goal-of-10-ocean-protection-with-announcement-of-tuvaijuittuq-marine-protected-area-nunavut/
  3. DFO (2020). Reaching Canada’s marine conservation targets. Retrieved from: https://www.dfo-mpo.gc.ca/oceans/conservation/plan/index-eng.html
  4. Marsh, James for The Canadian Encyclopedia (2015). Ellesmere Island. Retrieved from: https://www.thecanadianencyclopedia.ca/en/article/ellesmere-island
  5. NAV CANADA (2001). The Weather of Nunavut and the Arctic. Retrieved from: https://www.navcanada.ca/EN/media/Publications/Local%20Area%20Weather%20Manuals/LAWM-Arctic-EN.pdf
  6. Jeffries, Martin for the USGS (n.d). ELLESMERE ISLAND ICE SHELVES AND ICE ISLANDS. Retrieved from: https://pubs.usgs.gov/pp/p1386j/iceshelves/iceshelves.txt
  7. QIA (2021). Parks and Conservation Areas. Retrieved from: https://www.qia.ca/what-we-do/parks-and-conservation-areas/
  8. Parks Canada (2019). Use of Inuit traditional knowledge (Qauijimajatuqangit). Retrieved from: https://www.pc.gc.ca/en/amnc-nmca/cnamnc-cnnmca/tallurutiup-imanga/connaissances-knowledge
  9. Gibbens, Sarah for National Geographic (2019). Pristine Arctic reserves will benefit wildlife and Inuit communities. Retrieved from: https://www.nationalgeographic.com/environment/2019/07/canadian-arctic-reserves-to-benefit-wildlife-inuit/#close
  10. Hamilton, Graeme for The National Post (2017). The shady past of Parks Canada: Forced out, Indigenous people are forging a comeback. Retrieved from: https://nationalpost.com/news/canada/the-shady-past-of-parks-canada-forced-out-indigenous-people-are-forging-a-comeback
  11. Patar,Dustin for Nunatsiaq News (2020). Nunavut’s Milne Ice Shelf collapses. Retrieved from: https://nunatsiaq.com/stories/article/nunavuts-milne-ice-shelf-collapses/
  12. Warburton, Moira for Global News (2020). Last fully intact ice shelf in Canadian Arctic collapses. Retrieved from: https://globalnews.ca/news/7256706/canadian-arctic-ice-shelf-collapse/
  13. DFO (2020). Report on the designation of the Tuvaijuittuq Marine Protected Area. Retrieved from: https://www.dfo-mpo.gc.ca/oceans/publications/tuvaijuittuq/designation/index-eng.html