© QIA / Sima Sahar Zerehi

A model for marine conservation in Canada’s High Arctic: The Tallurutiup Imanga National Marine Conservation Area

15 January 2021

This article originally appeared in The Circle: Sea Change: Managing the Arctic Ocean. The Circle shares perspectives from across the Arctic, and the views expressed here are not necessarily those of WWF. See all Circle issues here.

Tallurutiup Imanga, a conservation area in the Canadian territory of Nunavut, is rich in biodiversity. The Canadian government and Inuit in the Qikiqtani Region have worked together for years to create the Tallurutiup Imanga National Marine Conservation Area (TINMCA) to protect marine life from the impacts of non-renewable resource development. As the largest marine protected area in Canada, TINMCA protects more than 108,000 square kilometres of biologically rich Arctic waters in Canada’s High Arctic.

The agreement also creates an Inuit stewardship programme managed by the Qikiqtani Inuit Association (QIA), which represents 15,500 Inuit in the region. Neil Kigutaq, the QIA’s senior Inuit stewardship manager, spoke to The Circle about why the region is so important to those who live there and how TINMCA could lead the way to similar agreements.

Why is the Tallurutiup Imanga so biologically significant?

Tallurutiup Imanga is often referred to as an Arctic Serengeti. It’s the birthplace and a refuge for nearly all species in the eastern Arctic. In fact, 75 per cent of the world’s narwhal population call these waters home. Twenty per cent of the Canadian beluga population inhabit these waters. It also has the largest subpopulation of polar bears in Canada, not to mention some of the largest colonies of seabirds in the Canadian Arctic.

Why is the region important to Inuit communities in Nunavut?

Tallurutiup Imanga runs like an artery through our High Arctic communities. Inuit in the region have relied on the marine life that thrive in these waters for subsistence for generations. They’ve been working to protect these pristine waters since the 1960s. Their efforts led to the signing of the Inuit Impact and Benefit Agreement in August 2019, which formally established Tallurutiup Imanga as a National Marine Conservation Area.

What role did the QIA play in creating the Tallurutiup Imanga National Marine Conservation Area?

The association represents the democratic voice of Inuit in the Qikiqtani Region of Nunavut. As part of our work to protect Tallurutiup Imanga, we gathered extensive Inuit Qaujimajatuqangit (Inuit traditional knowledge) to make a case for expanding the initial proposed boundaries for Tallurutiup Imanga. Knowledge from our Elders helped the steering committee understand how the ecosystem in the area is connected to Inuit communities and provided information that science cannot tell you. Over a seven-year period, we also consulted with residents of the impacted communities to understand the importance of the area to them.

We then used the Inuit Qaujimajatuqangit gathered during the consultation sessions to negotiate a larger boundary for Tallurutiup Imanga. The boundary proposed in 2010 was 44,300 square kilometres, but the final boundary approved by the QIA board and steering committee is 108,000 square kilometres—over twice the size.

It’s important to note that Tallurutiup Imanga is not formally a protected area yet. For that to happen, parliament needs to sign a bill recognizing the TINMCA under the Canada National Marine Conservation Areas Act. Before parliament can sign it, the interim management plan must be completed by the QIA and Parks Canada.

Why do you think the establishment of the Tallurutiup Imanga National Marine Conservation Area is significant?

The success of the model used to establish Tallurutiup Imanga National Marine Conservation Area has inspired the QIA to advance an Inuit perspective on the blue economy, which includes protection for additional marine areas in the Qikiqtani Region. The establishment of the conservation area will not only address climate change and safeguard a significant multi-year ice area in the High Arctic, but it also creates a new economic model for Qikiqtani Inuit based on a blue economy.

Our work proved that the future of Inuit and the Inuit Nunangat does not have to be tied to extraction industries at the cost of our environment. We can create jobs in conservation and environmental stewardship and secure opportunities in sustainable industries like fisheries.

Now, we are ready to take the next steps to expand this model. The QIA is looking to advance protection for Sarvarjuaq, the area known as Pikialasorsuaq in Greenland. This is an ecologically unique polynya and a key migration corridor and habitat for many Arctic species. At the same time, we are advocating to protect Qikiqtait, the Belcher Island archipelago in the heart of Hudson Bay. With over 1,500 islands and up to 35 polynyas, this area is a sanctuary and migratory corridor for many wildlife species.

What difference could this protected area make for communities in the region?

These agreements provide much-needed infrastructure, economic opportunities and local jobs. Inuit will be able to pursue careers in environmental stewardship and wildlife monitoring through our Nauttiqsuqtiit programme. The Nauttiqsuqtiit, or Inuit stewards, are the eyes and ears of Tallurutiup Imanga. As part of their monitoring work, the stewards are active harvesters who share their catch with the community. For example, during the COVID-19 pandemic, the crew in Arctic Bay harvested and distributed Arctic char.

The Nauttiqsuqtiit positions are a natural fit because Inuit have always protected these waters, icescapes and wildlife. With the Arctic rapidly warming and the ice-free seasons getting longer, these investments in marine infrastructure will allow Inuit to better adapt and be resilient to the changing conditions.