A New Deal for the Arctic
© Hannah Polaczek
Building a sustainable Blue Economy in northern communities

In Canada’s eastern Arctic, fish harvesters are combining traditional knowledge with cutting-edge technology to bring much-needed economic opportunities to their communities. Doug Chiasson explains how WWF–Canada is working with harvesters in the northern Canadian communities of Arviat, Sanikiluaq and Kinngait to build renewable commercial fisheries.

As a sleek blue-and-white drone is hauled over the side of the boat, GPS coordinates are written down in a spiral-bound notebook beside an Inuktitut place name.

“This is Kataaluk,” explains the boat’s captain, Lucassie Arragutainaq, referring to the main harbour between Claw Point and Mosisee Point near Sanikiluaq in the Belcher Islands. “It means ‘the big entrance.’”

The catch of the day is a video of the Hudson Bay seafloor. Collected by the drone and relayed to the surface through a smartphone attached to a video game controller, it reveals the intended target: scallops.

The waters of Hudson Bay have been a source of both food and clothing (from sealskin to eiderdown) for the people of the nearby Belcher Islands since time immemorial. Now they may provide another necessity: sustainable economic opportunity.

© Elisabeth Kruger/WWF-US
What is a sustainable Blue Economy?

The “Blue Economy” refers to the use of the sea and its resources for economic development. A sustainable Blue Economy:

  • Provides social and economic benefits for current and future generations
  • Restores, protects and maintains the diversity, productivity, resilience, core functions and intrinsic value of marine ecosystems
  • Relies on clean technologies, renewable energy and circular material flows to secure economic and social stability over time within the limits of one planet

For more information, see Getting It Right in a New Ocean: Bringing Sustainable Blue Economy Principles to the Arctic, a WWF report.

Communities in Canada’s northern territory of Nunavut have some of the highest unemployment rates in the country. Some have looked to mineral exploration, while others have focused on traditional art. But increasingly, communities are looking to the sea. In September 2019, as part of WWF–Canada’s community-based Arctic fisheries project, a team of researchers and local harvesters undertook their first fisheries harvest survey near the community of Sanikiluaq in southeastern Hudson Bay to determine the feasibility of this idea.

The survey, which combined underwater video with traditional and commercial harvesting methods, will serve as the foundation for the development of a commercial fishery. Species like Icelandic scallops, sea cucumbers, green sea urchins and blue mussels all call the frigid waters of Hudson Bay home. The video surveys will be used to develop an artificial intelligence–based tool to estimate abundance, while biological sampling will measure important nutritional and life cycle data. Local harvesters see this potential seafood harvest as a way to address food insecurity at home while supplementing the local economy through sales to other parts of Canada and across the world.

© Ketill Berger, filmform.no
© Doug Chiasson, Icelandic scallop

Over the next year, WWF–Canada will undertake more surveys around Sanikiluaq and begin surveys for crab and shrimp in the Hudson Strait with the community of Kinngait. It will also begin surveys for whitefish inland from eastern Hudson Bay with partners in the community of Arviat.

These are early days yet for the surveys in these three Nunavut communities, but residents are hopeful. Future commercial fisheries will build not only on this research, but on the accumulated ancestral knowledge of harvesters.

If the fisheries succeed, they could become the pillars of a new, sustainable Blue Economy in the region.

DOUG CHIASSON is a senior specialist working in marine development in the WWF–Canada Arctic Program.